Once upon the time, Wangji led a peaceful life.
(Which means: three days ago, Wangji led a peaceful life. Three days which feel like a lifetime.)
Then, the guest disciples arrived for the lectures, and the whole perfectly controlled, peaceful life of Wangji's was ruined in just one moment.
"… so I made them wait outside," Xiubo reports, and Wangji knows that exact pinched expression xiongzhang allows himself for a second.
Xiubo is the main reason why people think they are antisocial and terrifying. Well, all three of them can be antisocial and terrifying, but Xiubo is the one who has a heart colder than the Cold Springs.
"A-Han, please go and fetch them. We know exactly who they are. We can allow them in."
"As you wish, xiongzhang," Xiubo bows and leaves, and Wangji gives Yongming a look.
"Are you still not going to be persuaded to attend the lectures with everyone else?" xiongzhang asks, focusing on the two of them, and they shake their heads in unison.
"Xiubo will retire to secluded mediation. I will night-hurt. Yongming will attend to his research."
"We might sit in one or two lectures," Yongming adds, placatingly. They know xiongzhang worries about their social exposure, which is something he mentions only ten times a day. At the least he cannot claim that they are lonely or solitary or something equally ridiculous. Honestly, some days Wangji dreams of loneliness, but that particular blessing has not been bestowed upon him. Being a part of a set means all of his life is shared with other human beings.
It is an excellent exercise of patience and self-control. In general, Wangji is a very calm and measured person, but even he cannot feel like murdering his own brothers sometimes.
"Hey! Don't you recognise me?" a Terribly Handsome Menace asks, with unbearably wide smile on his face, spring from nowhere when Wangji is in the middle of his night watch. "I saw you earlier, when you were coming through the gate, right? I certainly wouldn't mistake such a handsome face, Lan-xiong."
Wangji blinks. He was not by the gate, or anywhere near it, at any point today, and so certainly the Terribly Handsome Menace is already mistaken.
"With the Yunmeng Jiang… They are not where I left them, what am I supposed to think? Maybe they've been kidnapped? Lan-xiong, do you know anything about it?"
Oh, so he is one of those people Xiubo complained about.
Wangji can clearly see why.
"Entering after curfew is prohibited," he barks out, and the Terribly Handsome Menace laughs in his face and Wangji is too stunned to be angry.
They argue, and they fight, and they are evenly matched, which barely ever happens and it throws Wangji out of the loop even further.
"May I know the name of my worthy opponent? This humble one is Wei Wuxian," the Terribly Handsome Menace says, bowing mockingly, before striking again. He seems determined to avenge the jar of liquor Wangji broke.
"Lan Wangji," he barks out before he can stop himself. Didn't Xiubo introduce himself when he met the Jiangs at the gates? Actually. That sounds just like him.
"Lan Wangji, it was a pleasure, I will see you tomorrow!" Wei Wuxian says and disappears, and Wangji – Wangji lets him. He stands there for a few moments before collecting himself and moving on to the southern perimeter to patrol. He will have to appear tomorrow, to make sure Wei Wuxian is appropriately punished for his transgressions. What a drag.
Wangji comes back to their room just in time for everyone else to wake up and he spends an hour on collecting himself and meditating his tiredness away. He doesn't like staying up late per se, but since he's been going on more hunts recently, it's become a necessity to deal with sleepless nights.
He's about to get up when Xiubo's hand keeps him in place.
"Take a bit longer, didi. You look like shit."
Wangji grunts something in a reply, since Xiubo doesn't deserve actual words, but stays in the lotus pose. He did pace a lot more restlessly during the rest of his patrol, that stupid wide grin pressing itself to the forefront of his mind for hours and hours as the night dragged on.
So, he takes a few more moments and then eats with Yongming, while Xiubo goes out to collect the philosophy texts he wanted to meditate on.
In the privacy of their room, they perform the usual exchange: Wangji gives Yongming his sweet bun and gets the steamed tofu in exchange. It is not allowed to be picky, and they would never be as daring outside, but none of the food is going to waste. It's simply being redistributed to the higher benefit of its recipients. Which is being thoughtful, and that is a very important rule.
"Guess who I met," Xiubo says as soon as he closes the doors, and somehow, Wangji knows, and only years of living with this kind of pain stop him from hiding his face in his hands. He told both his brothers that Wei Wuxian needed to be issued punishment, and that he will see to it later today.
"Who?" Yongming manages to sound almost innocent.
"Imagine, I was just walking to the library, when someone runs at me and shouts, Ji-xiong, hi, did you miss me? And then he stands there, with his arms crossed, thinking he's all coy and sweet, and says, gege, won't you punish me?"
Wangji gives up and does hide his face in his hands. He can just see it in his mind, despite his desperately closed eyes.
He can see Wei Wuxian being all coy and sweet and it's a terrible, terrible vision.
"Wow," Yongming breathes, because he's the only one who hasn't met the Terribly Handsome Menace in person so he doesn't know what this is about, not really.
"I assigned him what was due for his night activities," Xiubo says with the perfectly straight face the Second Jade of Lan is famous for, "and for being impertinent."
"Good for you," Wangji says under his breath.
While Xiubo goes to the higher mountains to spend the week in seclusion, and Yongming sequesters himself in their rooms to work on his research, absolutely without any illicit snacks or anything like that, Wangji ventures into the main areas to make an appearance and to speak with xiongzhang. The elders, along with Uncle, always complain that despite there being three of them, they barely get to see them, which is probably right and doesn't change the fact that neither of them wants to hang out with random humans anyway.
"It's like they have social skills of one person, but split between three," someone once concluded. Might be true. But Wangji doesn't think that even put together, they could muster as much natural grace as xiongzhang.
(They used to follows Lan Xichen like three tiny ducklings, the five year difference between them striking for quite a while when they were still babies and Lan Xichen seemed so impossibly mature, even though he was barely a teenager himself.
Then, mother died.
They didn't really speak or interact with anyone but each other for several months, until Lan Xichen broke down crying and they realised in their baby hearts that they couldn't exclude their xiongzhang like that.)
Three days in, Wangji has to attend Uncle's lecture, since he promised. And no, no one else has to know that both his brothers owe him a favour, now. One of them had to give in and like, mingle, sometimes; when the time came to decide Xiubo just stood there and was absolutely unmoved (because he knew it'd work) and Yongming looked all cute and clueless (because he knew it'd work) and Wangji was the poor person to cave in.
What a terrible power the society had over him, having given him an older brother to respect and a younger brother to coddle, even if they were all born within an hour. What a cruel, cruel fate is Wangji forced to live with.
So, three days in. He's been busy researching for his night-hunt and practicing the sword, so when he sits down in the lecture hall, it's actually a bit of a welcome respite. Not that he would admit it to anyone. But the impression lasts for about ten breaths, before guest disciples start to pour into the room, and –
"Lan Wangji!" the Terribly Cheerful Voice calls, almost loud enough to be a shout, but not quite deserving a punishment for breaking a rule. Sneaky.
"Wangji-xiong?" Nie Huaisang asks, biting his lip and assessing him. "Wangji-xiong!" he repeats, more jovially, having reached some conclusions Wangji doesn't understand. Nie Huaisang has always had a way of distinguishing them from each other, which is something no one else besides xiongzhang can do. (Well. Not since Yongming grew out of his toddler chub; he's always had a sweet tooth and he used to be visibly pudgier than Wangji and Xiubo, right until they hit their first growth sprout and they become rather identical.)
Wangji promptly ignores all distractions and sits in the first row, without looking back. He ignores Wei Wuxian's shenanigans, Nie Huaisang's whispers, and all the hissy voices people in the back must think don't carry to the front of the room until Uncle gives them all a very pointed stare and Wangji feels a surge of satisfaction when they sit properly quiet for a while.
Until Wei Wuxian thinks it's prudent to argue about resentful energy.
At which point Wangji is so done with this; the restful enjoyment from earlier completely forgotten. He could be training right now, or drawing talismans for the hunt he's supposed to leave for in a couple of days, or read a book at his level. Or even take a book of poetry to the back hills, away from everyone. But now, he's stuck here listening to this basic lesson which something he studied at least a couple years ago, and now he has to watch Uncle get angrier by the second and he can't even blame him. Sometimes Uncle has a temper slightly too quick for a Lan. (Not that anyone would dare to say it to his face, of course.) But Wei Wuxian spews heretic words and he's all cheerful and smiley about it – and then Wangji is ordered to take him out and supervise his punishment, which is going to take forever.
He hates everyone and everything, most of all his dumb brothers who somehow roped him into this again.
"Lan Wangji, you're not actually going to make me write the rules so many times, right?" Wei Wuxian sing-songs, walking two steps behind. Lan Zhan doesn't have the strength to look around and actually confirm it, but it sounds like the Terribly Handsome Menace is skipping along.
"Copies must be passed on," he says coldly. This time, the punishment itself is not in his hand, only carrying it out.
"Lan Wangji, why? Don't you guys discuss things? Since when is intellectual discussion prohibited? It's not in the rules, right? What kind of scholars would it make you all if it were?"
Wangji opens the library doors and gestures at Wei Wuxian to go in.
"You're such a gentleman, Lan Wangji, thank you!" Wei Wuxian says way too loud, and the couple of stray disciples present inside turn around to look at them. Wangji hopes he looks adequately disgusted.
The problem is, Wei Wuxian is distracting. He's just so much. He won't stop talking, and when Wangji silences him in a bout of desperation, he won't stop wriggling around, casting pitiful glances, getting up and sitting down and tapping his fingers on the table and Wangji cannot stop looking at him.
(It's not because Wei Wuxian is Terribly Handsome. Not at all.)
As soon as the gong announces meal-time, Wei Wuxian springs up and Wangji is sure that he will run out of the room to join his friends, and he does take a few long steps towards the door indeed, but then he stops and turns around, with this little frown between his brows.
"Are you not coming?" he asks, tilting his head. His hair spills over his one shoulder as he does, and the curve of his neck bared, and Wangji furiously looks away. Back at his lap, at his hands, at the scroll in front of him - a safe, boring thing. "Lan Wangji, come on. You never eat with us!"
And so, Wangji – solely because it seems like Wei Wuxian will shut up faster this way, of course – gets up and follows him to the hall, and promptly regrets it. It's so loud and chaotic, with the guest disciples around; no one is sat down to eat yet, so they cannot be disciplined for the rowdiness.
Wangji recognises the exact second xiongzhang notices him and Wei Wuxian at his side; the way his eyes light up means Wangji is in trouble.
All he ever wanted was a calm immortal life of night-hunting, poetry-reading, and beating his brothers in swordfights. Is this truly too much to ask?
"Wangji," he hears xiongzhang's voice, "why don't you invite your friend to eat with us?"
Wangji bites back he's already invited, literally his presence here is at our invitation, because he can read Xichen far too well and he will not give in that fast, but then – Wei Wuxian latches onto his arm and bats his eyelashes at lightning speed.
"Yes, gege, why don't you invite me?"
To which Wangji frees his arm maybe a bit too violently and bows as sharply and angrily as he can, and storms out of the hall.
He's not hungry.
Xiubo finds him in the forest, shortly before bedtime.
"Hey," he says gently, sitting down next to Wangji. Despite being an asshole, he probably gets Wangji the best. "Why are you upset?"
Wangji says absolutely nothing.
"Hmmm," Xiubo mutters, and twists himself around to sit behind Wangji, and then proceeds to comb his hair and braid it for sleep, and Wangji finds himself calming down little by little. "I heard you were supervising Wei Wuxian," Xiubo says in his attempt at offhanded. It's not a very good attempt, but Wangji appreciates the thought nonetheless.
"Weren't you supposed to be in seclusion?"
"When my didi needs me? How could I?"
Wangji doesn't comment. They both know it's a little tease, but there's a whole load of trauma to unpack under that. Even with Xiubo's fondness of secluded meditation, he's never away for longer than a week, and he never cuts himself off from contact. Yongming must have heard the gossip that certainly does not happen in the Cloud Recesses, and send a message.
Wangji probably owes him a tanghulu or something.
"Just think about why you're upset, okay?"
Wangji mns at him; he hates it when Xiubo pulls of his imitating-Xichen card and reminds everyone that he might be a cold bastard, but he's actually really savvy and mushy inside. Deep inside. And he gets social cues that Wangji doesn't, and he's always so infuriatingly kind about it that Wangji can't bring it in him to be mad at being coddled like that.
The thing is, Wangji knows why he is upset. He is upset because Wei Wuxian, for all his declarations of friendship and the like, is not serious about it. And Wangji, if the entirety of him had to be condensed into one word, would be an embodiment of seriousness. And Wangji knows he wants Wei Wuxian to be serious with his flirting and his offers.
Because, well, he's Terribly Handsome and Wangji is just a person.
Maybe he would have never become aware of the many things he knows now, has his upbringing been different, but. Growing up as one out of three extremely handsome young masters, and having Lan Xichen as an older brother, he's well acquainted with the most quiet ways of drama.
(Well, that, and sometimes he'd run away from all of his brothers and hide with Nie Huaisang and his birds and canvases, and boy, were those countless hours eye-opening.
He absolutely never let Nie Huaisang know, because he would be even more insufferable. But it was only natural that after listening to teary love adventures he wouldn't be able to get those ideas out of his head, right? He's not at fault, right? It's just way, way too much exposure.)
He knows that all his brothers know. They might be called jade statues and ice princes and whatever nonsense people come up with, but behind the closed doors, they can be themselves without reservations, which is – good. Freeing. Therapeutic.
But it also bares one's soul to a painful degree.
And so, when they finally make it back with Xiubo, Yongming is waiting for them with a pot of Wangji's favourite tea and those salted peanuts which are Wangji's guilty pleasure. They stuff their faces, and play sad music, and absolutely do not say a single word; and when the time comes to sleep, they pull their mattresses together and Lan Zhan is squeezed in the middle of two other bodies, and, despite his inner turmoil, sleeps like a baby.
So, see, he's got it under control.
He supervises Wei Wuxian with as much detachment as a human can muster, and delegates the nearest night hunt to someone else, spending his time on studies instead, and passes every evening playing his guqin. A week goes by, and then two, and Wangji almost starts to relax, but good (sensible, reasonable, logical) things never last long enough, of course.
The following afternoon Wei Wuxian calls Wangji Lan Zhan and then draws him a bunny, and Wangji is officially done for.
Of course it's very suspicious when Yongming says, "you should take a break, gege. Weren't you supposed to go on a hunt like, ages ago? You need a day off, don't you?"
The thing is, Wangji didn't want to ask. Uncle must have assumed they would switch, because they always switch; the only way to ensure they don't is to have all three of them in a room at the same time, which happens… well. At those rare official functions they cannot get away from by saying Yongming is not feeling well.
(Yongming used to be a little bit more sickly than a child learning cultivation should; they blamed it on his birth circumstances. They were born early, tiny and weak, they've been told, and struggled to live, at first, but they made it just fine. Still, everyone indulges them and lets them stay behind if they ask, since there is such a perfect excuse.)
But. Wangji is just human, and he's been dealing with Wei Wuxian in close proximity for sixteen days, and he's on the edge. Of going mad. Really.
"Mn," Wangji replies. It might be a barely-there noise, but it's excessive anyway; they don't need any words to understand each other.
"I'll step in for a couple of days then," Yongming sounds determined. It's kind of him.
Suspicious, but kind.
Wangji leaves that afternoon, equipped with so many new ideas he wants to try out – between them, Yongming is the most scholarly, theoretical one; Wangji longs to try out new things as soon as he learns about them, and Xiubo prefers to spend endless hours on meditating and coming up with hypothetical scenarios in his head, without any wish to test them out in reality – and as soon as he's flying high above the mountains, he allows a smile crawl onto his lips. No one is there to see him breaking out of character.
The hunt takes two nights during which he barely sleeps, and he chases the creature halfway across Gusu before he banishes it, and it feels so good.
Night hunting is so good for blowing off steam.
Wangji comes back to the Cloud Recesses filthy and exhausted and happy.
The next afternoon, he's back to sitting in the proximity of Wei Wuxian again. For a little while, it's… quiet? Peaceful? Wangji keeps throwing those tiniest glances at Wei Wuxian, who, for once, seems to be copying the rules diligently.
Until one moment Wei Wuxian is still at his table, and Wangji blinks, and then Wei Wuxian is perched on the edge of Wangji's table, fluttering his eyelashes.
"Lan Zhan, look, I was so diligent, just for you. Can I stop now? Did you forget that talisman I wanted to see already? Or are you just teasing the poor me? Don’t be like this, it's for my education!"
Wangji has no bloody idea what talisman Yongming has been researching. He's never understood this particular fascination.
But. Yongming has been talking with Wei Wuxian? When he was gone? And they both enjoy talismans, Wangji has seen Wei Wuxian's creative inventions, some of which even Shufu couldn’t dismiss, and it's something he's never cared about beyond what was the usual curriculum, but Yongming – he loves research.
Wangji realises that he wants to know what "he" is meant to teach Wei Wuxian. He doesn't want to be a disappointment, but he simply doesn't know. It makes him feel helpless.
And hearing his name again and again…
"All right, all right, I'll leave you alone," Wei Wuxian mutters, getting off his table and plopping down in his spot. Wangji is too reluctant to look up and actually supervise; most likely Wei Wuxian does nothing for the remainder of the time, but Wangji doesn't know.
He goes to kneel afterwards, since he failed to carry out his duties with diligence.
Xiubo finds him sprawled on the ground so gracefully he must look like he's lounging, to an untrained eye, while in fact he's just a pathetic blob of a human.
"Didi. You'll get a cold."
"We don't get colds." It feels prudent to remind Xiubo of this basic fact, since he's being an idiot.
Xiubo huffs. "It's the principle."
Then, he sits down next to Wangji, because the cold ground truly means nothing to their cultivation-warmed bodies.
"You came back so relaxed. What's happened?" No answer. "You don’t want to talk about it?" Still, no answer. "Okay, then. How about you get a bit of sleep tonight and then go out again? You enjoy it the most, right? I heard Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are in the area, maybe you could join them for a couple of days? I'll cover for you."
Xiubo was meant to be back on top of his mountain. For him to offer something like this is very kind. It would be ungrateful if Wangji didn't agree.
"Mn," he concedes.
The four days Wangji spends with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are absolutely wonderful. He's often thought of that before – just wandering and helping the needy and calming spirits, without any of the sect drama. Not quite running away. Just. Doing his own thing most of the time? He's one of the heirs, though, so of course it could never be as easy as to just make a decision and carry it out. He could not do something like that to his brothers.
But. Still. The wandering really speaks to him.
"A-Han and A-Jian are doing well?" Xiao Xingchen asks after they've cleaned themselves up and changed; there was a lot of mud involved. It's been a rainy spring.
"I remember when you three were inseparable," Xiao Xingchen sighs with the wistfulness of someone way older than his barely twenty years of age. He just has this grown up, comforting uncle vibe. He's had it even as a teenager, as far as Wangji can remember. Back when him and Xiubo and Yongming went on their first hunts, indeed, always together. It's been a couple of years since they started to focus on their own preferred areas of study and these sibling hunts became less and less frequent.
"Anyway," Xiao Xingchen says, the evening before Wangji is meant to depart, "I think my little cousin is at the lectures right now – you know, we're connected through Baoshan Sanren , but I've sadly had so few chances to spend time with him – would you mind passing him my greetings? And this?" he hands out a pouch. "His name is Wei Wuxian, have you met him?"
Wangji wants to scream.
And then, the first thing he hears when he enters their rooms, in Xiubo's most perfect offhanded deadpan voce, is, "Your Wei Ying showed one of Huaisang's book at me."
Wangji turns around and stomps off, internally screaming.
"I tore it up in tiniest pieces," Xiubo's voice carries through the window as he passes it.
He goes to xiongzhang, since there seems to be nowhere else that's relatively safe. And xiongzhang knows better than anyone that Wangji sometimes just need a little break. The whole being a triplet deal is not the worst, most of the time, but there are moments when Wangji is done. So he gets into the hanshi with the well-practiced look on his face called xiongzhang, I want to punch my brothers, can you distract me, and Xichen sighs softly.
"Come, sit, A-Zhan," and so Wangji does. He is served tea and fed peanuts and drawn into a talk about the newest score Xichen has been restoring from an ancient text he was gifted for his birthday by da-ge, and before Wangji know it, the bells announce the impending curfew.
Xichen speaks up before Wangji can bow and thank him, as is proper.
"If you want to talk about anything, I might be a little bit more… experienced, in some areas, than A-Han and A-Jian. You know I'm always here, right?"
Wangji doesn't dignify that with an answer.
This is absolute, absolute betrayal.
At last, Wei Wuxian's punishment ends. No more sitting far too close to each other and avoiding those shiny charcoal eyes, no more not-watching Wei Wuxian twirl his hair around his finger, and no more listening to the soft kitten-like whines.
Wangji does not miss it at all.
He definitely doesn't spend his night patrols thinking about it. Wei Wuxian is annoying but brilliant, and it's only natural to ponder over some ideas he throws around, right? Wangji might not be attending the regular classes, but he has to move around the Cloud Recesses enough to hear things, here and there.
But Wangji's brothers don't know when to stop, and so he keeps finding himself in those situations, no matter how much he avoids Wei Wuxian (or maybe, the more he avoids him, the more it happens):
"Lan Zhan, I have some cookies for you! You seemed to enjoyed them so much yesterday, I swear I almost, almost could make out a smile, can I see it again, please?"
And so Wangji has to go through the box of cookies, which are too sweet for his taste, pretending he's not uncomfortably full – how does Yongming do this? – but still, Wei Ying seems unhappy, because the supposed "smile" doesn't show up.
Still, cookies are better than being fed liquid lava, because you enjoyed the spicy tofu when I bumped into you in Caiyi, right? Since when does Yongming have such a spice tolerance? Has he been sneaking even more ridiculous snacks? Surely this is all deigned to keep Wangji miserable.
Then, there is this:
"Lan Zhan, you complimented my sword yesterday, what's with this cold shoulder? Are you embarrassed because you were so impressed with me?"
Complimented his sword? What is that supposed to even mean?
Actually, Wangji doesn't want to know.
"Ridiculous," Lan Zhan says as flatly as he can.
"Now you sound like yourself!" Wei Ying laughs. Good to know they all thing this creature is an absolute menace. It's nice to have this solidarity sometimes.
"Lan Zhan, I really liked your hairstyle the other day, why don't you do it every day? This is so boring," he gestures at the exact hairstyle Wangji always wears.
It stings a little bit more than he allows himself to acknowledge. But then he knows he is the most boring out of the three of them, so it's not too much of a surprise. It's not too strange that someone as lively and chaotic as Wei Wuxian would want nothing to do with someone as dull as Wangji.
"Lan Zhan, I heard you playing such a nice song by the waterfall yesterday, can you play it to me again? You know, that one you said was from a romantic play?"
Why are his brothers doing this? What are they trying to accomplish? He feels sufficiently humiliated already. There is no need for more of this nonsense.
The thought of running away to fight demons and sleep under the stars sound more and more enticing by the hour.
And then, there is this.
"Lan Zhan, please, don't report us! We're just celebrating, can you blame us? C'mon, don't be such a fuddy-duddy! Have some fun for once, hmmm?"
Wei Wuxian is wearing two layers of clothes, which means he's practically naked. Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin look a bit more dressed, but not more put together. They nod enthusiastically, as if Wei Wuxian's drunken speech could save their lives. Which is almost true.
Wei Wuxian likes Xiubo and Yongming more than he likes Wangji. They're both less awkward and more socially aware, and they've been doing these little things Wei Wuxian seems to have enjoyed, and he – he's sad about it. Not quite jealous, because jealousy is forbidden, but just. Sad.
He wants to go out on the roof and sit in the silver light of the moon and brood.
Something in his chest hurts.
If he keeps being the dullest, most unexciting one, Wei Wuxian will be happy with either of his brothers. He cannot stand the thought.
So he lets Wei Wuxian plaster a talisman on his back, drinks a cup of wine, and passes out.
When he wakes, Wei Wuxian's face is so close to his that he can see all the soft freckles. They both startle as their open eyes meet, Wangji shoves himself away, and Wei Wuxian jumps to stand up, laughing nervously.
"What happened," Wangji makes himself ask, since it seems better to know straight away, so that he is aware of what to expect. And what punishment to assign.
"You just… passed out? And then you woke up a while later. Insisted you weren't drunk, even though you couldn't walk straight. I think maybe you were hallucinating, too, like, you kept talking about the other two, and there wasn't anyone else in the room, since A-Cheng and Huaisang long left. And you said you really like…"
Wangji's heart is going to split his chest open, at this point.
There is a knock on the door.
Wangji's hair is a mess, his clothes are all wrinkles, and he reeks of wine. Wei Wuxian looks a bit more awake, but he's still wearing nothing but the two inner layers of this outfit.
They are fucked.
This, Wangji reminds himself, if suffering for love.
Another strike. He keeps himself unmoving, back straight, head held high.
It’s a sweet pain, he tells himself. Another strike. He grinds his teeth.
Is the love worth the pain, he wonders. Another strike. Almost done. He can feel the array of bruises forming under his skin.
Jiang Wanyin and another Jiang disciple drag Wei Wuxian away, as soon as the strikes are done, followed by Jiang Yanli whispering soothing words, but Wangji is not so lucky. When everyone disappears, Uncle gives him a long and angry speech, full of words like disappointed and let down and irresponsible, and Wangji listens, his head bowed down respectfully. This is for love, he tells himself over and over, trying to ignore the feeling of shame burning in his stomach. He knows what he did was silly. He knew that before he made the decision. But he cannot bring himself to truly regret it, because his motivation was right. How else can he show Wei Wuxian that he's worthy of his attention?
"Take him to heal," Uncle says eventually; Wangji didn't realise the speech has ended, being too lost in his thoughts. Xiubo and Yongming come out of nowhere and drag him down the private path to the Cold Springs without saying a word. Still, their thoughts are crystal-clear.
Not only did he not make Wei Wuxian like him, but he also made a fool of himself in front of the whole sect and the guest disciples, and now he's in pain. And, because his life is a tragedy, it was probably all for nothing.
Wangji feels pathetic.
Xiubo and Yongming offer to stay with him, but Wangji has to be alone right now, so he tells them to go away and just stands in the middle of the freezing pond morosely, trying to clear his mind and very much failing.
A good while passes and he almost manages to get somewhere with the clean you mind thing, when -
"Lan Zhan!" he hears.
Why. Why can't he have a moment of peace? Why?
"How are you here," he barks out, quickly throwing on a robe and moving towards the deeper part of the pond, so that more of his body is underwater. There is no time to be dressed properly. It leaves him terribly exposed.
"Hm? Xichen-ge told me to come here to heal? He seems to be the only person who took pity on the poor me, I mean, there has to be some understanding of the needs of youth, right? We young people cannot be expected to ask as if we were old uncles, right? And anyway, old uncles drink a lot of wine, believe me… everywhere expect here, I suppose."
Wangji cannot make himself speak, nor look at half-naked Wei Wuxian coming closer and closer towards him.
"You know, Lan Zhan, I thought at first that you were rigid, pedantic, and depressing… but I've seen that you're not so terrible, you know? You can be actually really cool and nice underneath that cold stare, right?"
No, Wangji thinks, I cannot. He feels like crying. I am rigid, pedantic, and depressing. I am all of those things you hate. The parts of me you find more "fun" are not me at all.
"Stop staring at me," Wangji says, because Wei Wuxian is so, so close, and staring.
"It's just that… you look a little bit different… I think?…"
Lan Zhan tugs the robe closed over his chest and stomach jerkily, mentally shouting at himself for not doing it immediately, what was he thinking? Was he trying to show off or something equally pitiful?
Wait – did Yongming let Wei Wuxian see him undressed? When? Where? It must have been him, Yongming is a little softer under his robes than Xiubo and Wangji, who look just the same. It's truly nothing that stands out, though, unless someone is actively staring. Did Yongming let Wei Wuxian stare? Does he have no shame at all?
But Wei Wuxian is looking away now, and blushing all the way down his neck, and Wangji allows just a tiniest bit of smugness run through him, before he realises nothing in what Wei Wuxian has said indicated that he wasn't disappointed.
Maybe he did appreciate Yongming's body more.
"You don't like me," Wangji says; his voice is so quiet it can be barely heard over the sound of the rushing water.
"What do you mean?"
Wangji can't say it again. It's too humiliating. He can't be self-assured and collected like Xiubo, nor can he be soft and erudite like Yongming. All he can be is just the awkward middle child.
"Lan Zhan, what do you mean?" Wei Wuxian asks again, but Wangji is already leaving, his movements as hasty as they can without him breaking into a sprint.
"Gege? Why did you come back so soon? Your back really looked bad, silly –"
"Shut up," Wangji grits out. All he wants from here is a change of clothes and a pouch of money. He is totally prepared to just leave like, right now, and come back in a very distant future.
Yongming blinks, stunned. He must be able to tell Wangji is really upset, of course.
"I hate you," Wangji says, tearing the cold, wet robes off himself and starting to put a warm, dry set. "I hate you all. I thought I could trust xiongzhang, at least, but he's just like you – you knew, you knew, and you just made fun of me, and I hate you," he repeats empathically, tying the sash with trembling hands.
Xiubo and Yongming just look at each other.
"We... wanted to help?"
"I don't need your help! I don't want it! Why can't you just leave me alone?"
"Don't you call me that!"
"I'm leaving," he proclaims, and walks out of the room. His outfit must be a bit more haphazard than he'd normally let it be, and his hair is still wet, but he doesn't care.
Because his life is a nightmare, Lan Zhan doesn't even make it far. His back is healing, and the Cold Springs helped, but he was meant to meditate for at least two hours, and he got in less than half an hour of the healing waters and even less actual healing meditation.
So after a mere hour of flying, he makes himself land in the nearest town. He knows the area, he did a few night-hunts here over the last year.
"Oh, young master!" he hears as soon as he steps onto the main street of the village. Of course. Popo loves him as much as she loves everyone she considers her grandchild, and that is a lot of people (she lost her only child in an old war, and never got to have biological grandchildren, he heard the story at least dozen times, and he will gladly listen to it a thousand more, if it makes Popo happy).
"Popo," Wangji greets her, trying to calm the feelings bubbling inside him down. But he must not be very successful, since she gives him a frowny look.
"What's wrong, child?" she wipes her hands on her apron and gestures at him to sit by her stall, and so he does, because no one disrespect Popo by not listening to her.
And Wangji lets himself say it, because it's Popo.
"I like someone," he whispers, "and he doesn't like me back."
"How can anyone not like you, young master? You're so kind, and considerate, and humble, and dashingly handsome, what else might he want?"
"He likes my brother more. Brothers," he says, dying a little inside.
"Hmmm," Popo urges him to explain as she moves to prepare a bowl of noodle soup for him.
"We're… we're triplets. And he likes me the least."
"Oh my," she puts the bowl in front of him. It's gigantic, and steaming, and smells as heavenly as her food always does. "I'm sure that's not true, young master."
"It is," Wangji says forcefully, and Popo puts her wrinkled hand onto his shoulder, and it takes all but a breath for Wangji to find himself crying into his soup.
"Oh my," Popo repeats again, rubbing little circles with her thumbs which actually manage soothe Wangji's back, and he slurps the noodles viscously. The warm sensation in his stomach makes his body relax a little.
"I know what will cheer you up," Popo says eventually, when he's almost destroyed the bowl of noodles, and his tears have dried up. This is what he adores about her: she doesn't ask questions. Yet, she always know the right answers. She disappears for a moment in the little house behind her stall, and comes back with company.
"Gege is sad," she whispers to the familiar child, and a second later a chubby creature is climbing into his lap.
"Gege sad? A-Yuan will hug gege," the child says, and proceeds to do so. Wangji looks up at Popo incredulously, but she just raises one eyebrow and goes back to stirring her soup. Fair.
So, Wangji feeds A-Yuan the noodles he didn't manage to squeeze into himself, and then listens to his endless babble, and then has the child fall asleep in his lap, against his chest. Admittedly, Wangji forgets about being sad until A-Yuan breathing evens out and he sags against Wangji's arms. Only when he tries to get up, holding A-Yuan, does he remember that he's still injured, and lets out a hiss of pain.
Popo reads him like a book. He is given a lecture and a bag of snacks and sent back home, to rest and heal, and reluctantly, Wangji does fly back to the Cloud Recesses and sneaks in the back entrance. Instead of going back to his rooms, he makes it down to the Cold Springs, and, properly undressed, lays down onto the water and floats on his back, watching the moon and the stars among the tree crowns, and he finds in himself a tiniest bit of peace.
Even if Wei Wuxian doesn't want him, he will be okay, he tells himself. With time. He can be okay. It's not the end of the world, he tells himself. It's not the end of the world, he tells himself.
Eventually, he sneaks back into the compound, and finds a note stuck to the doors.
Xiubo took Yongming up to the mountain cottage for the night, it says. They want to give him space. They apologise.
Wangji will not forgive them immediately, of course; they don't deserve it. But he does tuck the note into his sleeve and thanks them mentally for this little kindness.
As soon as he opens the doors, he realises that was not the only surprise waiting for him.
There are two rabbits, sleeping on top of a rolled purple robe, right in the middle of the room; they both startle when Wangji takes a step inside.
There is a letter on the table, with a slightly chewed-on corner, as if one of the creatures got to it. In a very familiar, but somehow clearer-than-expected handwriting, it says:
To the Second Jade of Lan:
This one humbly apologises. Please accept it, Lan Wangji. I was just joking. You are not boring and depressing. I still want to be your friend, of course, if you will have me.
P.S. I found these two in the forest today – their mother died, they need someone to take care of them. You are the only responsible person I know. Please, do not kick them out into the wilderness, they are just babies.
You did mean it when you said you liked rabbits, right?
Wangji finds himself trembling with the tenderness of this thought. Rescuing little animals? Making sure they are cared for? What else could one want from their beloved? What else speaks more clearly of a pure heart?
How could he have almost persuaded himself that he could live without Wei Wuxian?
Wangji cries himself to sleep, with the rabbits cuddled against him.
After that, all of his brothers stop their nonsense, xiongzhang included. Wangji goes back to existing within his normal parameters: sword practice, studies, training, more studies, guqin practice, poetry reading, patrolling, night hunts. Things are normal.
The only difference is that the first few days, he spend his free time on building the rabbits a hutch, and then, every morning and every evening he's at home, he spends with the rabbits. They are beautiful, growing so fast; they like to cuddle and eat out of his hands and be petted and they are absolutely perfect.
The only downside is, they make Wangji think about Wei Wuxian, every single time.
He hasn't let himself spend much time around Wei Wuxian, not the other disciples. It's mostly that they are too loud and undisciplined ad give him a headache (the other disciples) and because he's a coward (Wei Wuxian).
He will get over it.
He does not get over it. Summer passes swiftly, and yet every single day is agony. Wangji hides away from everyone, either in the back hill or in their rooms. He almost forgave his brothers, and so he feels more comfortable spending time around them without feeling hurt, but still, they know and he knows they know and he knows they want to say so many things he doesn't want to hear, and they're at an impasse about it.
Uncle catches him walking from the library with an armful of books .
"Wangji," he says, and it doesn't sound like he's just chancing it. Either Xiubo and Yongming are officially engaged in something, or they sent Uncle to nag him. "Follow me."
What else can Wangji do but obey?
"You've been hiding."
Wangji says nothing. He does not want to confirm it, but he does not want to speak a lie, either.
"We've been over this, Wangji. Didn't you agree to come and talk to me if you were upset? I know it's sometimes hard for you. I know your brothers are a lot, whether they want to or not. But we had an agreement.
"Wangji is sorry," he bows deeply even though he knows it's not what Uncle wants.
"Silly boy," Uncle sighs. Then, he prepares tea and lets Wangji pour it. They play some of Wangji's favourite music together for a while, until Wangji is almost relaxed. When it's time for supper, Uncle stuffs his pouch full of his favourite peanuts, and nods at him to leave –
"At least come to the Lantern Festival," Uncle says right before Wangji opens the door. "It's your favourite. You shouldn't miss it."
Lantern Festival has always been Wangji's favourite. It's one of the very few memories he has of Mother, painting lanterns together, all five of them, and there is something that speaks to the same romantic streak in him that adores love poetry. He always prepares the wish to mutter way beforehand, pondering over it for days and days, since it has to be perfect, worthy of the beautiful occasion.
Xiongzhang walks up to him and chats amicably, as he always does; he's recently been to Qinghe and has all the stories to tell that he's heard from da-ge, and Wangji listens eagerly, until –
"Sorry, A-Zhan," he says, waving at Huaisang, who waves back, "I promised da-ge I would pass a message to A-Sang, I'll find you later, all right?"
Before Wangji can reply, xiongzhang is gone, and Wangji is all alone among the crowd of fancily dressed people, clutching his lantern in his hand.
"Lan Zhan!" he hears, among all the voices. "Lan Zhan!"
He turns around.
Wei Wuxian is right there, in his red and purples that should clash but look exquisite on him, with his sun-bright smile.
"I was hoping to see you, Lan Zhan! Look what I made!"
He holds up his lantern, shifting it a little to show Wangji the drawing on the side: it's a pair of rabbits, the ink lines soft and perfect. They looks exactly like the pair he left Wangji.
"You – you smiled," Wei Wuxian says, with quiet wonder to his voice, and Wangji almost blushes.
"Wei Wuxian –"
"How many times have I told you to call me Wei Ying, Lan Zhan? So many times! And you keep insisting on Wuxian this, Wuxian that…"
Wangji cannot remember more than one instance of Wei – Wei Ying telling him that. It must have been with Xiubo and Yongming, all those other times, and yet… they refused? They didn't cross that one line, leaving the intimacy of one's given name to Wangji alone?
That brings him back to earth for a second, enough to say, "it's time."
Wei – Ying, he nods with that smile again, and drags Wangji towards an emptier spot, and Wangji doesn't even have the time to protest too much. He just follows, making sure his own lantern, with his favourite idiom carefully calligraphed, doesn't get damaged in the meantime.
"Hold it up," Wei Ying says and Wangji does as he's told, unable to resist; Wei Ying lights the two candles with one quick move, and they immediately lift off, sailing lazily towards the pale blue sky.
Wei Ying bring his hands together and closes his eyes, face turned up and so painfully perfect, and whispers, "I wish I can always stand with justice and live with no regrets."
How can Wangji not love him?
It is not possible.
Wangji doesn't say his wish out loud, only speaks it in his mind: may he love me back.
The whole crowd of people is oddly silent, watching the lanterns float away until they look like tiny dragonflies against the darkening sky, and only when people start to leave does Wei Ying speak up. He seems… reluctant, somehow. It doesn't suit him at all.
"I haven't seen much of you, Lan Zhan."
There is so much behind this little statement, and so many ways in which he could respond to this – so many way in which he could ignore this, too – but that impossible, impulsive side of him that barely makes an appearance just takes over.
"You never did," he says, and finds himself immediately mortified by his own words.
"What?" Wei Ying frowns, a tiny line between his brows. So beautiful.
"You never did."
"Lan Zhan, what do you mean?"
"I – you spent little time with me."
"But I saw you almost every day –"
"No," Lan Zhan cuts in, maybe a bit too sharply. He did not see Wei Ying almost every day. He barely saw him at all, besides those afternoons in the library, really, and he should have seen him. He wishes he did. It hurts to think that he could have, maybe.
"Who then?" Wei Ying asks, but he doesn’t seem to be catching on at all.
There is a long beat of silence during which Wangji realises that almost everyone is gone. Good. At least there won't be too many witnesses of him humiliating himself again.
"Lan Zhan, what do you mean – would I mistake you for anyone else? Stop being silly."
"We're triplets," he says. It sounds almost casual. "…identical."
Wei Wuxian startles for a moment, and then laughs.
"And they pretended… to be you?"
"Mn," Lan Zhan admits, indeed feeling a bit silly, even for different reasons than Wei Ying must have considered.
"What the fuck," Wei Wuxian says under his breath, and Wangji should reprimand him, but he's been feeling the same way about it. But there is something like relief that Wangji can read in his body language. "So… I'm not going crazy?"
"Crazy?" It's his time to blink.
"Sometimes I – I thought you were being weird you know? Like, you didn't call me ridiculous. Or you – I mean, whoever I thought as you, this is so confusing – met my eye, and you always look away. Or you spoke more than three words at a time, you know? You never do it. Or like, I've just passed you, and then a few minutes later you were around again, and I kept thinking, is Lan Zhan just sneaking around and trying to keep an eye on us and prevent us from breaking the rules? In he a spy?"
That's ridiculous. Who would he spy for, even?
"I know, I know, that's stupid, but what was I meant to think? No one believed me when I said anything, and Huaisang just gave me these put yourself together, bitch looks – ah, sorry, I promise I won't swear again! – and I thought I was just going crazy. But wait, is that what you meant when you said I didn't like you. Did you seriously think I liked your brothers? I mean, that's a little silly, Lan Zhan! Well, anyway, A-Cheng thinks I am crazy anyway, so he wrote it off as just another symptom, that asshole–"
"Wei Ying," Wangji says. The name it so sweet on his lips.
Wei Ying visibly shivers.
"This is me. Just this."
"Of course, Lan Zhan," it sounds so simple, in Wei Ying's sweet voice.
"Will you –" he tries to be brave, but it's so hard. Wangji's not good at words anyway.
"Will you go night-hunting with me?" Will you stand with justice, protect the weak, and live with no regrets with me, forever?
Wei Ying's eyes widen, and he blushes so, so sweetly. "Will I? Of course, Lan Zhan, how could I refuse you? Of course I will."
"Good," Lan Zhan says, and leans in to kiss Wei Ying.
Once upon the time, Wangji led a peaceful life.
(Which means: six months ago, Wangji led a peaceful life. Six months which feel like a lifetime.)
Then, the guest disciples arrived for the lectures, and the whole, perfectly controlled, peaceful life of Wangji was ruined in just one moment.
Now, Wangji's days are full of chaos (going under the name of Wei Ying) and he's never been happier.
They invite Wei Ying to their rooms for tea the next day, after Wangji has paraded Wei Ying at his arm all around the Cloud Recesses and made sure that everyone knew it was him who has been chosen. It's a bit of a test; they are sat next to each other, wearing the same clothes, identical hair styles, and the famous Second Jade of Lan icy expressions.
Wei Ying gets inside and stops at a distance, watching them closely, one hand resting on his cocked hip, the other playing with his lower lip in a way that is absolutely terrible.
Lan Zhan has become closely acquainted with those lips recently, and Wei Ying with his.
"So, you're - let me guess," Wei Ying points to his right, "Yongming."
"Hm?" Yongming tilts his head, questioning. Truly, no one but xiongzhang and Huaisang can tell them apart, and Wei Ying didn't even know of their existence until yesterday (Lan Zhan, I have to punch your brothers for meddling and making you upset, can I? Can I?)
"You're the one with the sweet tooth, right?"
"We all have sweet tooth," Yongming tries to defend himself, and it's not a lie, but he just has the least self-control out of the three of them.
"And that makes you Xiubo, the funny one!" Wei Ying proclaims, rudely pointing his finger to the middle and looking terribly smug.
"Funny?" Xiubo repeats with distaste, as if he's never been insulted this terribly. Wei Ying laughs at his face.
"Well, you thought it was funny to compliment my sword, right? That was definitely you. I recognize this look in your eyes."
Xiubo just scoffs, recognising his defeat, and Wei Ying turns to Wangji, smiles at him, and sits down. Then, he scoots closer and tugs at Wangji's sleeve to make him sit so close their knees meet.
"This is my Lan Zhan," Wei Ying declares, holding his hand obnoxiously. "You three all are nothing alike. You are clearly superior, Lan Zhan, I have no idea how anyone could mix you all up."
Wangji doesn't, either.
"You're a menace," he says, and his brothers can read the fondness in his voice well enough to feel compelled to look away and pretend to be sick at such nauseating display right in front if their eyes. Serves them right, Wangji thinks.
"But a Terribly Handsome Menace, right?"
Right. So very right.
("Lan Zhan, you know I only like you, right?"
"Mn," Lan Zhan agrees, petting the rabbit sitting in his lap.
"You know, right? I have no interest in any of your brothers. They are nothing like you. I want only you."
"I know," he says. Pauses. Waits. "… could you say it again, Wei Ying?"
And Wei Ying does say it again and again and again, right until that time he says it at their wedding.)