Wei Wuxian has been sitting on the jingshi porch, watching the sunset and pretending to be doing something other than just waiting around, when he hears the light crunching of boots on gravel. He jumps up, then, all pretense abandoned. Lan Wangji’s face is right there! It’s simply a waste of time if Wei Wuxian isn’t kissing it.
“Lan Zhan, er-gege,” he pouts, landing a loud, wet smack on Lan Wangji’s cheek. “I missed you so much. I was so sad. Bereft. Practically a widow! You can’t leave me like that again.”
“I will not,” Lan Wangji says obediently. He will: he has another meeting tomorrow, and lessons to teach. But now he is here, fitting his hands around Wei Wuxian’s waist and pulling him closer, rubbing circles onto the side of Wei Wuxian’s hip, making him shiver. “How was your day?”
“It was fine,” Wei Wuxian says, purposely vague. He kisses Lan Wangji again, on the mouth this time, to distract him. “But how was yours? Did you make anyone cry?”
“I do not believe so.”
“Hmph. What’s the point of those meetings, then?”
“Trade agreements. Border disputes. Night-hunting arrangements.”
“Boring,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “Lan er-gege, you work so hard. Come inside and sit down. Look at me, and you’ll feel better.” He runs a finger along the skin beneath Lan Wangji’s eye, where it’s slightly purpled with fatigue. “We have to keep your face smooth and youthful. You aren’t allowed to worry anymore.”
Lan Wangji’s mouth tilts up at the corner. He turns his head, kisses Wei Wuxian’s palm, never looks away from Wei Wuxian’s face. “I do feel better.”
Wei Wuxian had been standing still, but now he trips over nothing. “Hanguang-jun,” he cries, clutching at the doorframe and then his chest with his free hand. “Have I been such a terrible influence? You’ve gotten so shameless! You can’t just say such things!”
“You said it.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian splutters, “but — it was — that wasn’t — don’t listen to me. Menace,” he tacks on, accusingly, and pushes feebly at Lan Wangji’s chest. “I see how it is, Hanguang-jun. You couldn’t make anyone else cry today, so you’re going to make me cry.”
“Hm,” says Lan Wangji, perfectly neutral, neither a confirmation nor a denial, and puts his hand on the dip of Wei Wuxian’s spine. “It is time for dinner. Sit down, Wei Ying.”
“Menace,” Wei Wuxian repeats. His heart really is going to give out one of these days! Especially if Lan Wangji keeps breaking rules for him like this, pouring wine into Wei Wuxian’s cup, filling his bowl with more rice than is strictly allowed, placing the biggest mushrooms on top of the mound. Wei Wuxian’s heart is going to continue expanding, getting bigger and bigger, swollen like a full moon with tenderness and devotion, and one day it will spill over.
He doesn’t say any of these things. He’d said it all before, anyway. He only sits down, presses one of his knees against Lan Wangji’s, and drinks his wine. The food is the same as it had been yesterday, and the day before that — mushroom broth, underseasoned tofu, too many green vegetables. Lan Wangji eats steadily, in neat little bites; Wei Wuxian picks around his bowl with barely disguised reluctance. He’d used the last of the chili oil yesterday.
And then all at once Lan Wangji sets down his chopsticks carefully, resolutely, like he’s preparing to say something. Wei Wuxian frowns at him, swallows a too-big bite of mushroom.
“At the meeting today,” Lan Wangji says, still staring down at his bowl, “there was a discussion of a yaoguai infestation in Guangling. I would like to hear your opinion.”
“Oh. Well, sure.” Wei Wuxian leans forward, elbows on the table. He’s half-waiting for Lan Wangji to scold him about it, but the rebuke never comes. “What sort of yaoguai? What are they doing?”
“A mutation of the measuring snake. They are more aggressive than their predecessors, and more inclined to stray into villages. There is a nest on the border of the Li and Zhou sects.”
“They’re arguing about who should take care of it.”
“Instead of taking care of it.”
“You said that it’s gone near villages,” Wei Wuxian says. His ears have started to buzz, a faint but insistent thrum. “Are people being attacked?”
“There have been attacks. No deaths.”
“Right.” Wei Wuxian pulls his elbows back, prods at the last of his soup. “And so it’s not important to your sect leaders, and they’re not going to do anything about it. Ah, Lan Zhan, just send someone else to go and take care of it. Negotiations are a waste of time. I’ll do it myself. No, I know,” he says, catching Lan Wangji’s expression, his slightly parted mouth. “Politics.” He laughs, short and sharper than he’d intended. “Lan Zhan, you don’t want my opinion on this.”
Lan Wangji blinks. “I do.”
“No, I mean, you shouldn’t,” says Wei Wuxian. “No one else does.”
“Then they are very foolish,” Lan Wangji says, stiffly.
“Aiyah, don’t be mad.” Wei Wuxian pushes his bowl aside, reaches across the table, takes his hand. “Not about that, okay? I don’t care. Really. It’s — in the past. And besides, I’m terrible at politics. There is no one worse at politics than me.”
“It is only,” Lan Wangji says, and stops. This is strange. Lan Wangji never stops in the middle of sentences. He finishes them the way he finishes everything else: with precision, with surety. Wei Wuxian frowns at him, taps Lan Wangji’s knuckles with his thumb.
“What?” he asks.
“You are bored,” says Lan Wangji. He pronounces the word very carefully, slower than usual. “Being here.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian protests. “No, Lan Zhan, how could I be bored? You’re here, and A-Yuan, and there are so many books. And, um. So much fresh air.”
He’d meant for it to sound serious, earnest. It comes out sounding sarcastic, even to his own ears, and he cringes a little, chews on his lower lip.
“Really,” he says, trying to remedy it. “I’m fine, staying here.” He gestures around the jingshi. “I can redecorate. I can buy some things. Lan Zhan, you have to give me money, okay? It would be very cruel of you to keep your money from your husband. I’ll even buy you something pretty with it.”
“My money is your money,” says Lan Wangji. The tips of his ears have turned pink. Husband still does that to him. “You do not need to buy me anything.”
“Then,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing a finger over Lan Wangji’s wrist, “then I could make something! I could make a table. Do you want a new table, Lan Zhan?”
“If you would like to make a table,” Lan Wangji says obligingly.
He doesn’t, really. “No,” he sighs, and slumps forward. “There’s nothing wrong with this one. And it has nice memories, doesn’t it? Like these little teeth marks. Lan Zhan ah, A-Yuan really is your son. Who else taught him to bite like that?”
“You said that he bit Chenqing, with you.”
“He was teething,” Wei Wuxian says loftily. “That doesn’t count.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything for a moment. He only drinks his tea, throat working silent and beautiful, and delicately sets the cup down onto the table. His hand twitches a little, in Wei Wuxian’s grip. “New items,” he says at last, “may invoke new memories.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him. Lan Wangji stares back.
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian laughs: real this time, full-bodied. Shameless! “I see. Well, then.” He flutters his eyelashes, makes his voice go low and sultry. “Er-gege, I’m certain I don’t know what you mean. What sort of memories are you hoping to make?” He shifts so that his robe slips a little, reveals a wider sliver of the skin on his chest. “Would you show this ignorant one what you had in mind?”
The empty dishes clatter to the floor when Lan Wangji cages Wei Wuxian against the table and proceeds to demonstrate very, very thoroughly.
When they’d returned to the Cloud Recesses last month, Wei Wuxian had been expecting problems. Dismissals from the Lan elders, maybe, or an insistence that he be kept locked in the jingshi at all hours of the day. Clandestine stares from the disciples. Bland food.
He hadn’t thought about time. He hadn’t thought about what it might be like to have too much of it.
It was nice, at first. He slept as much as he wanted and read every book on the jingshi’s shelves. He lounged around in borrowed robes, waiting for Lan Wangji to notice that Wei Wuxian hadn’t tied his belt and his chest was bare. He was taken to bed. He was taken apart. They took baths in the same bathtub at the same time, washed each other’s hair, learned the topography of each other’s bodies. They played their song, repeatedly and often. Husband, Lan Wangji would say. Sweetheart, Wei Wuxian would answer, just to see the way it made Lan Wangji’s ears turn pink, just for the pleasure of saying it.
Lan Wangji didn’t leave the jingshi in those early days, either, and Wei Wuxian was never bored when Lan Wangji was with him. But then Lan Xichen had gone into seclusion, leaving all the responsibilities of running a sect to Lan Wangji and their uncle, and now Lan Wangji is gone for most of the daylight hours, attending stuffy meetings and writing tedious letters and teaching little disciples how to use their qins. Wei Wuxian isn’t alone — is never alone, can always go to Lan Wangji’s office and sit next to him and talk to him while Lan Wangji reads his documents and hums to show that he’s listening — but it’s not right, disturbing Lan Wangji when he’s doing important work. It would make Wei Wuxian a nuisance. Wei Wuxian is fine with being a nuisance, has accepted that he is a nuisance to most people, but he never wants to be a nuisance to Lan Zhan. Never that. And so most days he tries to occupy himself, in the jingshi or outside of it — with boring things, mundane things, things that aren’t important at all.
It was always about survival before.
He’s still not used to this, about time: how to exist in it, safe and warm and whole, no ragged edges.
I’ll do it myself, he had said to Lan Wangji, about the measuring snake nest, and the thing was — they were just words, weren’t they? They both knew that Wei Wuxian couldn’t actually do it. They both knew that even now, even with the world reeling from the fall of Jin Guangyao, the sect leaders wouldn’t accept it. Wei Wuxian had gone to a meeting, once, after arriving back in the Cloud Recesses. He had been wearing new robes, a blue so dark it was almost black, little clouds stitched along the hems in blood-red thread; there was a jade token, new and stark-white, hanging from his belt. He couldn’t stop running his hands over it, finding the grooves in the stone. He couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant, wearing Lan blue and carrying an entry token. Husband, Lan Wangji had said, voice soft, when he’d helped Wei Wuxian get dressed. My Wei Ying.
Even then, in the meeting —
Wei Wuxian hadn’t been back to another one since, that was all.
It was fine, really. He didn’t care about meetings. He never had. It was too much talking, not enough doing. He wanted to be useful. He wanted to be out in the woods, hunting yaoguai, the moon like a round cake above his head. He wanted to fight alongside Lan Wangji, wanted the thrill of knowing what Lan Wangji was going to do before he did it. He wanted to take his husband and his donkey and travel, stopping in new towns and sampling new wine and putting flowers in Lan Wangji’s hair and asking locals if there were any lingering ghosts around, any resentful spirits; he would go and take care of them, him and Lan Wangji together, a single melody on two instruments, and then they would go back to an inn and rent a room and lock the door. Lan Wangji would press him into the mattress, bite a line of bruises up the column of Wei Wuxian’s neck. They would fuck on that strange mattress in that strange town, make it learn the shapes of them. Wei Wuxian would ache in only good ways: his arms, from a sword. His body, from being loved.
When he goes to visit the rabbits in the meadow, Wei Wuxian has to pass the dormitories where the littlest Lans live. The kids are all three and four years old, too young to attend classes at the hanshi or the training grounds, and they’re unbelievably tiny. Tiny hands, tiny white robes, tiny Lan forehead ribbons — it’s almost too much to handle. Wei Wuxian is certain that A-Yuan was never so small.
(Then he starts to think about the fact that he never saw four year-old A-Yuan in his tiny white robes, never got to help him tie on his ribbon in the mornings, and then —)
He always waves at the Lan babies when he goes by. Most of them look adorably bewildered by this. He gets a few small bows, clumsy and unpracticed; there’s one girl, smaller than the rest of them, who waves back enthusiastically with both hands. He’ll cross his eyes at her, to make her laugh, or stick his tongue out, and she’ll giggle, delighted and unrestrained, until she remembers her Lan rules and clams up. He’ll wink at her, then, and she’ll try to wink back.
It’s a nice walk. The meadow is nice, too, quiet in a way that’s tolerable, even welcoming. He can sit with the rabbits and jab carrot tops in their direction and hear himself think. Sometimes the thoughts are good — what he’s going to do with Lan Zhan that night, the new book he’s reading, a talisman idea he’s gotten. Sometimes they’re not good.
Sometimes he lies on his back and closes his eyes, feels the sun on his face. It could almost be Lotus Pier, except the smell of the air is all wrong.
“Shijie,” he says. “Shijie, there’s so much I want to tell you.”
The grass rustles in the breeze, the only answer.
“There’s so much you didn’t get to see.” One of the rabbits comes closer, nuzzling his hand, searching for food. “I’m married now, shijie. It wasn’t as fancy as your wedding, and I know I didn’t look as beautiful as you did. But I think — I think I’m happy. I am happy, with Lan Zhan. You liked him, didn’t you? I don’t remember if you ever talked to him, really. But I think you would have liked him. He would have liked you.”
The rabbit climbs onto his chest and settles on his collarbone.
“You’d be so proud of Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian says. His eyes sting; he keeps them closed. “He’s stubborn, but he’s kind. He defends the people he cares about.” He breathes in, breathes out. “A-Ling smiles like you.”
No answer, still. Of course not.
“Ah, shijie,” Wei Wuxian says. He laughs, rueful and wet. “Look at me. I’m an old man now.”
Xianxian is three years old!
“I miss you.”
He builds a hutch for the rabbits, a long one with a sturdy roof and ramps on both sides. It’s a hot day: the sun beats down on his back while he works. He sweats. He gets a splinter in his thumb.
“There,” he says, to no one in particular. The rabbits certainly aren’t listening. “Now the rain won’t bother you.”
He’s never done manual labor in this body. His arms ache, and his back; he has a cramp in his knee. His heart pounds, steady and sure, pumps blood to his lungs, helps him take in mouthfuls of air.
It is a good day.
He tries candlemaking. He’d been thinking about the Burial Mounds, about the Wens, about how they had all tried to cut corners, how they had all tried to make their own supplies instead of risking the money and the trip into Yiling. They’d made their own candles, sometimes. Wei Wuxian had been thinking about that — about how it might be pleasant, now, without a notched arrow aimed at his back, to do something with his hands. To make something he could use.
Lan Wangji has the materials brought up to the Cloud Recesses, and Wei Wuxian spends a very nice, slightly sweaty spring afternoon melting the wax and pouring them into molds. The finished candles look like the Lan toddlers had made them — lumpy, misshapen, some of them tilting sideways like they were sleepy. Lan Wangji still burns them all. They flicker away while he reads the juniors’ night-hunt reports, replaces the strings on his qin, brushes out Wei Wuxian’s hair, presses kisses to the nape of his neck. He plays their song, low and beautiful, while Wei Wuxian rests his head in Lan Wangji’s lap and holds Lan Wangji’s cock in his mouth, sucking lazily. The tip of it presses against his soft palate, making his eyes water. He gags a little. Lan Wangji runs his thumb along Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone and says, softly, Good.
They use one candle in bed. Lan Wangji lights it and sets it onto Wei Wuxian’s upturned palm, makes him hold it there even as the wax starts to melt and drip down. It doesn’t hurt — it’s more like surprise, every time, even when Wei Wuxian knows it’s going to happen. When Lan Wangji thrusts into him and hits his prostate and the wax hits his skin at exactly the same time, and the pleasure feels like it’s doubled, ten different kinds of heat — that’s when it’s perfect. Wei Wuxian would make more candles just for that.
On most nights, Lan Wangji will go to sleep at nine, and Wei Wuxian will crawl into bed next to him, prop himself up with the pillows, and stay awake for several hours more. He’ll glance over at Lan Wangji once in a while — once every few minutes, once every sixty seconds — and study the way Lan Wangji’s dark lashes fan out over his cheeks, the way his mouth goes soft, the way his whole face loses the cold jade glamour of Hanguang-jun. Like this, he’s just Lan Zhan. He’s just Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan pouts a little in his sleep. Wei Wuxian wants to lean over and kiss those lips, every time — except that would wake Lan Wangji up, and Wei Wuxian would feel too bad about it. And so he stays awake, keeps to his side of the bed, reading or writing or thinking, staring into a corner of the jingshi until his eyes glaze over, and then he extinguishes the light with his fledgling golden core and snuggles up next to Lan Wangji, whose arm immediately comes around to hug Wei Wuxian around the waist, pull him closer. He never wakes up when he does this — it’s instinct, already. A habit. A married people habit, Wei Wuxian thinks, and then he gets giddy with it, kicks his heels against the mattress. When he tucks his head beneath Lan Wangji’s chin and tangles their legs together, breathes in the smell of sandalwood and listens to the steady pounding of Lan Wangji’s heart, he thinks: husband.
On most mornings, Wei Wuxian will be alone again when he wakes up. Breakfast will be waiting for him on the table, covered and warm from a heating talisman. A frivolous use of energy, Lan Wangji had said, back when they were sixteen; now, there it is, written in Lan Wangji’s precise calligraphy and stuck onto the side of a plate. Pork and chive buns, chili oil on the side. Forbidden things. Gifted things.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and he’s holding — oh, he’s holding the letter.
“It’s fine, er-gege,” Wei Wuxian says, keeping his voice bright. Sunny. He puts down the book he was reading, making a show of sticking the bookmark in it. “I’m not really going to send it.”
“Are you certain?” It doesn’t sound judgmental. Careful, maybe. But just a question. Just asking.
“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian swallows around the bone lodged in his throat. “He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
Lan Wangji makes a small noise in the back of his throat.
“It’s not his fault, Lan Zhan.”
“It’s not yours.”
“I know you think that, sweetheart,” Wei Wuxian says, and it comes out sounding more acerbic than he’d meant it to. Now he’s the one who sounds judgmental. “You’re too good to me,” he says, trying to neutralize it, and then he lies down on the bed, rolls over to face the wall, closes his eyes. It’s barely midafternoon. “Lan Zhan, you’re the only one who thinks such nice things.”
“That is not true.”
“I just think,” Wei Wuxian says. Stops. Some days are good. Some days are like living with a vise clenched around his heart. He feels strange, somehow. Wrong-footed. Still damaged. “I think” — I’m afraid — “I shouldn’t have —”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, more sharply this time, and there’s the creak of a floorboard, like he’s taken a step forward.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian says. He closes his eyes more tightly, squeezes a tear out of them. “I know, Lan Zhan.”
He stays curled up on his side, knees to his chest, and breathes. Lan Wangji plays their song — one two three four times — and then he comes over to the bed, too, and pets Wei Wuxian’s hair, and neither of them speak.
It’s well after hai shi when Lan Wangji comes up to join him on the roof of the jingshi later that night. He sits down next to Wei Wuxian, far enough that their bodies don’t touch at all, and hands him a jug of wine.
“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian says. His voice comes out sounding rough, almost hoarse.
He takes a drink. He scoots over a few inches, rests his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
“Lan Zhan,” he begins, and then — doesn’t know how to finish it. Doesn’t know how to say it.
That’s all right, though, he thinks, as Lan Wangji takes his hand. He doesn’t have to say it. Lan Zhan knows.
Bad days and good days. That was living, wasn’t it?
Wei Wuxian goes back to the baby Lan dormitories and asks if he can play some songs on Chenqing for the kids. Lan Liqiu and Lan Shirong, an elderly married couple, are the appointed toddler guardians, and they take the question very well, meaning that they don’t shout at Wei Wuxian or go into qi deviations about it. They’re very kind, actually. They offer him a cup of tea and a plate of already-shelled peanuts and ask what songs he had in mind.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Wei Wuxian, who was fully expecting to argue his way into this and hadn’t thought any further ahead. “Folk songs, I guess. Lullabies? Do they need naps? Sorry, I don’t remember anything about babies except that you can buy their loyalty with toys.”
“Folk songs are fine, Wei-gongzi,” says Lan Shirong. He sips peaceably at his tea. “It is prudent to cultivate musical knowledge of all sorts from an early age.”
“Right.” Wei Wuxian eats a peanut. “Yeah. I agree.”
He plays for the Lan babies all afternoon. Lan Yue, who always waves at him with both hands, falls asleep on his lap after he finishes a song that his shijie used to sing to him when he was sick. Wei Wuxian stays there while she sleeps, a full two hours, and gets a slight sunburn for it.
Things feel good again.
The whole thing about how none of the Lan kids were supposed to talk to Wei Wuxian had been dropped shortly after the sect banquet. There had been a small family meeting about it. Wei Wuxian hadn’t been there, which was entirely expected but a real shame, because apparently Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren had spent several minutes quoting the Wall of Discipline at each other with increasingly icy politeness. Do not associate with evil, Lan Qiren had probably said, or stay on the righteous path. When Wei Wuxian asked him, afterwards, Lan Wangji said that he had answered by quoting the precepts forbidding insults and assumptions, and — even worse — the precept do not use your position to oppress others. The whole thing only ended when Lan Xichen had stood up, tiredly, and said, Do not argue with your family, for it does not matter who wins.
It was obvious that Lan Wangji felt guilty for dragging his brother into it. He’d been quiet and contemplative for several days afterwards, and Wei Wuxian had caught him doing a handstand one morning before the sun had even risen. But some of the tension had visibly drained from his face on that first night, too, when he came home with the jade token for Wei Wuxian to wear on his belt and a report that the Lan disciples were no longer allowed to be punished if they acknowledged Wei Wuxian’s existence.
Most of the kids are still wary of him, but now, at least, none of them are hurrying in the opposite direction when they see him, that absurd speed-walk that all Lans have perfected to avoid breaking the rule against running. They’ll greet him instead, polite little bows and murmured Wei-qianbeis, and he’ll salute them back, feeling very formal, a warm ember flickering to life in his sternum.
The alternate route to the rabbit meadow takes him past the river, where it curves and settles deeper into the mountain. It was on one of those days — early summer, the air dry and green-smelling, a handful of loquats bouncing cheerfully in Wei Wuxian’s pocket — that he stumbled across the disciples on laundry duty.
They were fifteen years old, most of them, too polite and too well-versed in the Lan edicts to say anything like what the fuck are you doing here when they spotted Wei Wuxian tripping down the path. They’d only tried to redirect him, like they thought he was lost — the hanshi is that way, and if Wei-qianbei is looking for the lake, he needs to go south. Wei Wuxian wasn’t looking for the lake, and he certainly wasn’t looking for the hanshi. He’d asked if he could help them with the scrubbing. They’d looked confused, and then alarmed, and there had been some whispering and furious glances exchanged among them, and then the tallest disciple had straightened up and said, Does Wei-qianbei know how to do laundry?
Wei Wuxian did know. Sometimes, at the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing had shoved a bag full of dirty clothes into his arms and ordered him to go wash them at the river. Wei Wuxian had never done laundry before that, but he’d learned. He’d learned, too, that he liked to crouch by the water, shock his hands with the cold, scrub the dirt away from wet fabric. That was something he could do, something useful, even when everything else about him was only an exercise in wasted efforts. He liked it when his fingers turned numb and pruny, when the pile of clean clothes grew steadily, when his mind emptied out.
I think I know how, he said to the Lan disciples, and grinned at them. But this senior has a very bad memory, and maybe you could give him a refresher.
The disciples were guarded, at first, cool and composed, like they were tiptoeing around on eggshells, but — Lan Zhan had been cool and composed, too, when Wei Wuxian met him, a smooth jade exterior with no cracks. Weak spots, though. A soft underbelly, hidden beneath the ice. Weren’t all Lans like that? Wei Wuxian had unearthed the softness once before. He could do it again.
It happened slow. Weeks passed. Wei Wuxian went down to the river every third day. The disciples stopped flinching whenever he spoke too loudly; they started giving him a bundle of dirty clothes before he had to ask for it. When he brought a little basket with him, filled to the brim with citrus fruit, they hesitantly took some of the oranges. And then — it had been twenty-three days; he had been counting — they started to ask him for advice.
Being married to Hanguang-jun, apparently, was the equivalent of being a certified romance expert.
“I want to tell him how I feel,” Lan Mingzhu says now, anxiously wringing a wet robe in her hands. “But he’s — we don’t see each other often, because of the separate dormitories, and he’s” — she blushes here — “two years above me.”
“Age differences are very nice,” Wei Wuxian tells her, floating a pair of trousers through the water and thinking of the precise way Lan Wangji’s thigh muscles flex when he climbs out of their bed.
“Are they?” She seems worried. “My sister says he’ll be bored.”
“Nothing is boring when you like each other,” Wei Wuxian says dreamily.
Another one of the disciples makes a muffled aw noise; Lan Mingzhu presses onward. “Wei-qianbei, when did you confess to Hanguang-jun? Or — when did he confess to you?”
“That’s private, you can’t just ask him that,” Lan Shuyin says, from several feet away, where he’s been sorting socks and diligently pretending to be ignoring their conversation.
“He said we could ask him anything.”
“He didn’t really say that.”
“Hey, now,” Wei Wuxian says hastily. “When has listening to me ever been a good idea? Lan-xiansheng would turn purple if he heard. And it was…” He thinks of the Guanyin temple, a storm pounding outside, a qin string tight around his neck. “Don’t bother with it. You should do what you think is best. Whenever it feels right.”
“How will I know for sure?” Lan Mingzhu asks him, wide-eyed. She is fifteen. She still thinks that everything has a correct answer, a correct path to follow.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian hedges. He thinks about telling her that she won’t know, that it will feel like throwing herself headfirst off of a cliff, that her heart will be pounding so fast and so loudly that she’ll think it’s interfering with the words coming out of her mouth. “You’ll just — have a feeling.”
There’s quiet, for a moment.
“You mean,” Lan Shuyin says slowly, sock-sorting endeavors now entirely abandoned, “that no time will feel logically right, but if we have strong feelings we should act upon them, and if we’re sincere in our efforts then the other person will hear us and be better prepared to make their own decision.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, relieved. “That.”
Summer in Gusu isn’t like summer in Yunmeng. Here, the air isn’t thick like congealed soy milk pudding; his clothes don’t stick, damp and uncomfortable, to the small of his back. He can go outside at midday without feeling like he needs to plunge into the center of a lake. And so Wei Wuxian packs a little bag, collects Lil Apple from the stable, and heads down the mountain to explore the open fields and forests just outside of Caiyi.
He doesn’t know, really, why he insists on keeping this horrible donkey for company. They’re barely ten minutes into the walk when Lil Apple abruptly plants his hooves in the mud and refuses to move any further.
“Come on,” Wei Wuxian wheedles, tugging on his reins. The sun filters through the trees above them, dappling the ground in gold. “Don’t you want some fresh air?” A snort. “Yeah, I know the air is fresh here, but it will be different over there. Please? I’ll give you an apple — ah —” He digs through the bag, curses. “Ah. Well. I forgot them. But I have this piece of candy, see? Come over here and I’ll give it to you!”
He dances away, waving his fist at Lil Apple. Lil Apple stays where he is and only stares disparagingly, clearly thinking that Wei Wuxian is very stupid.
“I’ll tell Lan Zhan,” he says, threateningly. “You’ll never get an apple again!” A second snort, accompanied by a head toss. “No, you’re right. That was a lie.”
There’s a burst of laughter from behind a cluster of bushes.
Wei Wuxian drops the candy, spins around, one hand already on Chenqing, fingernails digging into his palm — but it’s just a pair of kids, a girl with a braid over her shoulder and a boy who looks a few years younger. Their heads stick out from above the greenery, eyes big and owlish.
The knot in Wei Wuxian’s chest loosens. He lets go of the dizi.
“Don’t laugh at this poor senior,” he says, pouting at them. “My donkey is being terribly unfair! And I’m all out of apples.”
“We have apples,” the girl says helpfully, stepping out from behind the bush. She smiles, showing a missing tooth. “At our farm.”
The boy — her brother, maybe — frowns at her.
“Baba said —”
“It’s fine, he’s not dangerous, he doesn’t even have a sword,” the girl says blithely, and Wei Wuxian disguises his laugh as a coughing fit as she steps forward to pat at Lil Apple’s nose. He doesn’t even try to swerve away, that traitor. “Gege, we can give you apples.”
“Is that so?” Wei Wuxian leans back against the trunk of a tree, and starts digging through his sleeves. “That’s very kind of you, guniang. How much will I owe you for them?”
She taps a finger against her chin. “Hm. Your money pouch, maybe.”
“Ah, guniang, I don’t have one!” He’d really forgotten his money at home, too, damn it. Even with a rich husband he’s still walking around penniless.
The girl shrugs. “You can talk to Popo, then.”
“What’s your donkey’s name?” the smaller boy asks abruptly. He’s finally emerged from the undergrowth.
“Oh. This is Lil Apple.” Wei Wuxian reaches out to pet him and gets a snapping of teeth for his trouble.
“That’s a silly name,” the boy says.
“It’s not silly,” his sister objects. “He likes apples, so his name is Lil Apple.”
“You named the cat Bai, how is that any better —”
“Okay!” Wei Wuxian says loudly, interrupting them, half for their benefit and half for his. He’d been thinking about — about Jin Ling, and how well he’d get along with this sullen kid, and how these siblings quarreling sounded terribly like Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi back in Yi City — but Wei Wuxian hasn’t seen Jin Ling since the Guanyin Temple, hasn’t even written a letter to him — “I would be very glad to talk to your popo. Guniang, gongzi” — he sketches a little bow — “please lead the way.”
There are six of them at the Chen farm: a husband and wife, a grandmother, the two kids Wei Wuxian had met in the forest, and a very small baby. The girl, A-Yan, tells their story in an excited flood, and is given permission to fetch some of the family’s apples, which Lil Apple devours at a terrifying speed.
“Do you have any chores that need doing?” Wei Wuxian asks, while his donkey crunches mercilessly beside him. “In exchange for the apples.”
“Gongzi, you don’t need to trouble yourself,” Chen Feng begins, just as Chen-popo says, promptly, “Weeding. My back isn’t the same these days. A-Yi can show you what needs tending to. What’s your name?”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, scrambling for a moment, “W — Wei Ning.”
And so Wei Wuxian — Wei Ning, to the Chens — works for the afternoon. He pulls weeds from the rows of root vegetables and leafy greens, waters the newly clean soil, helps the two older children wash the dirt away from pulled carrots. The sun is already beginning its descent, staining the sky pink, when Chen Feng comes to find him with a cup of water and his gratitude.
“I wonder,” Wei Wuxian says, twirling his empty cup, “if I might be able to come back again. To help! Not to take more of your apples, even though Lil Apple wouldn’t mind that.”
“We can’t pay you,” Chen Feng says, looking pained.
“No, no, you don’t have to pay me! I like this kind of work,” he says, and realizes, all at once, that he really, really means it. “You can ask my husband if you don’t believe me! And then I can get out of his hair for a while.”
“Well.” Chen Feng is still hesitant but clearly wavering. “If you’re sure, gongzi. We could use the help.”
And so Wei Wuxian comes back twice a week, sometimes more, and works on the farm. He gets twigs in his hair, dirt on his face, mud in his shoes. He takes them off and squelches around in the garden with his bare feet, and Chen-popo scolds him, says that he’ll step on a sharp rock and cut himself. He spends too long in the sun and gets freckles tanned across the bridge of his nose. He starts to wear a straw hat. He digs up vegetables, climbs trees to pick loquats, carries water back and forth from the well. His arms get stronger.
Wei Wuxian never tells the Chens who he really is — never says Wei Ying, Yiling Laozu, Hanguang-jun’s husband. They’re good people, honest and kind and fair, and he’s reluctant to shatter this peace that they have. If they figure it out, somewhere along the way, none of them bring it up.
They only give him food to take home, sometimes — a melon, a bunch of carrots, some eggplants. My husband likes eggplants, Wei Wuxian had said once, keeping his face perfectly straight, but the Chens had taken him for his word and plied him with them. He carries them home — to the Cloud Recesses, to the jingshi — in baskets, slung over Lil Apple’s back. Then they give him carrots, bok choy, some of the sour apples, rice, fresh bread —
“You’re too skinny,” Chen-popo complains, pinching the skin of Wei Wuxian’s upper arm. “Too thin.”
“My husband thinks so, too,” he says cheerfully, brushing hair out of his face and leaving a streak of dirt behind.
“He should feed you more,” she says, judgmental. “You tell him to cook bigger meals, you hear?”
“Yes, popo,” Wei Wuxian says. He’s not going to tell Lan Wangji. He’d have to be rolled out of the jingshi if he did.
“And take these mushrooms home with you. A-Yan found them in the forest yesterday.”
“We have leftover soup. I’ll pack some for you. It has chilis in it, just the way you like. Don’t share any with that husband of yours, Ning-er. I’ll give you some buns, too.”
“Popo, it’s really alright,” Wei Wuxian tries. There’s an uncomfortable sort of prickling sensation at the back of his neck, nothing to do with the sweat that’s dried there. “You don’t need to give me any food! I have enough money. My husband is very wealthy, he’s —” He falters. He can’t say it. “You don’t need to worry about me,” he finishes, weakly.
“Nonsense,” Chen-popo says briskly. She’s already hobbling back to the house. “Don’t forget to drink your water, Ning-er. It’s hot today.”
“Okay,” he says, slightly miserable. He really doesn’t need the food, and the Chens do. He’s seen the way they count their stores carefully to be sure there’s enough for the winter, the way that every scrap of produce is used in the kitchen, the way that Chen-furen mends her children’s clothes until they’re no longer wearable.
He takes the food home.
The next week, he comes to the farm with the empty baskets and tells the Chens that he won’t be able to help out anymore, that he’s going on a trip and doesn’t know when he’ll be back. He’s very sorry, but very appreciative for all of their kindness. He promises to visit again.
He hides a pouch of money in the bottom of one of the baskets and leaves before they can notice it.
Wei Wuxian stays in the jingshi for a while after that. He folds himself up at the table, surrounds himself with blank talismans and scribbled notes, and works. He comes up with three new talismans in as many days. He loses track of time. He forgets to eat, or go outside, or do anything except stare at his notes. When he looks up, the ink has left black impressions on his vision. His knees buckle when he tries to stand up.
He tests one of the talismans and accidentally sets one of Lan Wangji’s robes on fire. It’s only a little singed when Lan Wangji gets home, but the lingering smell of smoke gives him away. Lan Wangji folds up the robe, very neatly, and suggests that Wei Wuxian might benefit from a break.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian sighs, petulant, and allows Lan Wangji to hand-feed him dinner.
His break looks like this: a week of staying in bed until wu shi, swaddling himself in one of Lan Wangji’s robes and dragging himself over the table, eating congee and hot dry noodles and sweet egg buns. He digs through Lan Wangji’s old school things and reads Lan Wangji’s childhood essays. They almost never have any feedback on them, which Wei Wuxian thinks is sad. He writes his own, on a seperate piece of paper. Compelling point. Oh, I argued with you about this! Lan Zhan’s calligraphy is almost as beautiful as his face.
When he tires of that, he gets back into bed and brings the oil with him. He fingers himself open. He fucks himself, shallow, just a little, just enough to get him wet and loose and and ready. He has a jade plug that Lan Wangji bought for him. He uses it.
They don't do much else on those nights. There is only the bed — the bed and the table, the floor, the wall, every surface flat enough for Lan Wangji to pin him against. Wei Wuxian floats. Time loses meaning. Lan Wangji wrings orgasm after orgasm out of him until Wei Wuxian is limp and boneless and sobbing, crying from the overstimulation. Sometimes he just cries, for no reason he can pin down, and Lan Zhan doesn’t push him, only holds him through it. He presses kisses to the backs of Wei Wuxian’s knees, his inner thighs, his cock. He lets Wei Wuxian put his hand flat on his chest, over the sun-shaped brand, and trace the shape of it. When he comes, he uses his beautiful musician’s fingers to scoop it all back into Wei Wuxian’s hole and slide the plug into place. So it takes, he says, and runs his hand over Wei Wuxian’s hair, so gentle that Wei Wuxian could cry again.
He’s always very sore when he wakes up the next morning, which means another day of bed rest, which means —
The plug gets a lot of use, that’s all. Lan Zhan gets irritable about it sometimes, because he likes to open Wei Wuxian up himself, but it is, all things considered, a satisfying arrangement.
Embroidery is next. Sewing. Wei Wuxian had first learned how to sew back at Lotus Pier, to patch up his robes and avoid the wrath of Madam Yu, and then again in the Burial Mounds, to save money. The Lans never have any rips in their clothes — there’s talismans sewn into them to protect against it, and they’re rich enough to just buy new things if something gets ruined besides — so Wei Wuxian starts by stitching little lines of blue flowers onto the sleeves of Lan Wangji’s sleeping robe. They’re sloppy, the petals uneven and lumpy, but he gets all the way around, and then makes an attempt at a rabbit, too.
“It’s a monster rabbit,” Wei Wuxian complains, after he’s shoved the finished robe into Lan Wangji’s hands for inspection. “A demon rabbit. Look at his eyes!”
“The flowers are very nice,” Lan Wangji says, diplomatically.
“They’re shielding a blight of nature. Lan Zhan, er-gege, come on, take it off, I can’t have your beautiful body next to that terrible thing.”
“I like it.”
“Nooooo, you can’t like it,” Wei Wuxian moans.
“You made it.”
“You’re going to keep every ugly thing I make?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, in the sort of Lan Zhan voice that would have been accompanied by an obviously, you idiot if anyone else had said it.
“You’ll run out of room,” Wei Wuxian insists. His face is heating up. Lan Wangji means it — Lan Zhan, who is the world’s tidiest hoarder, who still has his old essays from when he was ten years old, who has been placing every useless trinket Wei Wuxian gives him on a designated shelf. “If you’d just get rips in your clothes like a normal person,” he says, petulant, over his blazing cheeks, “I could sew those instead. I’m very good with stitches, Lan Zhan.” A beat. “On clothes.” On bodies, too, he doesn’t say, but he thinks Lan Wangji hears it anyway. “Then you’ll really be impressed.”
“You want to mend ripped clothes.”
Wei Wuxian nods emphatically.
“I see.” Lan Wangji’s eyes have a glittering look to them. He takes one step forward — Wei Wuxian has just enough time to realize what’s about to happen, a jolt of anticipation running through him like a strike of lightning — and then Lan Wangji reaches out and takes hold of Wei Wuxian’s collar and tugs, hard, and the the fabric splits right down the middle, chest to ankles, a tearing sound that reverberates through the jingshi. The late summer air prickles against Wei Wuxian’s skin, cool and slightly humid. He hadn’t bothered to put on anything beneath the robe.
“Hanguang-jun!” he gasps, scrambling to hold the ruined robe against his body in an exaggerated show of modesty. “Have mercy! I might think you’re about to ravish me.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and crowds Wei Wuxian against the bed. The backs of Wei Wuxian’s knees hit the frame, buckle a little; he drops down. “I am.”
The robes are discarded, and then forgotten.
(They’re unsalvageable, really, and Wei Wuxian is too tired to even think about sewing after his ravishing. But it was the thought that counted, wasn’t it? He really has the best, most considerate husband.)
Sizhui comes back to Gusu a few weeks ahead of the Mid-Autumn Festival. He’s slightly taller than before, his shoulders more filled out. He radiates a sort of quiet, serene confidence, different from before in its surety.
He eats dinner in the jingshi and stays until after sundown, telling stories with bright eyes. Wei Wuxian leans back on his elbows, watching — his husband and his son, sipping their tea with their sleeves held back neatly, their backs straight and upright — to have this, he thinks —
“Night-hunt!” he says brightly, clapping his hands. “What about it, A-Yuan?”
“If you would like to go, Wei-qianbei,” Sizhui agrees — so filial! — and so they do.
It’s just the two of them. Lan Wangji has stayed behind, claiming that he has reports to grade; it’s not a lie, exactly, but he could have done the grading another time. He’s only trying to give Wei Wuxian the chance to speak with Sizhui alone, to bond with him. It’s terribly thoughtful. Wei Wuxian is going to kiss him about it later.
He and Sizhui come across a yao within the first shi, shaped like a tiger but three times as large, with bloodshot eyes and claws as sharp as swordpoints.
It’s only after, when they’ve finished burying the carcass, that the melancholy sets in.
Wei Wuxian has been practicing with Suibian: sometimes by himself, going through the old Yunmeng Jiang sword forms, and sometimes with Lan Wangji, little parrying sessions outside of the jingshi. Mo Xuanyu’s tiny golden core, flickering but stubborn in its refusal to grow, has been making it very difficult. Wei Wuxian gets frustrated again and again, and he’d gotten frustrated today, too, his arm tiring out too quickly. He’d almost gotten injured. He’d switched to Chenqing at the last minute, the tips of the yao’s claws only grazing his leg, not even cutting skin, but still — still.
“Aiyooooo,” Wei Wuxian moans dramatically. Sizhui has been finishing up the burial, not looking at him yet, but Wei Wuxian hurries to wipe the sadness off of his face before the kid can notice. “Sizhui-er, how did you bear to be away from Hanguang-jun for all those months? I miss him terribly.”
“You saw him only earlier today, Wei-qianbei.”
“That’s too long! Any moment I’m not holding Lan Zhan’s hand is a moment wasted.”
“We can return,” Sizhui says, like a question. His face is tinted pink.
“No, no, let’s keep going, let’s find something else.” Wei Wuxian slings an arm around Sizhui’s shoulder. They’re almost the same height now. “You need to stop growing, do you understand? You mustn't get taller than me.”
“Ah, but I know you can’t control that. Did Lan Zhan plant you in the soil, too? How else would you have gotten so strong?”
“He didn’t,” Sizhui says, and then he smiles. “He planted me in the rabbits. And he said that I needed to eat my vegetables.”
“Vegetables!” says Wei Wuxian, which is all that he can manage after the image of tiny A-Yuan being surrounded by a herd of white bunnies. It’s almost too much to bear. “Ah, Sizhui. Your Hanguang-jun is right about everything, did you know that?”
“Yes, Wei-qianbei,” Sizhui agrees. “What was he right about this time?”
Sometimes, Sizhui is so much like Wen Qing that it’s slightly terrifying. “You can’t tell him I said this,” Wei Wuxian says, hedging, but then it comes out, all in a rush. “I might be a little bored. Up there.”
“If you told Hanguang-jun about it, he would find something for you to do,” Sizhui says, not unkindly.
“Yeah, but he accused me of being bored, and I don’t want him to know that he’s right,” Wei Wuxian explains. “I mean — about that, specifically. He can know about all the other times.”
“I see,” says Sizhui. He doesn’t sound like he sees at all.
“It’s just — he would try to find something for me to do,” says Wei Wuxian. He thumbs at his jade token, the smooth edge of it. “And I think — I came back with him, didn’t I? I shouldn’t be complaining. He has so much to do already, with the meetings and all. It would just be more work for him.”
“Wei-qianbei,” Sizhui says, “Hanguang-jun wants you to be happy.”
Wei Wuxian makes a noise of agreement in the back of his throat. He does know that. He does! It’s only —
“When you were gone,” Sizhui goes on, and Wei Wuxian freezes a little, “Hanguang-jun was very different. Sad, I think. He didn’t let us see it, and he never talked to me about it. But he’s different again, now that you’re back.” He goes quiet, letting the words settle. “He’s happy,” Sizhui says, at last. “The way he — the way he looks at things is different. Softer, maybe. You did that, Wei-qianbei. Why wouldn’t he want you to be happy, too?”
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says mournfully, sniffling, trying and failing to pass it off as change-of-season allergies. His insides are doing that thing again: his organs too big for his skin, his heart pumping, pumping, pumping, threatening to expand out of his ribcage. An ache there, hot, like a drop of wax on an upturned palm. “You can’t say those things, look at me, you’re making your Xian-gege cry.”
“Oh,” Sizhui says, and he sounds a little panicked now. “Wei-qianbei, I didn’t —”
“You’re always right, too, you know. A true disciple of Hanguang-jun.” Wei Wuxian sniffles again, scrubs his face with the heels of his palms. “Don’t let that go to your head, A-Yuan.”
“Okay.” Sizhui’s face is faintly pink again. He reaches out and pats Wei Wuxian carefully on the arm. “I’m sorry, Wei-qianbei.”
“Enough of that.” Wei Wuxian says thickly, using the sleeve of his robe to clean up his face. Just two days ago he’d made fun of Lan Wangji for carrying a crisp white handkerchief around in his qiankun bag, but who was laughing now? Not Wei Wuxian. Actually — probably not Lan Wangji, either. If Wei Wuxian told him about this, there would be fifty new, customized handkerchiefs waiting in the jingshi within the week. “Let’s change the subject, eh?”
“Mn,” Sizhui says, now audibly relieved. Wei Wuxian exhales, too, but then Sizhui asks, “What would you like to do in the Cloud Recesses?”
“That’s not,” Wei Wuxian starts. Gives up. This kid! He scratches the side of his nose. “Ah, I don’t know. I mean — I’d like to do Lan Zhan, all the time, but he says that’s not practical. More night-hunts, maybe. Or talismans. Could be nice to have a workspace.”
Sizhui doesn’t respond for a moment, having become occupied with an abrupt coughing fit. “Hm,” he manages, once he’s gotten his breath back. He’s really quite red in the face now. “What about teaching, Wei-qianbei?”
“Yeah, sure.” Wei Wuxian shrugs. “I liked teaching in Lotus Pier. I got punished all the time back then — that was when Madam Yu had Zidian, you know — but I was good at it. The disciples liked me.” His chest hurts when he thinks too much about the Lotus Pier from before the war, all sunshine on the lakes and laughter on the training grounds. “Yeah. It was good.”
“Maybe if you ask Lan-xiansheng —”
“No, stop right there, I will not ask Lan Qiren for anything,” Wei Wuxian protests, horrified. “He’s still pretending I don’t exist! If I go to see him, it will break the spell.”
“Then what about sword forms?” Sizhui’s got a little wrinkle in his forehead, like Lan Zhan does when he’s thinking very hard. “You were head disciple in Yunmeng, weren’t you?”
“That was a long time ago, Sizhui-er.”
“Hanguang-jun says you were his equal.”
“Were,” Wei Wuxian repeats, emphasizing it.
“But you have a golden core again, and Suibian.”
“A-Yuan, it’s not that easy.” He wishes it was. He’s spent so much of his life, now, wishing that it was. Suibian still feels too different, almost wrong — something from a different life, a different person entirely. “It’s — it’s training from nothing, all over again. You remember what it was like, right? When you were a kid?”
(He hadn’t been there when Sizhui was growing his golden core. He hadn’t been able to teach him how to hold his sword, or where to put his feet — hadn’t been able to see him moving from wooden swords to real ones, hadn’t seen his first real fight —)
“You could teach theory.” Even in the moonlight, Sizhui looks flushed. He’s not used to arguing with his seniors, Wei Wuxian thinks, even though this hardly qualifies as arguing. “You wouldn’t have to use your sword.”
“Maybe,” Wei Wuxian allows, just to placate him. He reaches out, tugs on Sizhui’s ponytail. “A-Yuan, don’t look so sad. It’s nothing to be upset about.”
Sizhui hesitates. He nods.
They walk along in silence for a few minutes, leaves crunching under their feet.
Neither of them bring it up again, after that.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how it happened, but two weeks later he gets a note inviting him to the training field. He shrugs his shoulders and he takes Suibian and he goes. He isn’t expecting anything in particular, really. He certainly isn’t expecting a dozen eleven-year old Lan disciples, awkward and gangly in their robes, holding practice swords, clustered together like a little group of ducklings. In the center of them, instead of an instructor, is Lan Jingyi.
“Wei-qianbei!” Jingyi shouts, waving his arms wildly, as if Wei Wuxian hasn’t already seen him.
“What is this,” Wei Wuxian says apprehensively.
“You’re training them today,” says Jingyi. He sounds proud about it, like he had something to do with it. Sizhui, Wei Wuxian thinks, with perfect, sudden clarity, as Jingyi turns to the little crowd of kids. “Wei-qianbei used to be head disciple in Yunmeng,” he tells them, and he sounds proud then, too, and — oh, Jingyi’s proud of him, for some reason, and it makes Wei Wuxian feel all sloshy and watery.
“A long time ago,” he says, and forces out a laugh. Claps his hands. “Well, what have they been working on?”
“Disarming,” Jingyi says. He sits on the side of the field, pulling out a bag of peanuts. “They’re kind of awful at it.”
Wei Wuxian looks at the kids. They’re standing very still and upright, proper little Lan postures, but they do look sort of nervous and uncomfortable. One of the boys is holding the hilt of his practice sword several inches too high. Another is holding hers by the blade, which is fine when the sword is just made of wood, but would be a lot less fine if it was the real thing.
“Okay,” he hears himself say. “Let’s line up, all of you. Show me your stances."
He hadn’t planned for this, but — he’s never planned for anything. It’s all right. It might be fun, even. Wei Wuxian hadn’t told Sizhui that he couldn’t tell Jingyi about their night-hunt conversation; he’d only said don’t tell Hanguang-jun, who was the only person Wei Wuxian had thought to worry about. Sizhui had gotten sneaky during his time away! Wei Wuxian is so proud of him.
And it is fun. He slides back into his old shixiong voice as easy as anything, striding up and down the line of Lan disciples with the weight of Suibian pressed against his hip. It’s autumn now; the fallen maple leaves swirl around their feet, red and orange like fire.
“You’re not angling your torso,” he says to one disciple, and takes her practice sword to demonstrate. “Like this, see? Just a little bit, like that.”
“Don’t grip so hard,” he tells another boy, who is clutching the hilt of his sword so anxiously that his knuckles have turned white. “It’s part of your body, not something you’re holding. Like — an extra long arm with a pointy end. That’s what your sword should feel like.”
By the end of it, the kids have relaxed, or relaxed as much as a group of Lan disciples during a lesson can relax. They don’t look like they’re in the middle of an exam anymore, at least. Wei Wuxian divides them into pairs and sets them to sparring, wandering around and watching them go against each other.
“She was open!” he cries, pointing to where one disciple had left her entire right flank unguarded. “That’s when you have to go in and knock her sword away. Are you all friends here?” The kids nod, sort of hesitant. “So you know where each other’s old injuries are,” he says, tapping his chin. “If someone fell out of a tree and has a bad shoulder, or something. It’s good to go for weak spots. My knee is my weak spot,” he says, patting it affectionately. He doesn’t know what had happened to it — something inherited from Mo Xuanyu — but it aches when it rains, and locks up on him sometimes in the cold. “Don’t tell!”
“Wei-qianbei,” one of the disciples says, a little shyly. “Can you show us?”
And so Wei Wuxian ends up in the center of the field, facing Jingyi. They’re both using their real swords, not the practice ones, and Wei Wuxian has just enough time to think, oh, this might be a bad idea, before they’re going, swords flashing, sharp little clanging noises as they meet. Jingyi is quite good. Suibian is getting heavy in Wei Wuxian’s hand, and he doesn’t know the Lan sword forms very well; the only Lan he’d ever fought against was Lan Wangji, no one else, and Lan Zhan was — well, Lan Zhan. Now Wei Wuxian and Jingyi are darting across the field, backwards and forwards, and Jingyi is meeting all of his his blows — that damn Lan arm strength, and Jingyi must have done so many handstands — and then Wei Wuxian feels it — an opening, he left one, the realization drenching him like a trickle of cold water.
Jingyi’s sword comes down on his knee. It’s not a forceful strike — more like a tap. Wei Wuxian still folds like a fan.
He’s aware, suddenly, that he is on his back, flat on the ground.
“Wei-qianbei!” Jingyi’s face swims into view, backlit by the sun and hard to see. It’s a little blurry, but distinctly horrified. “Are you okay?”
He blinks. The faces of the Lan kids pop into view, too — they’re all gathered around, like Wei Wuxian is a fascinating insect on the ground. Some of the kids are pale; all of them have very wide eyes. They look kind of scared. Oh, they’re cute, Wei Wuxian thinks, dimly. They’re worried about me.
“I’m fine,” he says aloud, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “Well fought, Lan-gongzi.”
Jingyi really must be upset, because he doesn’t even begin to preen. “This disciple apologizes, Wei-qianbei! It was” — his face goes shifty, a little ashamed — “improper of me to go for your knee when I knew it was your weak spot.”
Now Wei Wuxian is horrified, too. He doesn’t think Jingyi has ever said the word improper in his entire life.
“Why are you apologizing?” Wei Wuxian demands. He starts to stand up, gingerly puts weight onto his leg. There’s only a small twinge, barely noticeable. “I said it was my bad knee. You were just listening. That’s smart! I would have done the same thing.”
“With a real fight —”
“No, with anyone,” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully. “Teachers, too.” He claps Jingyi on the shoulder. “Congratulations. You won! Wasn’t that a good demonstration, kids?”
The next day, it rains. There is no training. That’s fine — Wei Wuxian had liked it, of course he had; he’d always liked training the Yunmeng disciples, but he can barely use his own sword now, and it’s no use to anyone to learn from someone like that. It had still been nice of Sizhui to try.
In Gusu, autumn rain is always the same: steady, predictable, the sort of damp that seeps into Wei Wuxian’s bones and makes the edges of fresh paper curl up slightly from the humidity. Lan Wangji is stuck in a meeting with his uncle and a couple of sect leaders. Wei Wuxian is alone in the jingshi. He’s too restless to read, too alert to take a nap. He lights a brazier. He digs through the wardrobe and unearths one of Lan Wangji’s winter cloaks, the warm one with the lined collar. He fiddles with a talisman design for a while. He starts drawing little rabbits in the margins.
He could try drawing Yiling Laozu portraits, he thinks absently. Handsome ones. He wouldn’t need to sell them; he doesn’t need the money. He could give them away, hand them off to merchants in Caiyi. Get the correct face out there.
The face, when it takes shape, is not his face. It’s Lan Zhan’s.
Wei Wuxian shrugs to himself. It’s a nice face, he reasons. No point in not drawing it. And so he does — the same face, ten different ways. Lan Zhan reading, Lan Zhan sleeping, Lan Zhan pouring wine. Lan Zhan with a flower in his hair.
The last time Wei Wuxian had given Lan Wangji a portrait like this, it had been ripped up. Pathetic, fifteen-year old Lan Wangji had said, with all of the dignity he could muster. Adult Lan Wangji wouldn’t do that. He’d probably call it beautiful and press it carefully beneath a heavy book and keep it forever, and it would make Wei Wuxian’s insides feel like clouds shot through with sunlight.
But then —
He’d given fifteen-year old Lan Wangji one of Nie Huaisang’s old spring books, too.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t have any spring books now. Or — he thinks Lan Wangji might have spring books, which means that Wei Wuxian has them, too, by virtue of married people sharing possessions, but he hasn’t figured out where they’re hiding. Not with the contraband alcohol: he’s checked. There might be another loose floorboard around here somewhere, concealing more secret things. He should look into that.
He can draw his own, in the meantime. And a personal spring book would be better, wouldn’t it? Lan Wangji has said, in that horribly sincere way of his, that he’s not interested in anyone else. Wouldn’t regular porn be boring for him, filled with all of those people who aren’t Wei Wuxian? Lan Wangji deserves nice things. Exciting things.
Things like —
Wei Wuxian, hands bound behind his back, ribbons snaking up his thighs like vines. Wei Wuxian on his knees, legs splayed apart, looking back over his shoulder coquettishly, one hand tracing his rim. Wei Wuxian, spread-eagled across the bed, dark bruises littering his neck and his inner thighs. Wei Wuxian taking a cock into his mouth, sucking it, eyelashes dark against his cheeks.
He puts the drawings neatly into the book Lan Wangji has been reading, one paper for every five pages.
A rainy day, a lonely day. Not a bad day, at least.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian moans. He’s sprawled on his back on the jingshi floor, staring up at the rafters; Lan Wangji’s face, when it peers over at him, is upside-down. “Lan Zhan, I give up.”
“Give up?” The upside-down eyebrows knit together.
“I’ve tried everything,” Wei Wuxian says. He rolls over, onto his stomach. “I don’t have any more ideas. Do you hear that, Lan Zhan? I don’t have any more ideas!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, and kneels on the floor, close enough that his robes skim Wei Wuxian’s wrists. “Tell me what has happened.” He’s really worried now — Wei Wuxian can see it in the set of his shoulders. “What is the matter?”
Wei Wuxian squeezes his eyes shut. “I’m bored,” he says, fast, and then pulls at Lan Wangji’s hands. “I should just be a househusband, don’t you think? Your little housewife. I’ll dress in pretty robes and braid my hair and wear rouge and I’ll do whatever you want. I can be wet and ready all the time and you can fuck me all day long. Or I can suck you off, once every hour. More, if you want. Keep you warm while you read your letters.”
Lan Wangji’s fingers tighten their grip. “Would you like to do that,” he says. He’s fucking insatiable — his pupils are already bigger. And Wei Wuxian is supposed to be the shameless one!
“Yes,” he decides. “Obviously. Er-gege, shall we start tomorrow?”
“I think,” Lan Wangji says, sounding as if the words are causing him some difficulty, “such an arrangement would not be sustainable.”
“You underestimate me,” Wei Wuxian pouts. He rests his head in Lan Wangji’s lap, the perfect location to mouth subtly at Lan Wangji’s cock through all six layers of his robes. “Hanguang-jun, my ass is very resilient.”
“I know that,” Lan Wangji says. His cock twitches a little. He puts his thumb on Wei Wuxian’s chin, raising it up. “But you would not be happy.”
“Of course I would be happy!” Wei Wuxian scrambles to his knees, taking Lan Wangji’s face between his hands. Lan Zhan has to know — “Lan Zhan, Lan er-gege, you make me so happy. The happiest person in the world. I could only be happy with you.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes soften. When he kisses Wei Wuxian, it’s soft, too. “My Wei Ying,” he says, and it sends a ripple of pleasure down Wei Wuxian’s spine. “I am happiest with you, too.”
“So,” Wei Wuxian says, triumphantly.
“There is nothing you need to do to prove yourself to me.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him.
“You do not need to earn your presence,” Lan Wangji says, still that soft voice. He turns his head, kisses Wei Wuxian’s palm. “The fact that you are here is enough.”
Wei Wuxian feels, suddenly and inexplicably, as if he might cry. His eyes are stinging, smarting, turning parts of the jingshi blurry. “You said,” he complains, “that you were going to warn me before you said something so romantic.”
“I did not think that was romantic. It was the truth.”
“Ridiculous,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, and Lan Wangji huffs a laugh against his hair. “Lan Zhan, be nice to your poor wife.”
“I am being nice.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji says, and then, so quiet that Wei Wuxian almost misses it, “Lan er-furen.” Wei Wuxian feels his entire body go still, his heart pounding in his ears. “What would you like this husband to do, in recompense?”
“Say it again,” Wei Wuxian breathes.
“Lan er-furen.” A pause. “Laopo.”
Wei Wuxian crashes into him, all hands and tongue and teeth, and Lan Zhan catches him, always catches him.
There are gardens near the back hill of the Cloud Recesses. Winter is approaching and soon it will be too cold to grow anything, but Wei Wuxian had gotten unexpected permission to commandeer one of the empty plots. He’s been out there for a few days now, digging at the dirt to turn it into a little garden patch, sketching a map of what it might look like in the spring. He could grow peppers, and maybe cucumbers or squash. Carrots for the rabbits. Flowers for Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian is tromping through the patch, robes tied up around his waist, pouring water into the empty dirt — just to see what it does, just to see what the soil quality is like — when someone behind him says, “Wei-qianbei?”
He whips around. There are three Lan disciples standing there. They’re young, maybe eight years old. He recognizes one of them, but can’t remember her name. Names are always slipping through his memory like water through a sieve.
“Hello,” he says. Puts down the watering can. His hands are dirty; he rubs them on the sides of his trousers. One of the kids tracks this with barely-disguised horror. “What’s up?”
“Sizhui said you know a lot about talismans,” the first kid says. He holds out a piece of paper. “Could you help us?”
Wei Wuxian gapes for a moment, mouth opening and closing wordlessly, a fish floundering on a riverbank. He points at himself and asks, just to be perfectly clear, “Me?”
The kid nods.
“Are you —” sure, he was going to say, but no, they had known his name; they had known who they were coming to find. He casts around for a different question. “What if Lan-xiansheng sees you?”
“There’s no rule that says we can’t talk to you,” one of the other kids says primly. She thinks about it. “Anymore.”
Wei Wuxian thinks, privately, that Lan Qiren’s personal vendetta is going to outlive all of them, official rules included, but she’s right. Do not associate with Wei Wuxian had been struck from the wall, and the disciples aren’t breaking any precepts by speaking to him. By asking for his help. They’re still staring at him, the three of them, robes stark-white against the brown earth and fallen leaves, holding stacks of paper in their hands.
“Well, then,” he says. “What have you got?”
They’re light talismans. Simple, as far as talismans go, but the disciples are still new to it, still learning how to write them and how to imbue the paper with their spiritual energy. All of the kids have written a few talismans of their own, after copying forms from a textbook, and they show him — this one produces the dimmest flicker, this one flares for a few seconds and then peters out. Lans, even eight-year old Lans, are too well-trained to be outwardly frustrated, but Wei Wuxian can see it in the set of their shoulders.
“Aiyah, it’s all right. It’s only about the strokes, you see — can I borrow your paper?”
The first boy hands over a blank talisman and a stick of cinnabar.
“Like this,” Wei Wuxian says, scribbling on it. “It’s not like regular writing. When you write essays for class, your calligraphy always has to look the same, right? All proper and uniform.” One of the disciples nods, hesitant. “But with talismans, your calligraphy should change based on what you want the talisman to do. Here, see how the strokes are bolder here? That will make the light stronger. And here” — he flips the paper over — “if they’re thinner, the light will be weaker. And here, if you add this — it will be harder to extinguish. Lasts longer.”
“Bolder is better,” the girl says, under her breath, like she’s taking mental notes.
“Not always!” Wei Wuxian takes another blank paper from the stack. “What if you’re on a night-hunt, and you need to hide yourself? A bright light would just give you away. Form is important,” he says, shaking the cinnabar stick at them, “but it’s not always right.” Fuck, he’s going to say it. Might as well. He’s already treading a line by talking to the disciples about this, and Wei Wuxian has never done anything by halves. “You should question it. Try to change it. Sometimes there’s more than one right way to do things.”
“Hanguang-jun says so, too,” the girl nods, and Wei Wuxian feels the corner of his mouth tilt up. “What about the spiritual energy, Wei-qianbei?”
“Well, what do you think?” He rests his chin on his palm, peers up at them. “You’ve studied this before, probably.”
“More spiritual energy for more complex spells,” one of the other kids ventures.
Wei Wuxian hums.
“More spiritual energy for… more powerful spells?”
“Mhmm.” He taps the talisman. “And?”
“A brighter light would be more powerful.”
“But a dim light that lasts for a long time — isn’t that just the same?”
Wei Wuxian grins: he can’t help it. The three kids are standing closer to him now, all apprehension gone; their faces are open and earnest. Eager. One of them is scribbling away at a new talisman.
“Well,” he says. “Let’s see.”
It’s too bright outside to really work with light talismans. Wei Wuxian stands up, tugging off his outer robe — one of the kids gapes at him — and hangs it over a cluster of bushes, making a sort of tent.
“Come under and let’s try them,” he says, ducking through and settling down on the ground. For a moment he only sees three pairs of shoes, unmoving. It’s quiet out there, like the kids are doing that silent conversation thing that all Lans seem to master by the age of ten, but then one of the pairs of shoes steps forward and the other two follow it. It’s a little squished in the makeshift tent; the four of them are pressed together, all knocking knees and elbows.
“Who wants to go first?” Wei Wuxian asks cheerfully. “It’s just practice. We will welcome mistakes.”
A pause. “I’ll do it,” the first boy says at last.
“Great!” Wei Wuxian claps his hands together. “Lan…”
“Lan Chun,” says Lan Chun — Wei Wuxian will remember that; he will — and he sets off his talisman. A light flares up, like a candle, and lasts for several breaths before going out.
“Well done!” Wei Wuxian claps for him, and the two other disciples join in politely. “Excellent light, nice and strong. Good flare. Who wants to go next?”
The kids, emboldened by Lan Chun's success, take turns setting off their talismans. Sparks of light flicker from paper, casting shadows over their faces in the semi-darkness. There’s still some daylight peeking through the cover of the robe. Could be better, Wei Wuxian thinks, and starts to shuffle over to readjust the fabric.
“You can use this,” one of the disciples says, from behind him. It’s the smallest one, the girl with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She’s holding out her own outer robe.
“Ah?” Wei Wuxian is gaping again. He’s distantly aware of his jawbone, hanging open on its hinge.
“This disciple is Lan Jia,” says the girl, helpfully. She shakes the robe a little, and Wei Wuxian sees one of his arms reaching out to take it.
“Ah,” he says again, dumbly. “Thank you.” Lan Jia has already turned around again, rejoining Lan Chun and the other disciple — Wei Wuxian never got his name, he should get his name — and none of them seem to pay attention as Wei Wuxian drapes the new robe over the side of their makeshift tent alongside his own. They’re just talking quietly amongst themselves, pointing at each other’s papers, alternating who gets to activate a talisman next — unaware, entirely, of how Wei Wuxian’s entire world has tilted on its axis. He watches them for a moment, listening to himself breathe, studying their faces: illuminated by flickering lights, lit up with excitement.
His heart does a strange, abrupt thing. A warm thing.
“You want to draw some more outside?” he asks. “We can come back afterwards to try them.”
The disciples nod, scramble out from the tent, scatter across the grass like a flock of white birds. Stacks of blank talismans and sticks of cinnabar are pulled out from robes; the kids’ faces scrunch up in concentration, little wrinkles between their eyebrows as they write. Lan Chun has his tongue between his teeth.
Wei Wuxian laughs to himself, quiet, and goes over to pick up his abandoned watering can — and freezes.
Lan Qiren is standing at the end of the path, staring at him.
Wei Wuxian stares back.
He’s aware, suddenly and viscerally, that his shoes are covered in mud, that there are probably leaves in his hair, that his outer robe is still half-draped over a bush. That Lan Jia’s outer robe is over there, too. That Wei Wuxian is wearing one of Lan Zhan’s inner robes, slightly too large on him, falling open at the collar.
And then Lan Qiren turns on his heel, and he leaves.
Wei Wuxian keeps standing there, gaping at the now-empty path, until —
“Wei-laoshi,” Lan Chun says, and Wei Wuxian’s heart knocks against his ribcage. “Is this right?”
“Well,” he says. Bites his lip, to keep himself from smiling. “Let’s see.”
It’s only after dinner — after Wei Wuxian has finished his first jar of wine, after he’s recounted the entire story of the disciples and their light talismans, after he’s climbed onto his husband’s lap and straddled his thighs — that Lan Wangji says, against the shell of Wei Wuxian’s ear, “Would you like to take the juniors on a night-hunt?”
“Hah?” Wei Wuixan blinks. Lifts his head up from where he had been mouthing lazily at Lan Wangji’s jugular. “You mean — a real night-hunt?”
“As” — he can barely get the word out — “their teacher?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji answers, entirely calm, like this concept would not have every Lan elder pounding down the jingshi door.
“I’d like to,” Wei Wuxian admits. It sounds a little more plaintive than he’d meant it to. “Yeah, I — I would. But your uncle would kill me.”
“Killing is prohibited within the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji says mildly. He cards a hand through Wei Wuxian’s hair. “It was Shufu’s idea,” he adds, and Wei Wuxian almost falls out of his lap.
“Yes.” Oh, Lan Zhan is happy. His eyes are so soft. “There is a place for you if you would like it.”
“I’d like it,” Wei Wuxian breathes. His eyes are prickling, hot and wet; he sniffles. “Lan Zhan, is this a joke?”
“Shufu does not joke,” says Lan Wangji. He runs his thumb along Wei Wuxian’s cheek, catching one of the tears. “Any disciple would be fortunate to learn from you. He knows this.”
“I don’t think he knows that,” Wei Wuxian laughs, a little watery, but he thinks about how Lan Qiren had looked at him that afternoon, even when Wei Wuxian was muddy and loud and illicitly instructing children on how to write talismans, and — “Hanguang-jun, why am I crying? You have to kiss me. Kiss all my tears away.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, dutifully, and he leans forward, kisses Wei Wuxian’s mouth and his chin and his forehead and even his eyelids, even the places where his eyelashes are clumped together, and he pats Wei Wuxian’s back while Wei Wuxian buries his face in Lan Wangji’s collars and pretends like he’s not still crying. It’s just a night-hunt, he thinks, but then he remembers the way the little Lans’ faces had lit up when they finally understood the talismans, and Wei Wuxian had done that, he had put that understanding there, and they’d called him Wei-laoshi, and he gets to have this, now. It feels unfair that he gets to have this.
“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles, pulling away. His face must look awful, all red and blotchy and swollen, but Lan Wangji is still watching him with that soft expression. “Would you still love me if I looked like this all the time?”
“Yes,” says Lan Wangji, sounding a little affronted that this is a question Wei Wuxian feels is necessary to ask.
“What if I blew my nose on your sleeves?”
“Robes can be washed.”
“What if I sounded congested every time I talked? All snotty and nasally.”
“Still Wei Ying’s voice.”
“You — stop that,” Wei Wuxian wails, pressing three of his fingers against Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Don’t be so — so earnest about it!” Lan Wangji blinks at him, innocent. “I didn’t get a warning. That’s not fair play.”
Lan Wangji bites at his hand.
Wei Wuxian shrieks, pulls it away — but Lan Wangji is faster, and he traps Wei Wuxian between the floor and his own chest. His hair falls around them like a curtain, blocking out the rest of the world: and then there is only warmth, ten different kinds of it, and laughter, and home.