Once, there was a young man as beautiful as the sun.
Cangse Sanren’s son races through the courtyards, through the halls, through the pathways lined with Lan disciples that he barely manages to spin, and twist, around in his expert and infuriating attempts to dodge them. He comes to a skidding halt in front of Lan Qiren, chest heaving, eyes bright, but the momentum of his sprint does not stop him in time—rather than ramming straight into the Grand Master himself, Wei Wuxian pivots and lands face first into Lan Wangji’s chest, where he stands beside his uncle.
Lan Qiren resists the rare urge to raise his eyes upwards to the sky—it isn’t an urge he has often these days, having grown too used to the droning of the Sect Elders older than him, even if lower in status, and having never had the urge to do so even when his nephews had been young enough to carry.
On his other side, his oldest nephew is smiling pleasantly, amused and patient. His younger nephew is seething, but the sight is strange. Lan Wangji never angers so easily, normally. It makes something odd and uncomfortable (familiar) prickle at the back of Lan Qiren’s neck, as he rattles off a standard punishment for Wei Wuxian, striding past him to ignore the boy’s outraged whines even as Jiang Fengmian’s son quickly comes to his own skidding halt shortly afterwards to shove Wei Wuxian’s head down in an apologetic bow.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen remarks, quietly, as the three of them walk onwards. “Was Young Master Wei coming to see you?”
“To bother me,” Lan Wangji corrects, a bristle of clear vexation beneath his own quiet tone.
Lan Xichen merely continues to smile, as Lan Qiren tries not to look at his youngest nephew—not that in that moment.
“Er-gongzi?” a young man, as beautiful as the sun, asked, once upon a time, flopping himself onto Lan Qiren’s lap, hand reaching up to push the book down away from the boy’s face. “Would Lan-er-gongzi spare this wretched one his attentions for once?”
Lan Qiren pulled the book back to his face, ignoring the warm weight over his thighs. He’d meditated through far more distracting situations than this—he could meditate for half a day, standing on his hands, sweat dripping down into his eyes, without breaking composure.
The same hand that had pulled his book down stretched up now to press two fingers against the skin of Lan Qiren’s cheek, pinching hard enough that Lan Qiren couldn’t stop the crease forming between his brows. “Does Lan-er-gongzi know how many willing maidens this one could have, right now, while he begs for er-gongzi’s attentions?”
“By all means,” Lan Qiren said, without looking away from his book, even if his eyes were no longer absorbing the words, as hard as he was forcing his concentration upon them, “Wen-gongzi should find those willing maidens. This disciple will not stop him.”
The fingers at his cheek turned into a hand cupping his face, angling his eyes to meet lustrous, dark, ones. “Qiren will not stop me, but he will miss me, if I do,” the young man said, with a smile as enchanting as the setting sun, as thrilling as the rare sight of a shooting star.
Lan Qiren did not remember a single word further of the book, but he pretended to read on anyway, allowing the sun to rest in his lap for moments longer, sleeping through the Nightless City’s long afternoons. “Shameless,” he murmured, placing his book aside, and stroking through the thick, inky, strands, only when he was certain the man’s breathing had long since evened out.
“Wangji-xiong, come on!” Wei Wuxian’s voice rings resonant and bright through the otherwise quiet, placid, halls of Cloud Recesses.
Lan Qiren is on his way to yet another conference with his older nephew, and a handful of the high-ranked disciples of their clan, to discuss the remainder of the guest lecture semester. He walks towards the assigned building just in time to catch Wei Wuxian, clinging to the branches of a tree that is most definitely not for climbing, in a courtyard that is most definitely not for any sort of tomfoolery, at a time when all the guest disciples are most definitely supposed to be studying.
His younger nephew stands beneath the tree, expression utterly unimpressed and unamused, saying in his flattest tone, “Trees in the courtyards are not to be climbed upon, cut down, or otherwise interfered with.”
Wei Wuxian blinks down at him, unaffected. “Climbing them doesn’t hurt them,” he says. “I’d never climb any of the skinny ones that are still growing.”
“Wei Ying, come down.”
Lan Qiren feels his steps stiffen.
“All right,” Wei Wuxian grouses, jumping down agilely albeit reluctantly. “Ji-xiong never wants to play with me,” he teases, bumping his shoulder against Lan Wangji as he passes to, Lan Qiren assumes, finally join the afternoon meditation.
Lan Wangji stands there for what feels like an indeterminately long amount of time. He stands there as long as Lan Qiren does, and Lan Qiren himself is only jolted back into movement upon realizing that his nephew has now seen him and is fast approaching him. He bows, a confused frown on his face as he regards Lan Qiren. “Is Uncle not to meet with Brother now?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren says, perhaps too quickly. Lan Wangji seems to be waiting for him to speak further, the look on Lan Qiren’s face right now possibly appearing as such, but he has nothing more to say. There is nothing more he can say, right now. He turns away from his nephew and walks away too fast, too abruptly.
“Come down,” Lan Qiren said, pursing his lips.
Wen Ruohan swung his long legs, continuing to balance himself easily on the branch, using it as if it was the most comfortable seat there was in the world. It had already grown dark several hours ago—it was most likely near hai shi, with how Lan Qiren could feel the weariness beginning to seep into his very bones. The hunt had long since ended, with Wen Ruohan predictably taking the largest of the kills, and yet sending it off with the others of his sect to be taken back as a trophy.
“Er-gongzi should come up,” the older man said. “One day this wretched one will become Sect Leader and His Excellency—will er-gongzi still demand his obedience?”
Lan Qiren felt his ears flushing warm. He was grateful that it would be far too dark for the man to see. He took a step back and settled his expression. “His Excellency may remain there, then,” he said, making to leave. “This disciple will return first.”
He didn’t know what it said about him, now—about them—that he wasn’t surprised when his path was blocked by Wen Ruohan landing in front of him, the soles of his boots landing onto the leafy underfoot as silently and lightly as a skilled, hunting, beast. “Even when this wretched one stands on the highest point, as high as the sun,” he said, eyes luminescent in the darkness, “of course, he will still only obey Qiren.”
The color of Wen Ruohan’s eyes had always been a dark, dark brown—rich, and earthy, as endless as the night that supposedly never overcame the city in which he had been born. Lan Qiren could never quite parse out why such dark eyes always appeared to glow and glimmer whenever their gazes met. “This disciple does not ask for obedience,” he found himself replying with in measured tones, “only—only faith.”
Being so close to Wen Ruohan’s spiritual energy, the core of him thrumming with power up against Lan Qiren’s chest, as the older man’s arm slipped around his waist and pulled them flush against each other—Lan Qiren imagined this is what it might feel like to press oneself against the sun—burning, scalding, scorching, and knowing that one’s own destruction quickly approached.
Wen Ruohan hummed. “Qiren will have it.”
The first morning after Wei Wuxian has left Cloud Recesses is starkly silent.
As noisy and bothersome as the boy was, it still wasn’t as if he’d spent every second of his time screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow him. The ruckus was always in bits and pieces, and yet, there is something utterly strange about the first morning after his departure. Lan Qiren does not make any note of it aloud, however, as it would benefit absolutely no one. If he is gone, he is gone—and now his nephew could be left alone.
“Do you already miss Young Master Wei, Wangji?” his other nephew asks, while the three of them take their morning tea together. Lan Qiren restrains the urge to glare at Lan Xichen—his older nephew has done nothing wrong. He is just—utterly impervious, even if he believes he means well for his younger brother.
Lan Wangji takes a sip of his tea and merely fixes his brother with a look. He says nothing at all, but Lan Qiren knows in the same way that Lan Xichen also seems to know. The latter smiles only wider. Lan Qiren does not. Instead, his chest tightens and he cannot help from slipping one more glance at his younger nephew, at the minute shift in his expression at the mention of Cangse Sanren’s son.
Lan Qiren drinks his own tea, and finds himself realizing it might be fruitless to hope that they would never see each other again.
“Do you miss him?” his brother asked, the first morning that they took tea together after Lan Qiren had returned. His brother’s golden eyes were bright, amused, curious as they regarded Lan Qiren. The tea steamed fragrantly between them, and as much splendor and grandeur as Nightless City had been, no matter how hard Wen Ruohan had searched, there hadn’t been a tea that could satisfy Lan Qiren in the same way by that which could be found at Cloud Recesses.
Lan Qiren inhaled the scent before he allowed himself his first, deep, sip. He gazed into the contents of his cup, the crushed petals sunk to the bottom. The color of the tea was just shades lighter than the color of Wen Ruohan’s eyes—before his pupils had swallowed up the brown as he’d moved over Lan Qiren in the candlelight, Lan Qiren’s name on his lips, the energy of their cores fusing and trading power in that one, breathtaking, moment.
“No,” he said, because there was no point in missing what one would never again have—Wen Ruohan’s betrothal was announced the day that Lan Qiren had left Qishan.
“I do not want you to repeat your father’s tragedy,” Lan Qiren says, and it feels like a lie. He doesn’t lie. He never lies. It is against the Sect Rules to lie. It is not a lie, but it feels like one, and for once, he is glad that his nephew is looking at the floor and not at him. He thinks, perhaps, it would be a blessing and not a curse if his nephew were to repeat his father’s tragedy. At least, there would be love, somewhere, there. At least, his only heartbreak would be of circumstance—of having failed to protect the one that he loved, the one that had captured his soul and had refused to let it go.
Better his father’s tragedy.
Yet, when the time comes, and Lan Qiren knows it will, there will be nothing for him to do for his nephew, but watch. He’ll watch, as he is destroyed in the same way, and then, Lan Qiren will pick up the pieces and Lan Wangji will have to do his own best to put them back together. He will never be the same again, but there is nothing else for Lan Qiren to do.
There was blood everywhere.
There were bodies everywhere, as well—bodies of all the Wen cultivators who had still yet remained loyal to the late Sect Leader.
Somehow, Wen Ruohan was the most covered in blood, even though, Lan Qiren knew, none of it was his own. The scarlet hem of his sect robes was almost indistinguishable now that the rest of the garment was just as soaked in red. His eyes glowed a matching crimson, and something in Lan Qiren knew, instinctively, this was not proper cultivation. Something was wrong, so wrong.
Wen Ruohan was seated upon the throne of the main hall of his sect, Sect Leader robes hanging onto his shoulders, drenched in human viscera and filth—it was on his face, on his sword, in his hair.
Lan Qiren made his way, slowly, stepping over the corpses—and he could not help but notice that all of them had died gruesomely, body parts missing, skin flayed, some without faces. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword tightly, his entire body shaking no matter how hard he tried to still it.
“Little er-gongzi,” Wen Ruohan spoke so softly, and yet Lan Qiren could still hear his voice reverberate all the way across the vast hall. “I can smell little er-gongzi’s fear—why? Er-gongzi is scared of me now?”
Lan Qiren reached him, stood at the bottom of the steps that led up to the ostentatious throne—the insignia of the sun strewn around it and behind it, that too, was splattered with blood. He didn’t know what to say, not even as a blood-stained hand reached out towards him and grasped his wrist, pulling him in between Wen Ruohan’s legs.
You have a wife.
You have sons.
Where is your father?
What did you do to your father—to your kinsman?
All of the questions that Lan Qiren thought should be said first, foremost, if he was brave—if he was upright and virtuous as his Sect Rules dictated him to be—died on his lips. Instead, a lie that he didn’t even himself understand fell from his mouth.
“Never,” he whispered, “Your Excellency.”
There were bloodstains all over Lan Qiren’s robes, stark crimson against the white, as Wen Ruohan’s hands roamed, settling for Lan Qiren’s hips, before he seemed to decide then, instead, one of his hands belonged wrapped around Lan Qiren’s throat. Lan Qiren’s breath stuttered as the fingers squeezed, just enough pressure to be uncomfortable, to have his heart racing even further from the adrenaline of fear and—and something that he refused to name because it should not have remained, not through all this.
“Didn’t this wretched one already say?” Wen Ruohan inquired blithely, dragging Lan Qiren ever closer with the hand around his neck, bringing him down to face-level, forcing him down to straddle one of Wen Ruohan’s thighs. “Even when I stand higher than the sun, Qiren has my faith. Do I have Qiren’s?”
Lan Qiren closed his eyes as a mouth closed over his own, biting harshly until teeth drew blood from Lan Qiren’s own lips. Wen Ruohan did not wait for a spoken answer, so Lan Qiren never gave him one. He simply let the man take, and take, the sun consuming Lan Qiren’s body like a sacrifice to the gods.
“Wangji,” Lan Qiren cannot stop himself from begging. He cannot order anymore—even if the Elders behind himself can, all he and his older nephew can do is beg where they stand. He thinks perhaps that he sounds angry, to anyone else, but in his own ears, he is begging.
Lan Wangji does not seem to be able to hear. His sword is pointed straight at all of them, his other arm clutching Wei Wuxian’s unconscious, bloodied body, to his chest. Lan Qiren’s youngest nephew himself, the boy he raised as his own—the boy he saw too much of himself in as he grew, quieter, rarer with his smiles than his older brother—he saw that boy, now, white robes stained with blood, spiritual energy draining with every passing second, and prepared to fight to the death against his own clansmen.
Suddenly, Lan Wangji looks down, at Wei Wuxian’s face, and Lan Qiren, from this distance, is barely able to make out the flutter of the other boy’s eyes—the parting of his mouth. Lan Wangji’s expression is as if he has just been stabbed in the chest by Wei Wuxian himself. Lan Qiren wonders if a sliver of good within the Yiling Patriarch has shone through, and he has told Lan Wangji to leave him—to return—to live and forget about all of this madness.
Lan Wangji lifts Wei Wuxian’s body slightly and props it up, far behind a curving of the boulders behind them. He stands then, and while the rest of the Elders and Lan Xichen seem to begin deflating with relief, Lan Qiren does not. His entire body locks in as if paralyzed, because he knows the look in his nephew’s eyes—he recognizes it, and it is not because Lan Wangji is his nephew and he has known him for his entire lifetime.
He sees the expression in Lan Wangji’s eyes and looks into a mirror of decades past.
That is all the warning any of them get before Lan Wangji, against what should be physically possible for anyone cultivator’s limits at this point, allows his spiritual energy to positively explode around him—so thick with outrage and anger that even Lan Xichen is pushed steps backwards, arms shielding his face, and—
Lan Wangji charges at them.
The day the sun is finally shot out of the sky, Lan Qiren is kneeling by his brother’s grave, the ashes of Cloud Recesses still around him, waiting to be rebuilt once their new Sect Leader returns from war.
Any young disciples who had been able-bodied enough in their cultivation to fight had already been sent off. Only the Elders remained—and even then, several went with the youths of their sect to aid in the war efforts.
“Xiongzhang always said Wangji was like me,” he says, quiet, unused to speaking, after so long, as if he still had someone to depend on in this world. “He always said it was a good thing, then. It meant Wangji would always make the right decisions. It meant Wangji would never end up like xiongzhang.”
The engravings on the stone, the burning incense, all seem like an accusation—letting him know that he wasn’t enough, and he wouldn’t be enough, to keep his own brother’s last wish and protect both of his sons. To raise them so that they wouldn’t make mistakes and find themselves in irreversible, unforgettable, heart-breaking pain.
“Xiongzhang always sees better in others than himself—he forgets my mistakes were even greater than his own.”
It comes in with all of the other reports.
The greatest, most important and significant, casualty of them all, but still, at the end, another casualty on the enemy’s side.
Lan Qiren does not mourn.
It would be ridiculous to mourn—after so, so, many decades. After both of them had become thoroughly different people—after Lan Qiren’s heart had closed so tightly that even if he wanted to, he didn’t think he would ever be able to open it again.
No, it would be ridiculous to mourn.
“What is the fifty-second Sect Rule?” his grandfather’s voice boomed throughout the silent courtyard.
Lan Qiren’s wrists had already been bound to the whipping posts. A disciple stood in front of him, a bundle of firm cotton held in front of his mouth. He looked on straight ahead, and did not meet his brother’s eyes—he didn’t want to know what expression they held, whether it was disappointment or an ache to protect, even now. He didn’t want to know.
“Do not associate with evil,” he recited, voice steady, and then opened his mouth for the cloth.
He closed his eyes, and his punishment began.
“I will do it,” his oldest nephew says—so, so, quietly, as they both stand just before the doorway that led out into the courtyard. “If Uncle cannot, I will do it.”
From here, Lan Qiren already is able to see Lan Wangji kneeling, surrounded by disciples, hands curled into fists at his side, not an ounce of regret in his tired eyes. The discipline whip is held coiled by the current Head Disciple, as he stands behind Lan Qiren’s nephew.
“When a student listens and studies to the best of his sincere abilities all that his teacher has to teach him,” Lan Qiren says, steeling himself, “and still misbehaves, and disobeys, it is the teacher’s fault as much as it is the student’s.”
“Uncle,” Lan Xichen whispers.
Lan Qiren shakes his head, and steps outside.
“Little er-gongzi,” Lan Qiren’s sun said, low and melodic, gleaming brilliantly even in the darkness of the Sect Heir’s elaborate chambers. His face was pressed into Lan Qiren’s hair, as they slept in the bed, Lan Qiren’s back pressed up against Wen Ruohan’s front. The older man had an arm looped over Lan Qiren’s waist, hand pressed down over Lan Qiren’s stomach. “I’ll be betrothed after you leave.”
The shattering of Lan Qiren’s heart was manageable—he knew this, he expected this, and he told himself that it would’ve been absurd to think anything otherwise. The Wen Sect needed heirs—Lan Qiren could not give him that.
“Good,” Lan Qiren said, as a mouth kissed against the back of his neck. “Wen-gongzi should settle down, soon. He’s getting old.”
He felt hard, throbbing, heat roll against him—fingertips probing for a moment before they deemed him still loose and slick enough to roll back into him in one, smooth thrust. Lan Qiren choked, breath catching in his throat. His hands scrabbled at the sheets in front of him at the lack of warning. “Not so old,” Wen Ruohan murmured. “Still able to keep up with young, little, er-gongzi.”
“What are you doing?” Lan Qiren asked, gasping. He was still stretched, but the friction, the penetration, was no longer pleasurable. He was still soft, between his own legs, no jolt of arousal pricking through him at this. He was tired, and he was aching—both his body and his heart. “I want to sleep.”
“But I don’t,” Wen Ruohan’s dark rumble was almost cruelly playful. “I’m going to miss er-gongzi so much. Er-gongzi, Lan-er-gongzi, if I try hard enough, do you think you could bear me a little Wen-gongzi?” He pressed down harder on Lan Qiren’s stomach with his hand, hard enough that, with what was currently invading him, stretching his insides, Lan Qiren lurched forward on the bed, nauseous and hurting.
“Ruohan, stop,” he whispered.
The only response he received was to be flipped onto his stomach, pushed into the mattress until he had to turn his head in order to gasp at the air. Wen Ruohan’s warmth left him, remaining only intrusively inside him, as he felt the older man rise up onto his knees and thrust at a pace that seemed to have no other purpose than to punish Lan Qiren.
After an eternity, when Wen Ruohan still showed no signs of relenting, Lan Qiren turned his face into the blankets beneath him and let his tears flow freely.
He tells himself that it is because he could no longer consider himself human if he were to turn away a baby.
The boy can already speak and walk, but he is still, very much, that. He is barely yet a child, steps still unsteady as he toddles behind whichever junior disciple is in charge of him for the day, or for the week.
He does not think about how the Jin Sect had already thrown their own humanity to the dogs, countless innocent children killed, and Lan Qiren hadn’t said anything when it had happened. He doesn’t think about why he allows this one to live, the last of his sect, unknowing. He and Lan Xichen both have decided to pretend as if neither of them know, and it’s better that way—he isn’t sure how much Lan Xichen himself has guessed, but Lan Qiren knows, but this entire unspoken facade allows him to pretend as if he doesn’t.
The boy is quiet, shy, uncertain and lost, with no memories. When the junior disciple crosses paths with Lan Qiren, the boy does as well. When the junior disciple bows, and looks pointedly down at the boy, the child also bows.
When the boy looks up, as young as he is, those dark brown eyes—as warm as earth—unmistakably characteristic of the bloodline of the sun—Lan Qiren does not think about why he has allowed this boy to live and grow in Cloud Recesses.
It was foolish.
It was so, so, foolish.
“Er-gongzi will invite me to his wedding, won’t he?” Wen Ruohan teased, flicking water playfully into Lan Qiren’s eyes as they bathed together. “When he gets married to a beautiful Lan maiden—he must invite me, of course.”
Lan Qiren remained silent.
He remained silent as they finished washing each other, only frowning slightly whenever Wen Ruohan attempted to reach out and slip a hand around something he shouldn’t—fingers probing where Lan Qiren was still sore and swollen.
Once they were both dry and dressed for sleep, Wen Ruohan climbed straight into bed, covers parted and awaiting Lan Qiren to join him. Lan Qiren swallowed, and, before he could think it over another—hundredth, thousandth—time, picked up his forehead ribbon from where it lay on Wen Ruohan’s vanity and came to bed.
His sun looked at him with surprise and curiosity. Lan Qiren slid close, cheeks hot and ears hotter, as he straddled Wen Ruohan’s lap, and took one of the older man’s wrists in hand, ribbon in his other. Slowly, tentatively, he wound the silk around and around and around, knotting it over Wen Ruohan’s pulse.
It was foolish.
“Ah,” his sun breathed out, a smile that was sad yanking at his lips, reaching his dark, bottomless, eyes. “Qiren, a man can’t live like that.”
Lan Qiren drew back, gazing almost dazedly at the way the white silk looked on Wen Ruohan’s wiry, thick, wrist. He wished for more nights—countless nights—when he could bind his ribbon around the man’s throat, his fingers, his hands, his ankle. He wished for nights when Wen Ruohan would untie Lan Qiren’s ribbon for him before they slept, and bind it around his forehead in the morning. “I can,” he said. “I will.”
Somehow, Lan Wangji is not Lan Qiren.
He gathers himself, and gathers his pieces, and when he has put them back together as closely as he can, he is still not quite Lan Qiren. There is still, somehow, joy in his eyes as he raises the little boy he’d brought back with him. There is sadness, but the light in his eyes remains, even as he walks slowly, whenever the scars on his back ache in the cold weather (Lan Qiren knows—his own scars, after decades, still do the same during the winter).
He takes on lectures, but he still ventures out to lead the junior disciples—hope that never dies in his eyes, a penchant for adventure that remains long after he has left boyhood. Lan Qiren knows of the loose floorboard in the jingshi. He knows what remains beneath it as well, what comes back with Lan Wangji in his qiankun pouch every time he returns from Caiyi.
Lan Wangji does not close his heart off, even as he Inquires until his fingers bleed, night after night, the song drifting over to where Lan Qiren attempts to sleep through dreams he wishes he’d forgotten a lifetime ago.
Lan Wangji mourns, but he lives as well, and Lan Qiren considers that perhaps both he and his brother were mistaken.
Lan Wangji is not his father, nor, is he his uncle.
Somehow, despite their combined mistakes, or perhaps in spite of them, Lan Wangji has grown into a stronger, better, man, than either of them could have ever hoped to be.
This new body that Wei Wuxian had been resurrected in is not nearly as athletic or agile as his original one. He barely manages to stop from crashing directly into Lan Qiren as he springs through Cloud Recesses, as if nothing has changed at all in twenty years, other than his own appearance and the relationship he now holds officially to Lan Qiren’s youngest nephew.
Wei Wuxian’s arms are laden with medical supplies, and he nearly drops all of them upon the contact, reeling hard and nearly falling backwards trying to dodge Lan Qiren’s unmoving stature.
“Grand Master!” the Yiling Patriarch exclaims, happily, apologetically. He bows—or what Lan Qiren assumes is an attempt at bowing, were it not for everything in the man’s arms. “Sorry—sorry, I know, ten years of handstands copying rules two-to-four thousand—”
Lan Qiren’s head pulses, automatically, as if by reflex. “Why is Master Wei attempting to bring our entire infirmary out of the infirmary?”
Wei Wuxian blinks, and then looks down into his arms, as if just remembering that there’s something being balanced in them, even though the thin arms of Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate son are near bursting with supplies. “Oh! Lan Zhan got a really nasty gash from those Red-Tailed Bats,” Wei Wuxian says sprightly. “I didn’t even know they could get so big—the bats. He’s being stubborn about coming to the infirmary, so I’m bringing it to him!”
“Wangji knows his limits,” Lan Qiren said dryly. “If he does not see it fit, his judgment is sound. Medical supplies are to remain in their proper place.”
The Yiling Patriarch does not miss a beat. He places one hand on the top of his pile, securing it, and then pitches forward into a lower bow than the first one. “Begging Grand Master’s forgiveness!” he says, still somehow bright. “I’ll be back to be punished once Lan Zhan is fixed up.” He straightens up and, as much as he can with his arms so full, raises three gathered fingers to the sky. “I promise!” he says firmly, and races around past Lan Qiren before his head can pulse another time at the volume of Wei Wuxian’s chatter.
Lan Qiren sweeps himself off then, to the meeting that awaits him, and tells himself that it’s only because he already has too many things to oversee that he would possibly forget to assign Wei Wuxian his due punishment.
He was injured, during the hunt, and even though the Wen Healers had done an admirable job at sealing the wound over his ribs with spiritual energy—although they had bound him up tightly with bandages around his torso—Wen Ruohan had still, that following night, pinned him down onto his bed and took him until he bled out all over the sheets. Lan Qiren’s own cultivation had healed himself quickly enough that the injury was not completely reopened, but it was still undone enough that there were red spots all over Wen Ruohan’s blankets at the end of the night.
“Er-gongzi took that blow for me, didn’t he?” Wen Ruohan rocked into him, a hand drifting over Lan Qiren’s spine, fingers lightly catching at the knots of the wrappings as they came down. “He was trying to protect me, wasn’t he?”
The blood loss and exhaustion was making Lan Qiren light-headed, his tongue too heavy in his mouth to respond. He was too tired to do anything but lie there, on his stomach, hips positioned upwards for Wen Ruohan to push into again and again and again.
“This wretched one was worried,” his sun said, hushed and gentle tones, his thrusts slowing down. “Er-gongzi’s cultivation is strong, but not as powerful as this wretched one’s.”
Did he think Lan Qiren wasn’t aware of that himself?
Did he think Lan Qiren didn’t know, logically, that a blow like that would have been nothing more than a cut to Wen Ruohan, even if it had rendered Lan Qiren completely incapacitated?
Lan Qiren’s body had moved on instinct.
“Er-gongzi isn’t allowed to injure himself or die without my permission,” Wen Ruohan stated simply, fingers burying themselves in Lan Qiren’s hair, pressing his face deeper into the mattress. “He should remember.”
His sun had burned him so many times by this point, he felt as though all he could do now was agree.
Lan Qiren doesn’t remember, ever, not one single time, when he had seen Wei Wuxian silent and straight-backed in his seat for more than a scant, handful of minutes—if even that.
The Lan banquet lasts for hours.
The atmosphere is so silent and undisturbed, Lan Qiren finds himself intermittently glancing back over to see if Wei Wuxian has somehow managed to sneak out. It wouldn’t be the first time—at least, it wouldn’t be the first time overall. It would possibly be the first time, but surely not the last, since Wei Wuxian had come to live in Cloud Recesses permanently.
Wei Wuxian is still there, however, even hours later, when Lan Qiren permits himself another surprised glance. He is still seated, perfect posture, even if his eyes now look thoroughly tired, picking at his food as subtly as he can without looking like he finds it absolutely tasteless.
The last time Lan Qiren looks over before he is to stand and call an end to the meal, Wei Wuxian is determinedly shaking his head at Lan Wangji. Lan Qiren’s nephew has one hand discretely on Wei Wuxian’s bowl, clearly attempting to pull it in front of himself, but Wei Wuxian shakes his head another time and continues eating, eyes firm.
Wei Wuxian does not see it, having already looked away, but Lan Qiren does—
The soft look, unbearably warm, that Lan Wangji turns upon him.
His sun laughed at him.
“There are three-thousand rules, aren’t there?” Wen Ruohan said, incredulous, laughing once more as if he couldn’t possibly believe that Lan Qiren was asking him in earnest. They were seated together on either side of Wen Ruohan’s writing desk. Lan Qiren was finishing up the last of his assignments for one of the lectures. “I’ve heard none of you speak while eating. I know little er-gongzi doesn’t drink, and neither do any of his clansmen.”
Lan Qiren quietly looked back down at the stack of papers in his hands, meticulously written and ready to be turned in. “Yes,” he admitted, frowning, “but—”
“No, no,” Wen Ruohan sounded as if he was only seconds away from breaking into another peal of laughter if so provoked. “No—it would be better for er-gongzi to remain here instead.” He stretched an arm across the table and cupped Lan Qiren roughly under the chin, dragging him closer by his face until Lan Qiren had to slam his palms down on the table to prevent from falling over. “Er-gongzi knows I hate being told what to do.”
Lan Qiren celebrates his birthdays in the same manner as all Lan Sect Elders do—a slightly longer, more formal, dinner with the high-ranked disciples, his direct family members, and any students he had become more familiar with as compared to others. At this point, birthdays for him were nothing but another marker—the same as yearly festivals and the passing of seasons—simply another day to let him know that time continues to pass.
He hasn’t received gifts for possibly decades now, not counting the early years of his nephews’ lives when they’d brought him small trinkets and tokens as all children did to the adults in their lives.
He is thus, rather surprised, when his younger nephew comes to him, after the dinner, with a small, lacquered wooden box, an even smaller scroll tied to its lid.
“Wangji,” he frowns.
His nephew shakes his head. “It is from Wei Ying,” he says, and Lan Qiren forgets himself for a split second, his eyebrows raising. His nephew’s husband was not present at the dinner tonight, and Lan Qiren did not ask for a reason. Wei Wuxian is shameless, but not unobservant, he must have concluded that some peace and quiet is due Lan Qiren at least on his birthday.
“You did not tell him that gifts are not customary for Elders?” he asks.
Lan Wangji inclines his head. “I did,” he replies. “He insisted.” He bows and then presses the box and letter into Lan Qiren’s hands—another bow, and then he departs.
Lan Qiren thought that he could be forgiven if he approached the idea of being blindfolded and led by the infamously mercurial Wen Sect Heir in the middle of the night with some degree of wariness. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Wen Ruohan—it was that Wen Ruohan had a tendency to believe some things pleasurable when other sane, normal, human cultivators would otherwise find them anywhere ranging from disquieting to horrific.
Still, his sun had shone at him, brilliant and blinding and convincing, and Lan Qiren allowed for his eyes to be covered with a thick, dark, cloth, and for himself to be led by the hands through the city.
He began frowning, protesting, when he realized that he was being led out of the city—the smell of fresh, wild, grass assaulting his noses as he felt his feet leaving pavement and hitting soft dirt. Wen Ruohan had only clicked his tongue, bade him to remain silent, and continued leading him out.
They must have been walking for nearly an hour from the heart of the sect before Wen Ruohan finally stopped, letting go of Lan Qiren’s hands to raise his own fingers to the knot of cloth at the base of the younger man’s head. He felt lips press close to his ear, a warm whisper, “Happy birthday, er-gongzi,” and then the blindfold was pulled away.
Millions upon millions of fireflies surrounded him, lighting the night up brighter than even the stars in Qishan’s sky ever could. For a city that claimed the night would never fall upon it, Lan Qiren had already experienced enough to know that its nights were some of the most beautiful he’d yet to see. The fireflies flitted around him like stars that were within reach of his fingers. His heart seized in his chest further when he looked around and found the way his sun was watching him, not even nearing to touch Lan Qiren in this moment.
With every step the other man took towards him, one by one, Lan Qiren felt the fist that closed over his heart tightening to the point where his lungs felt affected—joining in on the inability to function properly. Wen Ruohan still did not touch him, not really. He took one of Lan Qiren’s hands and dropped into his palm a small, red, silken pouch.
Wen Ruohan gestured around them, towards the grass—in the light provided by the fireflies, Lan Qiren now noticed it was not just grass that surrounded them, but rather tiny, golden flowers, their petals forming cups that turned upwards towards the sky—an odd, glossy quality to them that Lan Qiren had never seen on a flower so small. “Sun blossoms,” Wen Ruohan said, and closed Lan Qiren’s fingers over the pouch. “Their petals are good for cultivation when dried for tea,” one of his arms twined around Lan Qiren’s waist, finally pulling him in. “Er-gongzi does love his teas, doesn’t he?”
No, Lan Qiren thought dazed, desperate, aching, wanting, I love you.
Lan Zhan told me that the Elders in your sect don’t like presents after they become Elders. I think that’s rather sad, but maybe when I get that old, I won’t want to be reminded of how old I am either!
Anyway, if you want, you can just think of this as a gift of gratitude, instead. I thought of having something for you when Lan Zhan brought me back, after he resigned as Chief Cultivator. I knew he wouldn’t have brought me back if he hadn’t already told you that he was going to. I knew, if you hadn’t let him bring me back, he would’ve asked to go with me on the border. But, he asked me to come back with him, which meant you agreed.
I know I’ve caused your nephew a lot of pain, and that means I’ve caused you a lot of pain as well. I know that even if I hadn’t, I’m still not what or who you imagined to end up with your nephew. I know also that I’ll never be able to obey all of your sect’s rules, every day, but that’s okay! I don’t mind the punishments, they’re good for building Mo Xuanyu’s core up!
Even your nephew didn’t seem to know what would be a good present for you, other than tea, which I think your sect already has a lot of, so I picked these on my way back from travelling last month. I preserved them as best as I could, but I think they’ll be fine! I’ve heard they can help with stabilizing qi, especially for more aged cores, and they’re pretty to look at even if you don’t like the way they taste as tea!
Thank you, again. Lan Zhan says it doesn’t matter to him, wherever he is, as long as he’s with me, but I think Grand Master knows that Lan Zhan loves his home. I’m glad he can still stay in it even when he’s with me.
The box is filled to the brim of smooth, infinitesimal, delicately dried, yellow petals.
Once, there was a young man, more beautiful than the sun.
Lan Qiren had tried, and tried, and tried to trap that heat, that light, within his fingers—within his heart—and cradle it close to himself. He loved the sun, and he was burned for all his trouble. It exploded around him, and took everything with it into its fiery flames. There was nothing left behind after it self-destructed, and Lan Qiren felt the aching loss of what it had gouged out of him.
There is a young man, beautiful like the sun, and he looks at Lan Qiren’s youngest nephew as if he is the sun. He looks at Lan Qiren’s nephew as if, were the sun itself to close its rays up forever in eternal darkness, it would not matter as long as Lan Qiren’s nephew is there, lighting his world for him.
The young man burns bright, bright, bright in Lan Wangji’s hands, and Lan Wangji cups the light, his hands warm yet whole and unharmed—unburned.
The small, red, silk pouch is so worn with time that it no longer shines in the light. The threads are loosening, and the drawstring no longer quite tightens as it should. The sun embroidered onto one side of it is fraying at the edges of the needlework. It has become so threadbare by how many times it has been handled, how often Lan Qiren once held it to himself, hovering just close enough to his nose for him to grasp the scent of the blossoms until the petals decayed and he was forced to empty the contents.
He fills the pouch again, now, with freshly dried sun blossoms, and lets himself look at it, sitting there on his writing table, beside the candle, so similarly to the day he’d returned from Nightless City. It feels like more than just one lifetime ago.
He thinks, shaking his head at his own absurdity—at his own insanity, that perhaps he himself hasn’t even learned any of the lessons he tried so valiantly to instill in his nephews, to instill in his youngest nephew.
If his sun were to come to him, right now, as vivid and radiant and resplendent as ever—if he were to come, before Lan Qiren, and ask to be held once more, heat surging through Lan Qiren’s hands, inhuman, unfathomable, heat that scorched everything it touched—
Lan Qiren would hold him—all over again.