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These Roads Lead to You

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Winter has just started to thaw out, so the breeze prickling in his skin feels mildly chilled. Wei Ying pulls on his coat and hums the little tune in his head louder. The climate in this part of Gusu always tends to colder, but it’s a nice and welcome change from the heat of Yunmeng. He loves Yunmeng, everything about it, even the sweat that forms permanent residence in his nape during summer, but right now he’s trying to run away from it. Only natural that the warmth of his memories also stay behind.

He’s been walking for awhile now, following the road that ends in Gusu’s royal castle, magnificent if only for the two jades it keeps within. The rumors say the two princes have a beauty that rivals that of the Gods and looking upon their faces for long purifies the soul. Wei Ying doesn’t care, he’s never seen them before and he doesn’t particularly have an interest in royal affairs. He was plenty satisfied with playing around back in the Jiang estate, picking lotuses and leaving any business to his siblings. They were the actual heirs of the land, Madam Yu would not have Wei Ying interfering.

The wide stone walls that surround the castle come into view, so he picks up the pace. No, he never cared about royal affairs but Mo Xuanyu helped him get this job, so he should at least do his best.

Mo Xuanyu was a long time friend, back from the couple of years Wei Ying spent in the streets as a kid. He wouldn’t have survived then if not for his mother’s generosity. They were all poor in that part of Yiling, no one had any obligation to spare kindness. It was an eat or get eaten time. And yet she still let him sleep inside when the storms were harsh and taught him to wash his clothes when they were full of grime.

Wei Ying remembers her smile the most. She really was very gentle and full of pride for her son. ‘He’ll be a young master, one day’ she’d say, conspiratorially. ‘I’m sending you to your father once you grow some more’ to Mo Xuanyu. Then she’d pet her son’s hair affectionately and push their backs. ‘Run along now, go play.’

Because of that, the first person he thought to contact now that he was technically homeless again was the man himself. He walked the 5 weeks of travel to the Jin estate and asked the coachman for news of his friend. The coachman looked at him with pity, telling a story of the bastard boy who tried to get his father’s attention and ended up beaten on the street, a couple of years ago. Jin Guangshan’s infamy was well-known to everyone in the manor, so a more empathetic servant sent him to the Gusu castle, knowing they’d have need for him there.

That’s where Wei Ying finds himself now, in front of the walled royal palace, keeping a letter carefully tucked inside his bag. He looks around, left and right, and there’s a wicked tree that twists inside the gate. There are no guards around, and the few ones farther away look dead with boredom.

Any normal person would follow the rules and call the front guard over, but he’s not any normal person. ‘A dumbass’, Jiang Cheng would say, but honestly, he just likes to keep things entertaining.

He pulls his weight on a low branch and climbs. The arms of the tree go right over and the fall is not big, so he squares his shoulders and jumps, rolling on the grass.

He stands up and dusts his clothes. Now on to find the stables.

‘Should’ve expected this place to be unnecessarily big’, he thinks. Everything is so far away from everything. He walks around some more and ends inside a beautiful garden, carefully maintained. There are stone pathways circling rose bushes and gentians. The place has a timeless quality to it, a pocket of peace in the middle of the world around. That’s where he finds him.

There’s a man sitting on one of the benches, long black hair falling over his shoulder, eyelashes fluttering as he focuses on the book in his lap. His clothes are all white and pristine and there’s a matching ribbon on his forehead with a silver centerpiece.

‘Wow, so pretty’. Wei Ying knows himself. He’s weak in the knees for pretty people, dumbly charmed by them. And the serene expression on this stranger just makes him want to tease.

He grins.

“Young Master wouldn’t know how to get to the stables?”

The boy, probably around his age, turns and Wei Ying is momentarily thrown off balance. His eyes are so golden they shine. Stranger furrows his brow.

“Who…”

“Ah!” He says, seeing the confusion, “I’m the new stable boy! Supposed to work with Mo Xuanyu?”

The boy looks around and says, “The guards did not guide you?”

Wei Ying scratches his head and laughs, thinking of those useless guards. Probably didn’t even notice a total intruder getting inside.

“Hahaha, to be honest I slipped past the guards.”

The look in stranger’s eyes goes from confused to suspicious in a second.

“You what?”

“I know, right?” Wei Ying shakes his head, still smiling, "I gotta tell Mo Xuanyu to warn the security chief or whoever. Seriously, there were so many free spots, I was surprised. Literally any shady mercenary can just enter and target the princes.”

If he thought the boy’s eyes were filled with distrust before, now they could freeze him to the spot with hatred. Wei Ying drops his smile instantly.

“... I’m not, though. I’m really just a stable’s boy! Though I guess that’s what an assassin would say-- WOAH!”

He jumps back, dodging the dagger that thrusts in his direction. The boy in front of him narrows his eyes and swipes again, aiming on his arms. His movements are precise and fast but thankfully Wei Ying manages to dodge again, twisting his body sideways.

“Young Master, why would an assassin tell you about his plans before hand?” Wei Ying grins. The look on his face is so funny. “I’m not as incompetent as to do something like that.”

The boy falters and Wei Ying continues,

“Well, that could also be part of my master plan, though.”

“You!”

The dagger is thrust forward again and Wei Ying can’t help but laugh.

“Hahahaha, Young Master, please calm down!” He pulls the bag on his side and searches for the letter Mo Xuanyu sent, written officially and stamped with the royal seal. He picks the paper and opens in front of the other, with a small ‘aha!’

Looking suspicious again, the boy shoves the dagger through the paper. An indignant hey leaves his mouth while stranger brings the paper close to him. He inspects the seal for a few seconds before huffing and storing the dagger back in its sheath, crumpling the letter in his other hand.

“Can Young Master help me now?” Wei Ying smirks.

“Follow south of this garden, turn left on archery grounds.”

“Thank you! Now, that wasn’t so hard, hm?”

“Go!” The man yells at him and stomps off in a hurry, seeming very angered.

Wei Ying laughs some more and walks away.

-:-

“A-ying!”

“A-yu!” Wei Ying beams, pulling his friend close.

“You lovely man, I can’t believe you got tall and good-looking!” He pulls back and cradles Wei Ying’s face in his hands, turning him side to side.

“Wasn’t I always?” He grins and messes the hair of the shorter boy. They were always touchy-feely people, Mo Xuanyu and him. They know the pain of lacking physical affection.

“Not all dirty and shabby, you weren’t.”

Mo Xuanyu pulls him inside the large stable. It’s a strong wooden structure and he can count at least twenty something horses inside, all white and clean. The smell isn’t great, but what stable smells great anyway.

“Let me tell you the ropes around here.” He gestures, showing around what’s important. “You can take care of the left side. Those two horses are Prince Xichen’s and Prince Wangji’s who are obviously the most important. They all need to be scrubbed everyday when you wake up and then taken for a ride. Can’t afford to get them lazy. Then you can bring them back and fill the basin with feed and water. We also need to shovel the shit once everyday too, so get ready for that.”

Wei Ying turns his nose, but doesn’t say anything.

“When someone comes asking for their horses, you play this.” He gestures to a beam with a bell built on, “Then go into the stalls of those who’ll ride and put on the saddle and travel pouches. After that, it’s just leading the horses outside. Think you can do all that?”

He shrugs, “Seems simple enough.”

“Soon you’ll get used to the work, it’s not difficult. Breakfast is at 6, lunch at midday sharp. Dinner for the servants is at 10.”

“Ugh,” He flops backwards on top of a pile of hay, “Hearing you say that is worse than hearing I’ll have to move literal shit around.”

“Like I said, you get used to.” Mo Xuanyu sits by his side and lays on his shoulder, “Any questions?”

“I mean, you can tell me more about the royal family? Xichen and Wangji you said?”

“Really?” The other says in disbelief, “They’re the ones who rule over our lives and you don’t even know?”

“I really couldn’t care less about them before all this, to be honest.”

“Gods, I wish that were me.” Mo Xuanyu sighs, “The oldest is Crown Prince Lan Huan, courtesy Xichen. And the youngest is the second Prince Lan Zhan, courtesy Wangji. The king is Lan Qiren, if you don’t know either.”

Wei Ying hums, “Their uncle, right?”

“Yeah. He took the throne when their parents died years ago.”

“I heard about that, at least.” Wei Ying says. The sun outside has dipped below the horizon, tinting everything a shade of red. “Hey, where do I sleep?”

Mo Xuanyu smiles in a way that could be called devilish. “Where else? There’s a horse stall for you.”

“No way.” Mo Xuanyu stays silent. “Really?!”

The other laughs and Wei Ying groans.

They stop talking after that, enveloped in a comfortable silence. Mo Xuanyu is still plastered on his side like he can’t believe Wei Ying is back in his life and honestly that makes him feel good. It’s nice to feel wanted. The sounds of the birds outside quieten as well and for a second the world seems to still.

“Hey, A-ying…”

“Hm?”

Mo Xuanyu stands and moves to light the candles around the stable. He hesitates before continuing.

“I didn’t ask in our letters, but…” Wei Ying closes his eyes because he knows what question is coming, “How come you left the Jiang estate?”

It still doesn’t prepare him for the stone it drops in his stomach. Hearing it out loud makes it so much harder to come to terms with his choice. He’s trying not to think about it, because thinking about it makes it harder to not miss them. Miss his sister who treated him gently and his brother who treated him, well… not so gently. But they were still his family for ten years or so and Gods. He misses them.

“Ah, you know.” He plasters a smile on his face, “It was time to make my own path, stop depending on them. Plus, getting the freedom to know the world, adventures, and so on, so forth.”

Mo Xuanyu frowns where he’s standing, “And you didn’t have that freedom there? Because I guarantee you won’t find it here, in this shitty castle serving stuck-ups.”

He doesn’t answer, just keeps smiling. He knows his mouth is trembling a little, he knows his tells. Whenever he lies or tries to hide something, his lower lip will twitch. Mo Xuanyu also knows this. They knew each other at their worst, after all, and it’s precisely because they knew each other then that he doesn’t ask or says anymore. This is how Mo Xuanyu and Wei Ying’s friendship manage to endure so much; they mind their own business and step in to help without sharing sob stories.

It was like that the time Mo Xuanyu’s mom’s condition got worse and Wei Ying wordlessly stole medicine for them and it is like that now, with Mo Xuanyu giving him a job and, most importantly, anonymity.

Wei Ying shakes his head and stands up as well, draping an arm on the other’s shoulders.

“Hey, is there any alcohol?”

Mo Xuanyu stares at him for a second and then grins. Wei Ying hoots as he gets a bottle of Emperor’s Smile from the small storeroom on the side.

He takes a swig and passes back, cups be damned, “Say, A-yu, A-yu, if you hate these rich people so much, why are you working for them?”

Mo Xuanyu scoffs, “Because I still need food and shelter to survive in this world, unfortunately.”

Wei Ying laughs, “I hear you.” and drinks into the night.

-:-

It's next week when Wei Ying gets to put his newly acquired abilities to the test. He spent the past days getting acquainted with the simple work, the excruciating routine and the curious horses. The animals all love him, all docile and eager. The only animal inside that stable that dislikes Wei Ying is Mo Xuanyu's donkey, Lil’ Apple. It's ridiculous! The creature will swoon and play whenever she sees the hair in Mo Xuanyu's head but if he steps into the stall, all he's granted is a snort and glare.

“Fine, see if I care.” He mutters, sweeping the stray hays out.

They’ve finished most of the work today. Mo Xuanyu doesn’t say it, but he seems pretty content in having another pair of hands helping. It’s early afternoon and Wei Ying is debating going for a nap when two figures step into view outside.

Mo Xuanyu stands immediately and walks towards the front. Wei Ying perks up curiously, both men looking very out of place in their white clothes. His eyes widens when the boy in the back steps forward and he’s met with a cold gaze.

“It’s you!”

Mo Xuanyu snaps his head at him and gapes at his audacity. Meanwhile, the boy he met just glares even more, trying to freeze him with his eyes.

The other man, who could pass for pretty boy’s twin if not for the warm smile looks between the two of them, “Oh?”

Mo Xuanyu grabs the back of his neck and pushes him forward. There’s not enough strength to force Wei Ying to bend his head, but he gets the message anyway and bows at the waist, staring at his dirty boots.

“P-pardon, Your Highness.” Mo Xuanyu says nervously, “This lowly servant hasn’t been properly trained and disciplined yet.”

Lan Wangji (so he is the prince!) steps closer and Wei Ying can feel the look of dismay burning the crown of his head.

“No need.”

“We would like our horses, please.” Lan Xichen smiles and that’s enough to get Mo Xuanyu pushing Wei Ying towards the stalls.

It’s the first time anyone has come to ride since Wei Ying got here, so he needs his friend’s help preparing the horses, setting the saddles. In a few minutes, they come out pulling the reins of the two most striking horses they have.

Wei Ying tries to make eye contact with the second prince again, but the other avoids him like the plague, mounting on his horse silently.

“What is your name?”

“Hm?”

The crown prince looks at him with interest. Wei Ying bows again.

“This one is called Wei Ying, courtesy Wuxian, Your Highness.”

Prince Xichen nods and mounts his own horse, “It was nice meeting you, Wei Wuxian.”

The two set the horses on a trot and Wei Ying grins and yells out, “Bye, Lan Zhan!”

Pity they’re too far away for him to see his expression.

He sits back in a stool and smiles at the shadows getting smaller in the distance. Mo Xuanyu scoffs.

“You’re not planning to make this a thing, right?”

“Hm?” Wei Ying finally moves his eyes to his friend, “What’s ‘this’?”

Mo Xuanyu gestures helplessly to outside, “This… with His Highness Wangji.”

“Haha, he’s funny, isn’t he?”

“That’s not the word I’d use, no.” He frowns and sighs.

Once Wei Ying gets that mischievous glint in his eye, there’s no one who can stop whatever storm comes next.

The horses come back late at night, being guided by a servant and he tries not to pout at that. He expected to see Lan Zhan again. Maybe realizing his mind would keep wandering, Mo Xuanyu told him to go play the next day, meet the castle, learn where everything is so he wouldn’t get lost. There isn’t anything to do after the chores get done anyway, so Wei Ying leaves gladly.

The stables are in the southern part of the land, next to a small tree patch. He hasn’t the time to go see it yet, but he knows from the other servants that there is a river that crosses inside the palace walls with plenty of fish.

There are so many things to see and explore, he stops in his stroll for a second to look around. That’s when the distinct sound of shooting arrows reach his ears.

He passed the archery grounds that first day, after getting directions. It’s a long stripe of land filled with sand and targets set up on one end and equipment on the other. Wei Ying lays on top of his arms on the fence separating the rest of the pathway with the training area.

The prince Lan Wangji is pulling the string, his arms in perfect posture, back straight. The long and silky black hair flows in the small breeze of spring. Wei Ying knows that interrupting someone with an arrow drawn is always a terrible idea, even in a controlled environment like this, so he waits until the shot is done - perfectly in the middle - to call out.

“Woohoo!” He waves, “Lan Zhan! Over here!”

The two brothers look at him, one angry, the other amused and Wei Ying chuckles. Lan Zhan’s lips are pressed firmly in disapproval but his brother laughs back. He bows his head to Lan Xichen.

“Your Highness, as well.”

“One can marvel at the differences in our greetings.” Lan Xichen says. Lan Wangji, he greets without caring about rules or propriety, but the tone in his voice is full of genuine delight and mirth. Meanwhile, despite being polite and adequate, the greeting towards Lan Xichen is just that, nothing more nothing less: a bland greeting.

Xichen knows his brother far too well. For long he has learned to unveil Lan Wangji’s subtle changes and expressions, his quiet ways of telling what he’s thinking. After their mother’s death, the small boy who held a simple wonder of the things around him became completely closed off and, Xichen thinks sadly, incredibly lonely. The person who could bring out the best in him was gone. So uncovering the mask Lan Wangji uses to cope became a must for him, who would absolutely not allow the connection his brother had with the world to be lost.

Thus, the new red tint on his ears was a pleasant surprise to Lan Xichen. A red tint that hadn’t left since the meeting that shaked Wangji to the point of going venting (a very concise vent) to his brother and only intensified when this wild boy in front of them smiled freely.

He can see the appeal of this Wei Wuxian. He’s everything Lan Wangji was taught led to a weakening of the self, and yet he possesses a charm, a liveliness that many envy and resent. And, Xichen must concede, he is quite handsome.

“Brother, let’s go.”

Before Xichen can acknowledge that, the boy waves widely again.

“Wait! Lan Zhan, wait!”

If it was anyone else, his brother would have continued on his merry way, not giving a care, but instead he stops and tilts his head slightly.

Oh, my dear brother, how obvious you are.

“Let’s make a bet.”

Wei Wuxian smiles playfully and points towards the targets.

“If I can hit the center more often than you in eight tries, I win. What do you say?”

Wangji hesitates before asking, “The wager?”

Wei Wuxian’s smile couldn’t become more cat-like, “You have to say more than 20 words in one go.”

Xichen immediately covers his mouth with his sleeve, feeling too bad for laughing openly at such proposition. His brother’s fists clench with embarrassment and yet, the look in his eyes almost screams he is pleased at having the other boy’s attention. Only to Xichen, of course.

“Ridiculous.”

‘This is getting interesting’, he thinks. When his brother huffs (a way of pretending exasperation, Xichen knows) and starts to leave, he instead smiles and directs his gaze to this boy who is effortlessly breaking Wangji’s carefully kept walls with a simple grin.

“Wei Wuxian, how about you bet with me instead?”

Surprise washes his face, clearly not expecting the crown prince to think of him as anything other than a nuisance.

“Eh?!”

“Same terms,” He continues, “if I win, Wei Wuxian will have to accompany us in our next hunt.”

“Brother!” Lan Wangji says sharply.

Wei Wuxian gapes and then laughs so hard he almost falls from the fence. Xichen relishes on the way his brother’s eyes widen at such a sight, ears becoming the color of ripe strawberries.

“His Highness, thank you for the offer.” Wei Wuxian says, when he manages to breathe again, “But I shouldn’t go playing before learning well my work, else Mo Xuanyu have my head.” He smiles, “Seems like I’ll have to show my archery skills some other time.”

Lan Xichen nods, “Very well, another time.”

Wei Wuxian wipes a stray tear escaped from his laughing and waves again, this time softly.

“See you sometime, Lan Zhan!”

He jumps from the fence and skips back to the stables’ direction.

Lan Xichen and Wangji watch him go for a while. Xichen notices the look on his brother’s face and chuckles; like the boy took the sun with him when he left.

“You don’t need to be so upset he refused, Wangji.”

Wangji snaps his head forward and storms off the field.

-:-

It's a couple of weeks before Wei Ying sees Lan Zhan again. The royal family gets occupied with some business or another that he couldn't bother to learn. But that did mean Mo Xuanyu and he got some work, sending horses out with the guards almost everyday.

He takes the opportunity to make sure Lan Zhan thinks of him from time to time. The official colors of the royal family are white and blue, so the little red ribbons Wei Ying uses in his hair look nicely contrasted, wrapped in the saddle of Lan Wangji's horse (named Bichen, how extravagant).

When all the frenzy finally dies down, Wei Ying lets himself relax and makes the now familiar walk to the archery grounds. He can’t lie to himself and say he isn’t hoping to find a certain someone there.

He picks up the pace when a familiar back clad in white appears in his vision.

“Lan Zhan!” He calls excitedly.

The grin freezes on his face when the person turns around. There’s a warm smile there, an air of gentleness and slightly more narrow cheekbones. Wei Ying slows down, feeling a small twinge of disappointment.

“My apologies.”

“All is well.” Prince Xichen says, “Wangji is studying in the library today.”

“Ah, I see.” Wei Ying says awkwardly. He tries to think of a reason to leave without making it obvious he was really only looking for Lan Zhan.

“We intend to go hunting tomorrow.” Xichen continues, “I remember you said you shouldn’t get a day off so early in your work, but surely now is okay?”

“Oh, yes, I think so.”

“I’m glad. Wangji needs to relax after these boring days of diplomacies.”

Wei Ying laughs, “Pardon, Your Highness, but if you want Lan Zhan to relax then it’s probably better to not invite me.”

“Nonsense.” Xichen smiles softly, “Wangji would love your company.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do.” He nods and puts away the bow along with the rest of equipment, “We leave tomorrow at 9 in the morning. You can use one of the spare bows we have stored.”

And so they leave the next day. Prince Xichen, Prince Wangji, Wei Ying and couple of guards to ensure their safety.

Lan Zhan doesn’t bother hiding the glare he’s giving his brother for not warning him of their guest. Until they arrived at the stables, his brother didn’t think of mentioning once that Wei Ying was coming as well.

They arrive at the edge of a forest where the trees aren’t heavily dense, some thirty miles away from the castle. This is a mostly secret hunting spot that only the royal family uses.

They ride some more to get deep into the thick of the forest and Wei Ying is uncharacteristically quiet. He was chattering their ears away back when they first set out, but now he watches every movement carefully. Of course, one must be quiet when hunting to not scare the prey away, Lan Zhan knows, but it’s still weird to see him so silent.

“I noticed deer tracks a little earlier.” Xichen says. Lan Zhan nods. He saw it too.

“We’re hunting deer? Isn’t that a little boring?”

He resists the urge to roll his eyes because of course, nothing could go conventionally when Wei Ying is with them.

“Wangji and I always hunt deer first as a tradition. But afterwards we’re free to follow your lead.”

Wei Ying nods and becomes silent again. They move east where the tracks become more obvious. The deer is next to a creek, sipping the water with ease, but the moment Xichen’s horse steps into view, it raises his head cautiously.

It’s staring at them, waiting for who will make the first move. Xichen points to him. This is Wangji’s target, then. He takes a deep breath and reins his horse into motion.

The deer immediately sets running, twisting through the maze of trees. His horse is the fastest of their troop, but he can’t go at full speed without risking injury on the lower branches. One of his hands is holding the reins, the other picks an arrow from the quiver in his back.

He braces his legs on the horse and uses his full lower strength to keep from jostling. The deer becomes easily visible when they reach a part of the forest more dispersed. He draws the arrow, aims and releases.

The first one hits the deer in the thigh, making it stumble to the ground. Lan Zhan is quick to shoot another arrow in the heart, so to not prolong its misery.

“Well done.” Xichen beams, stopping his horse on the left.

He nods and dismounts, making sure the deer is dead before tying it and strapping the body to his horse.

“But Lan Zhan, you didn’t finish it in one shot.” Wei Ying says, voice surprisingly serious.

Lan Zhan hates himself for feeling a pang of disappointment for not managing to impress Wei Ying before firmly scolding his heart. Why would he want to impress Wei Ying in any case whatsoever. He mounts his horse again.

“Do better.”

There’s a couple of seconds before Wei Ying smiles widely, showing his teeth.

“Really? You want to see it? Shall I do it, then?”

“Hm.” He nods, glancing at Wei Ying’s borrowed bow. He can’t help but be curious.

Wei Ying moves right next to him and extends a hand.

“Then, Lan Zhan, how about you lend me your forehead ribbon?”

A warm flush of embarrassment spreads on his ears and he clenches his teeth. How could Wei Ying ask something so shameless?! Time and again he has showed no respect for Lan Zhan but this is crossing the line!

“No? Boo, how boring!” Wei Ying instead unties a blue cloth from his horse’s saddle.

“Wangji, calm.” Xichen mutters by his side, sounding more like someone placating a wild animal than a person, “Wei Wuxian probably does not know of its meaning.”

Hearing those words, he feels marginally better. The forehead ribbon is the highest symbol of their right to rule. To give the ribbon willingly to another would be the same as saying 'I wish for you to rule with me'.

Of course, someone who didn’t even know who Lan Zhan was and called him ‘young master’ in his first day there shouldn’t be expected to know of their customs.

Although with Wei Ying’s personality, it’s also just as probable that he knows and is trying to tease him.

He leaves those thoughts aside to stare curiously at what Wei Ying is doing. He ties the cloth tightly around his eyes, securing it in place with his left hand. With the right, he pulls an arrow from the quiver. Even Xichen is surprised.

“Surely you’re not attempting to hit something blindly?”

Wei Ying just smiles and puts a finger in his lips, asking him to hush.

Everything is silent and Wei Ying is so still he can be mistaken for a statue. Nothing happens, just him with his blindfolded eyes and arrow drawn pointing ahead, but nowhere; aimless.

There's only a twitch of his mouth as a warning before he quickly moves the bow up leftwards and releases the arrow, the sharp sound of the wind in their ears.

Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen watch as the arrow hits a bird that had just taken flight, straight through the chest. Impeccable.

‘Thank goodness for our horses’, Lan Zhan thinks, because he's certain his knees have gone weak. There's a sudden spark of arousal in his lower belly and he has never felt this ashamed of himself. Such a reaction is not only improper but immoral.

It becomes even more difficult to calm down when Wei Ying dismounts his horse and picks the bird by its wing, smile blinding and hair unruly. He tugs the blindfold up so only one eye is peeking out and Lan Zhan is not fast enough to stop himself from thinking he's cute.

Thinking he wants to kiss that smile off.

Lan Zhan clears his throat, “Frivolous.”

As if expecting that reaction, Wei Ying simply laughs and gets back on his horse, packing the dead bird in one of the hunting bags they've brought along.

The rest of the hunt is uneventful. Xichen shoots a squirrel so he also has something to bring home, but most of the animals seem to have disappeared. Wei Ying goes back to his loud self once they declare it over and talks about anything and everything from enjoying the scenery to complaining of his empty stomach.

It’s only after he leaves for the stables with the three horses and the other guards that Xichen turns to him with a knowing smile.

“This Wei Wuxian knows how to be quite charming, no?”

He doesn’t waste time with an answer, simply goes to his room and stuffs his face in a pillow.

-:-

“Hey, Lan Zhan!” He calls, running to the other.

Spring has given way to the warm sunny days of summer, but the ever present breeze in Gusu keeps the climate cool and comfortable. He’s sprinting in the garden of that first day, after Lan Zhan’s figure. The prince stops and turns to him.

“Look what I found!” He presents the bundles in his arms; two wooden swords made for practice. “The guard’s chief threw it away because it has splintered in some parts.”

Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘so what?’.

“Don’t be like that!” Wei Ying whines, “Let’s spar, hm? It’s been so long since I’ve held a sword, I need some practice!”

He left his precious sword Suibian back home. It felt wrong to take along with him such an important object that was a present by the Jiangs. In a way, he also felt like if he left the sword, his family could softly gaze at it from time to time and reminisce the good moments of his stay in their lives. He is a little sentimental like that.

In fairness, he doesn’t expect Lan Zhan to accept, but the other nods promptly and guides them to the archery grounds again. It’s not the best place to practice sword fighting for obvious reasons, but it’s empty that time of the day. They won’t bother any apprentice.

Lan Zhan takes out his outer robe, rolls his sleeves and ties his hair. Wei Ying gulps taking notice of the line of his waist and forearms that got revealed by that. He’s used to seeing Lan Zhan fully dressed even during this summer heat, the image of him in only pants and fitting waistcoat is a little distracting.

He shakes his head and throws the sword to the other.

“Go easy on me, ‘kay?” He gives a predatory smile.

Their swords clash in the next instant.

Wei Ying’s speculations were correct, Lan Zhan is much better with a sword than with that dagger. He is fairly confident in his skills too and yet he finds himself panting soon into their match. He has a much harder time recreating what he did in their first day, the sideways dodge and jumps but it’s fine. He doesn’t need to stay in the defensive this time around.

There’s a lot of strength in their slashes that probably won’t be easy on wooden practice swords, but he gets too into it to notice. Lan Zhan has a beautiful finesse to his form and he’s both swift and precise.

It’s clear he’s going to lose if things continue this way, so he shoots his foot forward, momentarily tripping Lan Zhan. The other gains his balance too quickly for the action to have been of any use and clashes against him again.

This time, Wei Ying is not prepared and tumbles backwards, falling on his butt. Lan Zhan glares at him.

“You are using underhanded ways.”

Wei Ying extends his hand, “Underhanded?! Well sorry, but in a street fight that can be the difference...”

He uses the momentum from Lan Zhan’s help to swivel around him, twisting his wrist. He aligns the wooden sword against his neck.
“... Between life and death.”

They’re both panting and Wei Ying has his chest pressed fully to Lan Zhan’s back. It’s really really hard to resist the urge to kiss the cute pink earlobe in front of him. He doesn’t have to resist for long though, before Lan Zhan twists himself again and throws him back on the ground.

“Lan Zhan.” He pouts.

“We are sparring for sport.” Lan Zhan mutters, swiping invisible dust from his clothes. The 'not for our lives' stays implicit.

Wei Ying chuckles, “Yes, yes. You’re correct. Lan Zhan, you were really amazing! You manage to be fast without losing strength!”

He wipes the sweat from his eyebrow and reaches for a lonely bucket forgotten behind by some servant. The storm from a few days ago left rain water inside. He splashes some of it in his nape to cool off.

Prince Lan Wangji, despite his otherworldly beauty, is still a human being with bodily processes including sweat and yet he looks at him like he’d rather die of dehydration than touch leftover water from the rain. It’s a really funny look.

“You…”

“Hm?” He responds absent-minded, drying his forehead with his sleeve.

“Your skills. They are… very good for a servant.”

Wei Ying looks at him, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lan Zhan seems startled from the sudden bitterness in his voice.

“I have not seen a servant who knows such abilities before.”

“The way I see it,” Wei Ying says annoyed, “It’s not that servants don’t know much about these abilities, but rather that you don’t know much about your servants.”

While it’s true that he trained mostly in the Jiang estate as a young master, that does not mean his skills came solely from said training. In fact, most of the tricks and knacks he incorporated into his style, he learned from the help. After all, he is the son of the proud servant Wei Changze and the fierce huntress Cangse Sanren and he has no interest in hiding his lineage nor in forgetting his roots.

So of course that led him to speak to the other help in the Jiang estate, hoping to know more about his parents. Everyone there welcomed him nicely, recalling stories and memories from the times long passed. He’ll always remember what one of the older cooks told him, during one of those nights where they exchanged tales over a fire: ‘those who hunt and fight for entertainment will never be as good as those who hunt and fight to survive.’

The nobles who sit all day on their butts simply receiving the food that magically appears in their tables can’t know the talent of those who put said food there.

Noticing his expression is displeased, Lan Zhan clears his throat.

“I did not meant to offend.”

“Of course you didn't.” Wei Ying sighs. Lan Zhan may be part of the elite, but he’s still a righteous and kind person behind his cold exterior. Wei Ying knows he truly meant it as a compliment, no matter how awkward. “Thank you for your words, but maybe you should pay more attention to the ‘invisible’ people that get things done around the castle.”

Lan Zhan nods, stilted. Wei Ying chuckles at his guilty expression, his good mood returning.

“Lan Zhan, it’s fine, really. You surely bested me! I underestimated you because of our first meeting.”

“I did not have my sword at the time.”

“Thank the Gods you didn’t!” He laughs, “Otherwise I might not be here today. We wouldn’t want that, right?”

Lan Zhan is silent and then hums, softly. They wouldn't want that.

-:-

Lan Zhan is walking through the castle hallways one day when he hears it.

“I can’t stand it anymore. That new boy, Wei Wuxian.”

Automatically, his steps slow, intrigued by hearing Wei Ying’s name here. They've spent so much time alone together, he forgets that his presence is not something that exists all for himself, a dream in the solitude of his mind.

“Yesterday at dinner he couldn’t stop blabbering about the second prince. And you know what he called him? By his name! As if he has any right to!”

A man scoffs, “Calling His Highness by name is the least of all the disrespects he has done. Don’t you know the first day he got here, he provoked His Highness into drawing his knife.”

The woman continues, “He has no sense of what is proper and he doesn't know his place. He keeps bothering His Highness as if he wants something. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was harassing the prince for money.”

“You think that’s bad?” Another woman, that was silent thus now, speaks, “The other day I happened to overhear their conversation in the gardens. It was disgusting. He kept flirting with the prince like a rabbit on heat. I was almost compelled to drag him away from the prince myself, to spare His poor Highness.”

Lan Zhan figures that’s enough. He steps into the hallway and keeps his cold stare indifferent towards the people there. The woman’s mouth snaps shut and they all look terrified of being caught.

“Idling in the hallways is forbidden.” He says, simply. He figures his glare is enough to send a message. They scurry away from the scene, stammering and apologizing.

He continues on his stroll, sighing inwardly. He knows the casual and informal way Wei Ying treats him is frowned upon by everyone (thank the Gods his uncle hasn't met him yet). In the beginning, Lan Zhan himself was extremely baffled by his lack of respect for the royal status. Now that he knows Wei Ying better, it’s easy to see the boy is just naturally a teaser and prankster, who enjoys drawing reactions out of people.

It angers him that someone would doubt Wei Ying’s attempts at friendship towards him, as if he is easily motivated by greed and money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wei Ying, he has learned, is a genuine and honest person, challenging Lan Zhan when he feels wronged without fear and giving him compliments when he thinks deserved. The spring in his step, the smile in his face, the glint in his eyes… they’re all natural. Lan Zhan can’t imagine they’d be so charming and free if they were fake.

As for interest of the more… romantic kind, he thinks regretfully, it’s the other way around. If anything, he is the one with a disgraceful and growing affection.

Lan Zhan finally reaches the south gardens, where he finds himself spending most of his time nowadays. Months ago, he would never so much as step a foot here, having only been present the day Wei Ying arrived because his brother had especifically asked him to start reading there, claiming it’d be good for his spirit.

The gentians, they remind him too much of his mother. So despite going along with his brother’s whims, his chest felt constricted every second he spent here.

Now, however, he sees comfort and beauty in the curtains of flowers, the red of the roses make him think of the red in Wei Ying’s ribbons (the ones which started appearing tied to his horse, the ones he keeps carefully stored in a music box) and the boldness of the gentians make him think of his loud laughter.

He finds himself looking for metaphors and similarities in everything, the romance poetry he’d read when bored starting to take shape in his mind. When authors prose about their muses’ soft skin, he imagines sliding his hand on Wei Ying’s neck. When they talk about the lovely scent of spring, he pictures himself breathing in Wei Ying’s scent. When the texts describe passionate and intense embracing, he…

Well.

He feels ashamed of how much he wants.

He puts the guqin he brought today in front of him, kneeling in a patch of grass. Perhaps if he can play a little he might distract himself of this tangle of emotions that swim all inside him, yearning and hesitating at the same time, desiring and afraid.

It doesn’t work, though, because he ends up playing the song. He ends up playing it for hours.

Wei Ying is walking to their gardens that day when he hears it.

(He has come to start thinking of it as ‘their’ gardens and it’s very ridiculous to think like such, as if a garden could ever belong to him, and especially, could ever belong to him and Lan Zhan together. And yet, he thinks it all the same).

A melody full of longing and melancholy. The strings of the guqin reverberating together as if praying, calling for someone who doesn’t come.

He stops next to Lan Zhan, waiting for the song to come to an end. The way the music waves itself feels like a hand, reaching inside his chest and pulling his heart closer to the surface, only to then push it back to the abyss. This push and pull comes and goes until finally the song is over.

“Wow…” Wei Ying breathes, unable to say anything else.

Lan Zhan doesn’t startle, but his eyes are wide. So he didn’t notice him coming.

“Lan Zhan, that was beautiful.” He finally says, but it doesn’t feel like enough in the wake of what he felt.

“... Thank you.” He says softly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before? But to be honest, most of the songs I know are bar ballads, hahaha.”

Lan Zhan’s expression becomes complicated.

“I… composed it.” He says after some time.

Wei Ying’s eyes bulge out.

“Really?! That is incredible! I can play super well but was never able to create anything. I think my attention span wouldn’t allow it.”

“You play?”

“Ah, yeah.” Wei Ying is assaulted by memories of his flute lessons, being scolded time and time again by the music teacher for going through the music sheets too fast, changing the tempo. “I play the dizi.”

“Hm. It suits you.”

“Haha, you think so? It can also be shrill and annoying, you’re probably right.” Lan Zhan looks like he wants to deny it, so he continues before that, “Hey, Lan Zhan! Let’s play together sometime, how about it?”

Lan Zhan hesitates then nods. He starts playing again, this time another song.

Wei Ying sits by his side, unnecessarily close and he hopes Lan Zhan won’t comment on it. He’s tempted to lean his head on the other’s shoulder and doze off, but when he thinks that it might impede the playing, he decides not to.

Instead he hums along to any chord progression he knows and feel the perfume of the gentians in full bloom.

-:-

Summer gives way to autumn and most of the gentians have wilted. Lan Zhan thinks it’s only appropriate, that his mother’s favorite flowers mourn the anniversary of her death just like him.

He sits in the bench and tips his head back, closing his eyes. He doesn't want to be here. He never wants to be here in this day of the year. The castle walls feel oppressive, everywhere coated with a layer of memories and feelings.

It's been ten years, but it doesn't feel like it. Lan Zhan certainly still grieves like it happened yesterday.

Arriving at his mother's bedroom (his parents had long since given up pretending to be a happily married couple) and watching her fallen on the side of the bed, spitting blood in her hands feels just like yesterday.

That vision haunts him. It haunts him when he dreams and it haunts him when he wakes. Since he was born, he always felt like he was distant from the world. Like everyone was in one side of a screen and he was in the other, watching the passage of time, always a bystander. The one person who reached out to him, who brought him to their side was his mother.

His mother who was dying from some unknown disease.

After her passing, he could not pretend to belong. He could not make himself appeasing, he could not make himself approachable. He wanted to be away, he wanted to be back on his side of the screen, where everything was muted and dull, but at least it wasn't painful.

Warm hands touch his cheeks and his eyes snap open. He almost thinks he's going to see his mother's spirit, but he's met with Wei Ying's worried face instead, looking down on him.

“Lan Zhan?”

He rights himself and tries to wipe the wetness in his eyes discreetly, but of course, it's not possible.

“Lan Zhan, what's wrong?! Did something happened? Shall I call your big brother? Or was it him you fought with? Do I need to beat someone up?”

The onslaught of questions makes his head hurt and he grabs Wei Ying's wrist to make him stop talking. Thankfully, it works. This time, Wei Ying just stands there, looking panicked.

After a long moment of silence, Lan Zhan finds himself speaking.

“Today is… my mother's death anniversary.”

Wei Ying blinks once, twice, then sits by his side on the bench. He looks like he is debating putting a hand on his shoulder or his back, but then simply puts it back on his own lap.

“Ah…” He says, not very eloquently, “That must feel awful, Lan Zhan.”

He nods. Awful is an understatement.

“Lan Zhan, do you need to cry? Because it's fine if you need to. I don't mind lending my shoulder if you want, either.”

“Wei Ying, shut up.”

Wei Ying shuts up.

He's really upset for being seen in such a weak state by him. He's upset he can never be in control of his emotions around him. He's very upset by the fact that he can't introduce Wei Ying to his mother. She would have loved him.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying says softly, “Let's go riding.”

He gets pulled all the way to the stables before stopping.

“We shouldn't leave just by ourselves.”

“Don't worry, we won't go past the walls.”

Lan Zhan waits while the other prepares two horses for them, bringing them by the reins. He mounts Bichen and pets the white and soft mane. It's calming.

“Follow me, okay?”

Wei Ying starts moving, passing through all the places they usually meet, the gardens, the archery grounds. He goes even souther than that and Lan Zhan is left wondering where could they be going.

Soon they reach the end of the stone path, but he doesn't stop. Just continues onwards until there are trees all around them, vegetation becoming denser. There's an interesting noise getting louder the more they ride.

Wei Ying finally stops and Lan Zhan's eyes widen. He knew there was a river crossing inside the palace walls, but he had never come see it. There was no point.

It's a humbling experience, listening to the powerful rushing waters so close. The river must be around ten meters wide, but it's only two meters deep.

They dismount and come closer.

“What do you think?” Wei Ying asks.

“It's beautiful.” He answers honestly. Everything is especially green here and the waters make the world around them sparkle.

“Right!”

Wei Ying rolls his pants until the thighs and enters a more shallow part. He looks so serene, watching the fish swim around his feet. Lan Zhan feels his heart beat faster. The scenery is nothing compared to him.

He splashes around and washes his face. Then he gets out and sits on a particularly large stone next to the shore. He pats his side as a motion to follow.

When he sits, he expects Wei Ying to ask questions about today, but instead he starts talking about his hometown, Yunmeng.

He talks about the blooming lotuses, the wide lake the town had been built around, his favorite spots to climb trees and the enthusiastic merchants that always gave him gifts when he stopped to talk (which was frequently).

He spoke with a lot of fondness, his eyes gone to some place faraway where Lan Zhan couldn't reach.

“This old grandma in particular really liked me. She always gave me loquats for free. I accidentally stumbled on her when I was leaving and she was so upset she gave me a basket with twenty of them! Can you believe it? I stuffed myself full that night.”

“Why?” He asks before he can stop himself.

“Because they were delicious! Sweet and juicy!”

“I mean,” He clears his throat, “why did you leave?”

Instead of immediately going on a spiral about his reasons like he expects, Wei Ying just smiles mysteriously.

“Can I tell you?”

Lan Zhan doesn't know how to answer that. If Wei Ying feels like he can, he can. If not, then not. Lan Zhan won't try to pry. After all it's the same with his mother. He can't talk about her yet and he thinks Wei Ying has noticed this. It's too painful.

“My actual parents died when I was four.” He starts, “A few years after that I was adopted. I can't really remember them, all I know is from other people's stories.”

He says this with an easy smile, so Lan Zhan truly thinks he must not be extremely bothered about it.

“At first I was ecstatic to be adopted. I wouldn't have to worry about my next meal, I wouldn't need to fight dogs and I would have an easy life. And I'm very grateful to uncle for taking me, of course. But then I realized something, you know what?”

He hums, listening intently.

“That anywhere I go, I cause trouble. I'm not saying this in a self-deprecating way, I'm stating a fact. The man who adopted me only did so because he used to be in love with my mom. Because of that, my adoptive mother disliked me. My younger brother, seeing that I'd be praised by him more often, resented me. And my older sister was now put in the spot of managing the emotions of the family.”

Lan Zhan breathes sharply and Wei Ying continues,

“I was always stuck in a fight with someone, because I didn't back down even when I should. I was too prideful. That also brought them a lot of misfortune. But still, I stayed with them for ten years because I was selfish. Even if things were hanging from a rope, I still wanted to belong there.”

“That's only natural.” He says, because he wants to say something, reassure him.

The other smiles like he told a bad joke.

“My brother was promised to a nice girl, whose parents owned land. They were going to wed this summer. The girl was one I often saw before. Because I am playful, Lan Zhan you know this, I often flirted casually with the girls in town.”

He can see where this is going, Lan Zhan thinks painfully.

“She said she fell in love with me, and when I refused to go along with her, she only became more desperate, chasing me left and right.”

Wei Ying abruptly stops, watching the waters while Lan Zhan is left hanging by the end of the story. The birds chirp and the river is loud.

“She tried to kill herself.”

He snaps his head back, looking at the other with wide eyes. To anyone else, Wei Ying would look merely thoughtful, face calm, but Lan Zhan likes to think he has learned a bit about his companion and he can say for sure Wei Ying actually looks a little miserable.

From what he told him, that would make things extremely complicated in a family that was already threatening to fall apart. It was an ugly corner that Wei Ying must have felt he was pushed into, so to not worsen the situation, he ran away.

Lan Zhan takes hold of his hand firmly and forces him to make eye contact, wanting to drive this point home. Because it's important that Wei Ying doesn't blame himself. It's important he knows he will always have a place by Lan Zhan's side.

“Her choice was her own.” He states.

Wei Ying looks at him and then chuckles. He nods a couple of times and sighs.

“Wei Ying. You are not responsible over others' actions. What she did… That is not what being in love means.” He thinks about his father's morbid obsession with his mother, ordering her around, saying what she could or not do out of some misplaced fear that she would leave him. Ironically, all of his actions led to her becoming much more withdrawn from him. That was not love. Love is free. Love makes you free.

Wei Ying makes Lan Zhan free.

“I know, Lan Zhan. You're right. Thank you.” And yet, he doesn't look like he actually believes it. He lays down on the stone, using one hand as a pillow. The other is still in the prince's grasp, secured. “Lan Zhan, tell me whenever you think you're okay to go back. I'm gonna take a nap now.”

Lan Zhan is mildly impressed that Wei Ying realized he wanted to leave the castle so badly. But then he thought he shouldn't be. Wei Ying was a pretty sharp person, when he put his mind to it.

Wei Ying closes his eyes and his breaths soften. Lan Zhan looks at every crevice of his face, studying his handsome features brazenly.

The slope of his nose, the curve of his eye, the plump lips, slightly open. He is beautiful, but not just in appearance. In everything he is beautiful, in every way he is charming.

Lan Zhan traces his cheek with a thumb, very gently.

“I think,” He whispers, “Wei Ying is truly someone who causes trouble.”

He inhales.

“And yet... he's also someone others can't help but want to be with."

He thinks he sees a tremor on Wei Ying's lips and freezes at the possibility of being heard, but it's gone as soon as a second.

A couple of hours later, he wakes Wei Ying so they can ride to the castle before night falls. The other yawns and goes back to being loud and playful, to the point where Lan Zhan could have thought he hallucinated their conversation.

But he hadn't.

When they're back in the stables, Wei Ying turns to him.

“Lan Zhan, let's go riding again sometime!” He smiles, “Next time will be more fun, I promise! I won't bring up anything depressing.”

“No.” Lan Zhan says. He needs to say this, “Thank you for trusting me.”

Wei Ying's eyes light up.

“Hey, you're the same you know? Trust me and come see me whenever you need! Even if you don't want to talk, I can at least be a good distraction!”

Lan Zhan nods and, before he realizes, caresses Wei Ying's cheek with his left hand.

“Good night, Wei Ying.”

He looks surprised. Lan Zhan turns around fast, admonishing himself.

He doesn't notice Wei Ying's bright red blush.

-:-

No mention of Wei Ying’s or Lan Zhan’s past is made again between them. The subject is buried, shoved deep inside their hearts to make way for lighter conversations and easy laughter. Wei Ying feels it, though, the difference in himself after telling someone, like his lungs expand easily in his ribcage.

He whistles a note in the morning, a week later. He's seems to always be in high spirits lately, his chest filled to the brim with something that makes him want to run, laugh, dance. The words he secretly overheard swim around his head. 'He's someone people want to be with', was it? Lan Zhan said that.

He gives a little twirl along with a particularly high whistle, drawing a chuckle from Mo Xuanyu.

"I'm leaving for the next town today." He says amused, preparing a bag with food and clothes.

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, I need to buy supplies. Hey, help me with this."

Wei Ying bounces towards him but trips on a large metal frame by the left side of the door He groans. The thing had been around since he arrived and the amount of times he stumbled on it can't be counted on two hands. It looks dangerous and it wastes a ton of space.

"A-yu, what is this?" He asks, annoyed.

"That's a plough." Mo Xuanyu responds, putting on a heavy coat. Winter is creeping in, slowly but surely. "They used it here in the castle a long time ago, before I came to work.”

"And why is it here?"

"Since it was pulled by farm horses they kept it in the stables, of course."

"No, I mean." Wei Ying gestures, "Why is it here? I've almost lost a leg a hundred times already. Can't I put it in the storeroom?"

"If you're able to move it, then please do." He shrugs, "I never did because my arms are too weak. Now come, come. Give me an actual goodbye so I won’t miss you.”

Wei Ying hugs him tight and watches him ride away to the front gate. Humming, he decides to sweep the floor before moving what he appropriately nicknamed Death Trap in his mind. Stray hays can be slippery, so it’s best to avoid an accident.

After some time he hears footsteps entering the stalls and turns around, surprised.

"A-yu, you forgot something-- Ah." He stops. "Lan Zhan!"

Lan Zhan stands in front of him, looking around the room and shifting from foot to foot awkwardly. He looks like he’s trying to figure out some kind of adequate etiquette for being actually inside the stable.

"I'll go get your horse. Travelling all by yourself, today? That's dangerous."

"No, I..."

Wei Ying waits patiently.

"I came to see you."

"Eh?!" He stares stupefied, "Me?"

"To..." Lan Zhan says with great difficulty, "spend time."

Wei Ying stares at him astonished. But then catches himself and smiles warmly. Hearing Lan Zhan put his honest feelings like that makes him feel like he's walking on a cloud. Weightless. On the verge of falling. That something in his chest that has been exciting him this past week comes back with a force.

Lan Zhan wants to spend time with him. He said so. Now and that day.

"Then let's hang out together, Lan Zhan! Speaking of which, this is the first time you came to me, huh? Is it that you finally can't resist my charms?"

('Yes', Lan Zhan thinks but the word is caught in his throat, 'I can't resist you'.)

Wei Ying gives Lan Zhan a ‘grand’ tour of the stables, making sure to comment on every horse's quirk and personality. Honestly, he doesn't know why Lan Zhan would want to meet him here, where it's dirty, smelly and boring, but he tries to make it worthwhile. When they move past Bichen, the other pets the mane softly and Wei Ying tries not to squeal from cuteness.

"And this, Lan Zhan, is my precious. My baby. The star in my eye." He opens Lil' Apple's stall, "Ta-da!"

"... A donkey." Lan Zhan deadpans.

Wei Ying gasps. "Don't call her that! How rude!"

He covers her ears with his hands in mock distress, but Lil' Apple just takes that opportunity to try and snap her teeth around his fingers, like she's been planning to since the first time he annoyed her. He pulls his arm back, quickly.

"Hahaha, isn't she feisty..." He looks at her in betrayal.

The donkey huffs and glares.

"I'll still win you over one of these days."

Lan Zhan is watching him closely. It's a little embarrassing, being seen playing around with a donkey and also being rejected by it in front of the sophisticated man.

He turns his attention to Lan Zhan's clothes, to try and stave off the burn in his cheeks.

“Oh no, what a shame." The white and usually pristine clothes are full of dust and stray hays and the hem where the robe touches the floor is picking all kinds of dirt. Wei Ying steps close and runs his hands on the other's waist, his arms, trying to wipe it off. "You're getting all dirty. As I thought, I shouldn't have brought you inside, you're too beautiful for a place like this."

Suddenly, hands grab his wrists and Wei Ying looks up.

They're much closer than he expected, standing almost chest to chest. Their barely there height difference makes it more like face to face. Lan Zhan is looking at him with intense eyes and Wei Ying gulps. A blush warms his neck. His eyes drop to the lips in front of him and the hands pull him closer.

Those lips look incredibly enticing. Despite being in the least romantic place possible, Wei Ying only wants to pull him close, so so close, pull his hair and his ribbon and mess it all up. The dirty look, he thinks, could fit Lan Zhan quite well if it was put in place by Wei Ying.

He tilts his head up, about to close his eyes.

Lil' Apple lets a bray so loud, Wei Ying startles back and Lan Zhan lets him go. His heart is beating like a drum, filling his limbs with fire. Oh Gods, he almost did something very stupid.

"Haha. Haha. Lan Zhan, I just remembered I need to get this thing somewhere else!”

He practically shoves the other aside in his embarrassment, running closer to the plough. He fans himself for a second. Stupid. Then he drops to a crouch.

"Do you need help?"

"Of course not!" He exclaims much louder than necessary, "Of course not, Lan Zhan shouldn't have to do this!"

Lifting with his knees, he stands up and the heavy metal structure weighs down his arms. He takes careful steps towards the storeroom, all too aware of Lan Zhan's presence behind him.

He was so close just a few minutes ago. He was close and soft and real and he looked at Wei Ying's lips like it was a treat and Wei Ying is sure he was looking back the same way. It's ridiculous just how much his legs are begging him to turn back, to kiss his lips and neck, his ears, to give himself completely and take it all in return. It's ridiculous how much he loves Lan Zhan.

Holy shit.

He loves Lan Zhan.

The grip in his hands slackens.

The plough drops on his foot.

He hears a scream tear from his throat but he doesn't feel it leaving his mouth. All that he feels is a sharp point of pain running up his leg. Distantly, he thinks Lan Zhan is also calling his name distressed.

"It's fine!" He tries to smile but it comes out weak. "It's fine, Lan Zhan, I'm okay!"

He takes a sharp breath and his leg spasms. It's not okay. Lan Zhan kneels down and that's when Wei Ying realizes he's fallen to the floor at some point. He puts an arm under his knees, the other under his shoulders and stands, carrying him to the castle almost running.

"L-Lan Zhan, there's really no need!" Wei Ying stammers.

Lan Zhan levels him with a stare so dangerous he shuts up before he has to worry about more than just a hurt foot.

They reach the castle hallways and the few servants idling about widen their eyes and start whispering. Wei Ying can only imagine how they look like, Lan Zhan filthy like he rolled around in hay and dirt and Wei Ying being carried in his arms. All manners of shameless deeds must be popping up in their heads.

"Sorry, everyone. We're eloping!" He laughs faintly. It feels like his lungs are too busy worrying about calming his heart to do anything else.

"Do not joke." Lan Zhan says sharply.

Wei Ying shuts up. Right, he's making Lan Zhan lose a lot of face because of his own dumb clumsiness. To be so affected by the simple proximity with the prince that he couldn’t even do basic tasks... His face flushes with embarrassment and his leg throbs.

"You are hurt." The prince says, more softly.

He nods and lets himself be carried.

Soon they reach a chamber with multiple bedroom areas separated by curtains. The cabinets on the wall are filled with medicinal herbs in pots and pans and acupuncture sets. The light of the morning gives the place an aura of fragility.

"Doctor Wen." Lan Zhan calls, stepping inside.

The moment they hear, the two occupants in the room immediately spring into motion. The woman directs him into the closest bed.

"Bring him here." She says, firmly.

"I just hurt my foot!" He protests, "It's not so serious."

The woman he supposes is the doctor throws him a glare.

"The doctor," She emphasizes, "will be the judge of that. Wen Ning, cut the laces in his boot."

His foot has swollen so much the leather of his shoe is strained against the flesh, the laces stuck firmly in place. Wei Ying dreads to see what it looks like underneath.

"Y-yes." The apparently medical assistant makes quick work of cutting everything off.

When all the leather is out, he winces. His foot looks like a potato, completely formless. There is a big reddish purple bruise spread on all his fingers except the toe. There doesn’t seem to be anything weirdly bent out of shape, at least, and for that he’s grateful.

“Not serious, he says.” Doctor Wen grumbles.

“Y-Your Highness, would you like to s-sit?” Wen Ning stutters when it becomes clear Lan Zhan doesn't intend to leave.

"I'm fine. How is he?"

"His foot is obviously broken in a couple of places." She says, "I'll make a splinter for you to use inside your shoes at all times and a herbal salve to ease the pain. Other than that, there’s not much to do than let it heal by itself. You should stay off it and put it up as often as possible."

"That's gonna be difficult." Wei Ying mutters.

"Well, try it if you wanna get better faster. Let me get some ice for the swelling.”

She leaves the room in a hurry and everything becomes quiet. The medical assistant picks up some spare crutches Wei Ying is sure he's going to need from a closet and sits down next to him.

“So! Fortunately I haven’t been acquainted with you yet!” He claps, looking to the helper, “No offense.”

“N-none taken.” Wen Ning seems terrified of being addressed directly.

“I’m Wei Ying, courtesy Wuxian from the stables.”

“Wen Ning, courtesy Qionglin, m-medical assistant…” The boy seems more nervous with each word he utters, closing in on himself. Wei Ying thinks it’s a shame. If he had just a little bit of confidence, he could become pretty cute.

“Wen Ning! Nice to meet you.” He laughs, “Sorry for the trouble.”

“It’s no trouble…” Wen Ning looks down, crestfallen, “I’m s-sorry for not being… very helpful…”

“What?!” Wei Ying exclaims, “What are you saying? I don’t know you for long, but you responded really well and fast when we just barged in like that!” He leans over to pat the boy in the knee, “Besides, if you’re trying your best, that’s the most important! Everything else will follow.”

Wen Ning flushes deeply by the compliment, looking bashfully at his feet.

“Thank you.”

There's a sudden grunt and the two of them look towards Lan Zhan, who is staring at Wen Ning with such vehemence Wei Ying is surprised the boy doesn’t self combusts on the spot.

“I-I’ll go see if sister needs help!”

He flees the scene faster than one can blink.

“Haha, Lan Zhan, you scared him off!”

“Hm.” Lan Zhan frowns, eyes trailing after Wen Ning's figure with something that almost looks like embarrassment. "I'll... apologise."

Wei Ying can see the aggravation in his eyes and sighs. It’s only natural if he’s angry, after all, he made Lan Zhan carry him all the way inside the castle, losing his serious and stoic reputation in front of others. Wei Ying couldn’t care less about what they think of him, but Lan Zhan is a different story. He is a prince.

"Sorry, Lan Zhan."

"Focus on healing." He says softly, expression clearing up. He stays there with him until all the procedure is done.

After that, Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen’s hunting trips suspiciously stop for awhile.

-:-

Time passes and the 18th birthday of Prince Lan Wangji comes. His foot has completely healed in time for the celebration, thankfully, since he and Mo Xuanyu will have much more horses to take care off during the esteemed guests’ stay.

Because the invitations were so many, they open the spare stable on the back reserved specifically for such occasions. Wei Ying had a lot of idle time, since his friend refused to let him do any of the more strenuous tasks, so he focused on perfecting Lan Zhan’s present. He hopes he likes it.

After they brushed all the new horses they were in charge of, Wei Ying walks to the south gardens, carrying behind him what he’ll use for Lan Zhan’s gift. It’s early afternoon and the place is empty. Of course, he’ll try to see Lan Zhan today, but it’s not probable. He must be very busy inside keeping the nobles and masters company and building relations with them.

He leans on a light pole and waits.

A few hours later, when he’s almost giving up, a white clad figure appears a couple of meters away. He perks up and calls.

“Lan Zhan!”

Wei Ying could swear he sees his eyes soften and the tense lines on his shoulder relax, but it might just be his wishful thinking.

“I’m glad I got to see you! I didn’t know if you’d make it, since it’s your birthday and all.”

Standing next to each other, he notices Lan Zhan looks especially elegant today. The robe he usually wears has been circled by an ornate silver belt and his hair is braided, adorned with diamond pins all along its length. Wei Ying almost loses his breath, but he can’t allow himself to. It’s important for the present.

“Wei Ying.” He says, softly.

“Actually, I have a surprise for you! Come, sit.”

They sit down side by side on one of the benches, a small fountain trickling constant water in front of them. Wei Ying clears his throat and pulls out the flute from behind his back.

Lan Zhan’s eyes widen.

“That’s…”

“Now, Lan Zhan!” He interrupts before he can lose his courage, “Since I made this from some leftover bamboo, it will definitely not sound very good, but just think of the intentions okay? The intent is what matters!”

“You made it?”

“Mhm, now listen.”

Lan Zhan straightens his back on the bench and nods, listening properly.

Wei Ying takes a deep breath and licks his lips. He tries not to be nervous, but it’s been so long since he played for someone else and this is Lan Zhan. He knows he butchered the beautiful song of that day, since he didn’t have the music sheets available and his memory is not the best. The notes towards the end sound a little funny and it might be the poorly crafted flute or it might just be him.

But this is all he can give Lan Zhan, so he relaxes his shoulders and plays.

The melancholy he remembers is there, but it sounds different in a flute than in a guqin. Instead of inducing a sense of hopeless and aching, the song takes the distinct turn of sounding rather like a promise. Like an answer to the call that has been waiting for so long.

The melody is soft and tranquil. The hand that pushes and pulls has calmed, simply holding his heart gently.

The last notes, the ones Wei Ying is last confident on, end the song a little awkwardly, but he thinks the message he was trying to convey was delivered. Lan Zhan doesn’t need to call for someone to understand him anymore. Wei Ying will listen.

He lowers the dizi and opens his eyes, “Happy birthday.”

Lan Zhan is looking at him, his jaw fallen, the most surprise he has ever shown on his face.

“Wei Ying…”

He jumps in place and interrupts again, feeling the flush color his cheeks, “Man, I know I played the end wrong. Sorry, Lan Zhan, your song probably sounded awful! I couldn’t remember the last notes, that finish the song with a bang, so I improvised. I know it’s a shitty gift, but--”

“No.” Lan Zhan interrupts his rambling. He places his hand on Wei Ying’s wrist. “Thank you.”

Then Lan Zhan smiles.

Wei Ying can’t help it, he gasps. This is the first time he’s seen Lan Zhan smile and it’s incredible. His golden eyes are softened by the lifted cheeks, his whole expression looks lighter and tender, and his lips.

Wei Ying just wants to keep staring at those lips forever, at that so beautiful faint curve.

He stares and stares and stares. He feels like he’s in a daze and everything that exists in the world is Lan Zhan and him and nothing else. He puts his hand on Lan Zhan’s shoulders and leans closer, feeling the other’s breath on his cheeks.

“You liked it?”

“Hm.”

The smile still hasn’t left and Wei Ying closes the distance even more. He lowers his eyelids, feels drunk in a proximity he's been dreaming of since that day in the stables. There’s a sandalwood scent wafting to his nose and he whispers,

“You really did?”

“Yes.” Lan Zhan breathes and maybe he’s going to say more but then they touch their lips together.

It’s so brief and fragile it could be a butterfly’s wings, fluttering away the next second, but it’s not because Wei Ying feels the fast beat in his heart and knows it couldn’t be anything else but the man in front of him.

“Lan Zhan…” He says against the other’s mouth, still dazed, still drunk and suddenly there are hands cupping his face and insistent lips slamming against his.

He moans. Lan Zhan probes his mouth until he gives and then they’re sliding their tongues together. Wei Ying sucks Lan Zhan’s tongue and bites him and the hands around his face quickly descend to his waist, pulling him closer. His own hands feel like stone where they’re placed in Lan Zhan’s shoulders, grabbing his clothes so hard they might tear, but he can’t move them, he's unable to. He can only focus on the tongue inside his mouth, filling him, hot and unyielding and the shameless gasps and whines he’s making. Lan Zhan kisses him like he’s looking for something, chasing sounds from his throat, pulling his heart strings with his fervor.

Warmth is pooling low in his belly as he kisses and licks the slope Lan Zhan’s smile, pulls the lower lip with his teeth sensually. Faintly, he thinks he must be going crazy, because it occurs to him to just stay like this forever. Forever feeling the drag of tongue, forever feeling the squeeze in his waist. Right now, in this moment, he’s certain he’d be able to survive without food or water, as long as Lan Zhan pulls him close, nothing else matters. His heart is beating so loud it gives rhythm to their movement, a beat that only they can follow.

They kiss for what feels like hours and then the heat in that cold winter day cools down enough to let them pull apart and breathe. Wei Ying can only imagine what he looks like, lips swollen, face flushed and hair a mess.

Lan Zhan in front of him doesn’t look much different. The blush in his cheeks looks so alluring. Wei Ying presses his fingers against the redness, tenderly.

The spell is broken.

He sees Lan Zhan's eyes widening and a boulder drops in his stomach. Wei Ying just kissed the prince. Wei Ying just kissed the prince so hard he can't feel his legs on the day of his birthday, hours away from his ceremony.

He swallows around the dryness in his throat and says weakly, “Lan Zhan, I…”

Lan Zhan stands abruptly, taking all the warmth in Wei Ying's body with him. He turns around and goes, storms back towards the castle.

Wei Ying could follow. He isn’t going fast enough that he wouldn't be able to stop him. But all the strength in his knees was stolen by the kiss and all the courage in his heart was stolen by the view of Lan Zhan’s back to him.

After another half hour, when the sun is already dipping down in the distance, he is finally able to pull himself together and trudge to the stables, all the weight of the world pulling him to the ground.

When he gets there, a fit of rage fills his core and he kicks a bucket away, stomping angrily. He fucked up.

He falls onto a stool and puts his face on his hands.

He fucked up.

That’s how Mo Xuanyu finds him, hunched on himself, gripping his hair so tight his scalp is screaming in pain. His friend quickly asks him what’s wrong but Wei Ying can only shake his head. There’s no explanation to what he’s done, at least no explanation that matters.

Mo Xuanyu doesn’t ask anymore, but he pets his back and tries to get him to relax a little. Wei Ying takes a nap so he will be able to forget what happened, but it doesn’t work when his dreams are plagued by Lan Zhan’s face, the way he held Wei Ying’s waist so passionately, the touch burning even now.

Because today is the special banquet being served in honor of the second prince, the servants will dine much later. The royal family and high nobility naturally always eats first. After that, the priority goes to the guards and knights. Only then the servants are allowed to eat the remains.

At around three in the morning, with the frost of Gusu’s winter chilling them to the bones, Mo Xuanyu and him make their way to the servants' quarters.

Despite the late hour, everyone is agitated and there’s a sense of unease permeating the air. They sit in the table and Wei Ying notices there seems to be a lot of food today, despite the festive occasion that should have left them resigned to scraps.

“Wow, are you sure all this food is for us?” He asks, unable to keep quiet.

One of the women responsible for serving the nobles' tables leans in and motions for them to come closer.

“The feast actually ended early today.” She whispers in a volume that is not a whisper at all.

Wei Ying and Mo Xuanyu listen attentively. The gossip from those who work closely with the royal family is always the best part of dinner.

“The second prince challenged his uncle for the first time!”

Wei Ying’s expression falls. He didn’t expect the gossip to be about the person he’s trying not think of. Yet, he’s still very curious since it’s not everyday that the prince gives others something to talk about.

“Lan Zhan did?” He says, putting more food in his plate, feigning disinterest, “What happened?”

The servant nods, “Since it’s his 18th birthday, the king announced during dinner that it was time for the prince to find a betrothed and gestured towards a noble maiden, saying he had arranged a marriage for him and that they should also celebrate that.” She looks around her carefully, as if making sure no one can hear whatever scandalous bit happened next.

“Now, I wasn’t there when this happened, but my friend who was refilling the water said His Highness Wangji stood up abruptly. He stared the king right in the eye and said...” She leans even closer.

“‘Uncle, I am in love.’”

Wei Ying drops the fork.

“In front of everyone! Including said betrothed!”

His jaw drops. He jumps from the chair, practically yelling, “Lan Zhan said that?!”

Mo Xuanyu pulls him back, hissing, “Quiet, do you want the entire castle to hear?!”

He lets himself be pulled, a thousand thoughts running through his head. Lan Zhan is in love. And it’s probably with him.

The incredible happiness that threatens to burst on his chest is easily squashed by the fear crawling in his veins.

He stands up and runs back to the stables, away from all of them. His breathing is coming out harsh, he can’t seem to keep air inside his lungs. His hands are trembling. Lan Zhan is in love with him. Lan Zhan is in love with him.

He shouldn’t be.

Memories of that fateful day come rushing unintentionally, when he found the letter destined to him, a letter speckled with blood. The blood of the girl that tried to take her life because of him.

Madam Yu’s angry voice, telling him this time he’s really done it, ringing in his ears. He didn’t just ruin everything for Jiang Cheng as usual, oh no. He also ruined someone’s life. He ruined her.

That’s what he does to people. He ruins them.

He’s going to ruin Lan Zhan. He’s going to fuck up and this time it won’t be something he can run away from because this is the prince of his country.

A manic laugh bubbles from his lips. It’s already happening again. Lan Zhan refused to wed a maiden who will no doubt grant the realm many advantages and who will actually be able to make a heir, to please the king and others, all because of him. Wei Ying corrupted him.

The tears are running freely down his face when Mo Xuanyu grabs his shoulder and spins him around.

“A-ying, what’s wrong?!”

“It’s me.” He says, weakly. “A-yu, I fell in love with Lan Zhan and I think… I think he fell in love with me too.”

Mo Xuanyu looks deeply perplexed, “But A-ying, isn’t that a good thing?”

“It’s not.” He whispers, pulling the shorter man’s arms around him, crying in his shoulder, “It’s not, A-yu, you know better than anyone that we can’t be together. He’s a prince, he might not be a crown prince, but he’s still an important person and I…” He bites his lips so hard he draws blood, “I’m just a servant. More than that, I’m not… I’m not someone he should love.”

Wei Ying gasps.

“I need to leave. I need to go away again. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Mo Xuanyu hugs him tighter and feels the shaking of his form. Wei Ying keeps mumbling the same thing, that he must go away. After quite some time, when the tremors finally subside, Mo Xuanyu asks.

“There’s no way I can convince you to stay?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

He nods. He sees the defeated look in Wei Ying and he hates it. He hates the wetness in his eyes, the weakness in his hands. It doesn’t suit him. Wei Ying is the brightest soul Mo Xuanyu knows and any fucking noble, any fucking Gods-essence-blood-having shithead out there would be lucky to have him. It doesn’t matter if a prince, king, divine being of whatever riches descends to this world wanting Wei Ying, they still wouldn’t be deserving of his brilliance and Mo Xuanyu will stand by that.

But if Wei Ying loves this prince… Then he will do anything to make it right. Even if two men, a prince and a servant is wrong, Mo Xuanyu will force it to be right. It’s only what his friend deserves. It’s what he himself deserves. He deserves to see someone like him have a happy ending after the horrors he endured in the Jin estate.

“You’ll freeze to death if you leave during the night in the middle of winter.” He says, calmly, “At least wait until sunrise. Prince Wangji will not come seeking you out right now, it’d be madness.”

Wei Ying wipes the wetness in his cheeks and nods.

“You’re right. I’ll pack and wait.”

Mo Xuanyu looks him over once more and nods. He’ll make this right. He gets a horse from the visitor’s stable so Wei Ying doesn’t notice and leaves for the castle.

The guards in the front entrance look at him with distrust, despite knowing Mo Xuanyu for years now. It’s part of being a lower class man who openly loves men in the middle of power-hungry authority types who think kissing royals’ boots is the biggest blessing out there.

Mo Xuanyu internally scoffs and dismounts the horse.

“I must speak to the crown prince. It’s urgent.”

One of the guards eyes him with repulsion.

“What could you have of importance to say to Our Highness.”

The other shoves his shoulder and sneers.

“Scram. The crown prince wants nothing with you.”

“It might occur to you to consult him first, the next time.”

The two guards turn to stone, hearing the voice behind them. Prince Xichen steps forward, the usual smile in his face not suggesting gentleness at all. Rather, it suggests pure hostility.

“I hope my ears have deceived me. I was taking a walk to clear my mind when I heard someone claim to have urgent matters with me be forced out without being consulted about it. Do you, perhaps, not respect my authority? Simple guards making choices for the crown prince?”

“O-of course not, Your Highness!” They stammer and step back, giving Mo Xuanyu and the prince some semblance of privacy.

Mo Xuanyu slightly makes himself smaller. He hates dealing with royalty, no matter how nice they appear. But he must admit the words of the prince made him feel a little better. They made him feel like he’s worth listening to.

“What did you want to tell me?” Xichen smiles softly, this time.

“Your Highness knows who Prince Wangji is in love with.” He states.

“Ah, yes.” The prince says, awkward, “Wei Wuxian?”

He nods, “A-ying loves him too.”

Prince Xichen looks more shocked than he ought to be. Wei Ying can be rather obvious. Mo Xuanyu himself had an inkling to what was going on long before tonight.

“He’s obviously so in love, but he refuses to believe this can go right. Your Highness understands what I mean.”

He does. A prince and a servant? Two men?

“He intends to leave at sunrise.” Mo Xuanyu continues, giving the prince the reins of the horse, “At this point, only His Highness Wangji can convince him. I imagine he was put in the seclusion cottage by the king, right? This horse will make it quick. Bring him back.”

The seclusion cottage is somewhat of an open secret to the occupants of the palace. A place to isolate those of royal blood who need to meditate and contemplate their sins, to become closer to the Gods. A place where the late queen spent much time confined in due to the king's mad orders, according to the hushed gossip late at night. A distant, hidden place that only the royal family knows how to enter.

Lan Xichen accepts the reins but raises an eyebrow, amused.

“That almost sounds like an order, stable boy...”

Mo Xuanyu snaps.

“This is about my friend! And if you love your brother, it’s about him too!”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, he freezes. Immediately he bows, staring at the floor. He was completely insubordinate to the crown prince, the highest ranked person in the country, save for the king. He feels a slight tremor on his arms, the phantom pains of his father’s cane sneaking on his skin. However, what was said is already said. He can’t take back what he actually believes.

His hands shakes and he continues.

“Y-Your Highness has my reluctant courtesy and respect for being the prince, but I won’t hold back if my best friend’s h-happiness is at stake. I’ll choose to put my trust on you, d-despite really not wanting to.”

At some point he looks up from his feet and notices the prince is smiling warmly at him, like it was all a test. He blushes.

“I’m sorry! Excuse me!”

He ends his small speech and bows once more. Then he’s running as fast as he can, before the prince decides to have his head on a platter.

The night comes to an end. The first rays of the sun peek over the horizon. Everything is quiet, even the birds and the wind. Nothing would mark this day as any different than the others before, only the heaviness in his heart.

Wei Ying puts on his backpack and hugs Mo Xuanyu once more.

“I’m really sorry for this, A-yu. I’ll send you letters once I settle down again.”

During their goodbyes, he thought Mo Xuanyu would be very emotional and upset. Yet, he looks at Wei Ying with something that is almost serenity. He runs his hand on Wei Ying’s hair one last time.

“It’s fine. Do what you must.”

Wei Ying steadies himself and makes the track to the front gate. He passes the archery grounds. He passes Lan Zhan’s (not their) garden. He walks the stone pathways until he’s almost at the entrance, giving one last glance at everything, to solidify this place into memory. His heart clenches.

He looks over the castle, splendid and imposing in the morning light. Magnificent if only for the lovely jade it keeps within.

Lan Zhan will probably be so disappointed. He’ll be so hurt. But it’s fine. It’s better this way in the long run. And Wei Ying…

Wei Ying will move on, like he always does.

He’s about to step outside when a yell makes him stop.

“Wei Ying!”

Lan Zhan is riding towards him in a black horse, fast like an arrow that pierces the wind.

“Lan Zhan…” he breathes.

The prince practically jumps from the horse still moving, almost falling on his face, no composure whatsoever. He looks desperate, panting and sweaty. ‘Damn it’, Wei Ying thinks. He wanted to avoid this. He wanted to avoid having to look in Lan Zhan’s stunning golden eyes and say he has to leave.

He is about to open his mouth again when the prince throws himself forward, gathering him into a tight, distressed embrace. The strong arms circle his shoulders as if Wei Ying is the source of Lan Zhan’s life and letting go would mean certain death.

“L-Lan Zhan.” He stammers, trying to pull himself off. “Let go!”

He only feels the shake of his head and the hug becomes impossibly tighter.

“Why?” Lan Zhan says, voice so meek and raw that it brings tears to Wei Ying’s eyes, “Wei Ying, why?”

He hesitantly returns the hug. He doesn’t dare want this, he needs to remind himself. Wanting this is bad, it will only make everything worse. But he’s so tired of running away and Lan Zhan is so warm, the chill of winter completely vanishes.

The feelings of their kiss flash into his head and the sandalwood scent luls him into soon hugging back just as tight, just as desperate.

“I’m sorry.” He whimpers, “I’m sorry I ruined everything again. I’m sorry I ruined you.”

Lan Zhan just keeps shaking his head. He pulls back only enough to cradle Wei Ying’s face in his hands, looking into his eyes intensely. There’s so much fondness in his gaze that it’s enough to draw a sob out of his lips.

“Wei Ying, you could never ruin me.” He whispers, “You could only make me happy.”

He pulls him closer and chastely kisses his mouth. Then he kisses him again and again.

This time, there’s no heat, there’s no ardent passion. What fuels these kisses is not fire, but water; constant, deep, reassuring, comforting. The kiss tastes salty because of Wei Ying’s tears, or maybe they’re Lan Zhan’s but it’s still so so sweet.

When they part, the emotions running rampant in his heart calm down, settle inside of him like the steady current of a river, washing all impurities away. Lan Zhan is looking at him like he hung the sun, the moon and all the stars at once.

“Wei Ying, let me make my choice.” He says, breathless, “Remember my words from that day. This is my choice.”

“Lan Zhan, there’s so much that could go wrong.” He tries, because it’s really a losing battle by now. The hands that pull him by the waist, the nose pressed against his cheek. Wei Ying is losing a battle against reason and Lan Zhan is ready to catch him when he falls. “We’re both men. I’m just a servant. Just my personality in general is guaranteed to--”

Lan Zhan kisses him.

“Don’t think about any of that.” He says, “Just tell me what you truly want.”

Wei Ying looks at the love in his eyes and smiles.

“I want you.” He whispers, because it feels sacrilegious to say it any louder, “I fancy you. I love you. I whatever you. I can’t leave you. It has to be you. Now and always.”

Lan Zhan smiles too, and it’s so bright it’s blinding.

He nods, determined, and pulls Wei Ying’s wrist so they can ride together back to the castle.

He continues pulling, striding resolute to the front doors. The guards outside open them with haste, shocked to see the second prince there and holding onto Wei Ying of all things. They walk to the throne room and the guards open those doors as well.

Inside the room, King Lan Qiren is talking sternly with two figures clad in purple. When they enter, he stands from the throne with wide infuriated eyes, taking in the sight of his nephew. The guests who were talking also look at them.

It’s Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli.

Wei Ying gulps. Uh-oh.

“A-xian…” Yanli breathes, jaw falling open.

“Lan Wangji!” The king exclaims loudly. He takes a step forward and tries to stare his nephew into submission, “Who allowed you to leave seclusion!”

If Lan Zhan is intimidated, he doesn’t show. He simply takes a step forward as well and shows him Wei Ying’s wrist, still in his grasp.

“Uncle,” He says, firmly, “This is the boy I fell in love with. I wish to properly court him. I wish to win his affections and then I wish to marry him.” He takes his forehead ribbon off and ties it in four loops around his wrist.

With every word and action, the king’s face becomes redder and redder, to the point where it looks like it might explode.

“What do you think you’re saying!!” Lan Qiren screams, seething, and looks at Wei Ying’s stained and plain clothes with barely veiled disgust, “This is a stables’ boy!!”

“No.” Jiang Cheng says, face no less angry than the king’s, “He’s our missing brother.”

 

The silence is deafening.

“... Surprise?” Wei Ying laughs faintly.

Everyone in the room is looking at him when the doors behind them bang open.

Lan Xichen enters, breathing hard and holding his side with difficulty.

“Brother,” He wheezes, “You left me at the seclusion cottage and took the horse.”

“... Sorry.” Lan Zhan says, not very apologetic at all.

Wei Ying bursts out laughing.

The scene is so ridiculous he can’t help himself. He laughs until he has to hold his belly because it hurts. The tense mood in the throne room disperses somewhat after that.

“Your Majesty.” Jiang Yanli says, looking at the king gently, “The truth is, I was also looking to cancel the engagement. That’s why our parents sent us here directly. I’ve also fallen in love, with the heir of the Jin estate.”

She bows respectfully and Lan Qiren pets his impressive goatee with irritation.

While they talk, Wei Ying sees Jiang Cheng storming in their direction. Considering the furious look on his face, Lan Zhan moves minutely in front of him, to act as a shield if necessary, but Wei Ying knows his brother like the palm of his hand. He holds Lan Zhan’s arm to stop him.

Jiang Cheng is absolutely snarling when he reaches them, punching Wei Ying hard in the arm.

“Ow!” He whines, “That’s how you welcome your precious brother?!”

Then Jiang Cheng hugs him.

To say Wei Ying was not expecting that is an understatement. He stares wide eyed at the crown of Jiang Cheng’s head, who is holding his middle tightly.

“Jiang Cheng…” He says softly, “My clothes are all dirty.”

“I don’t care you idiot!!” He growls, shoving his face on Wei Ying’s neck, “You fucker! You better not let me out of this hug because that’s the only thing stopping me from breaking your legs!!”

Jiang Cheng’s voice cracks somewhere in that phrase, completely ruining the threat, but Wei Ying doesn’t mind. He hugs back, feeling the wetness spreading on his nape.

Jiang Yanli approaches them and joins in on the hug, wrapping her skinny arms around them both.

“I’m so happy to see my family whole again.”

Wei Ying feels his heart clog his throat.

“Sis…”

“Why did you leave?!” Jiang Cheng pulls back, looking at his eyes, “And don’t you dare give me some bullshit excuse, I see through you!!”

Wei Ying says meekly, avoiding their eyes, “Mian mian…”

Both Jiang Cheng and Yanli stare at him astonished. Is it really so unimaginable that he would want to get away after such a thing happened? Jiang Cheng’s features soon change back to his signature angry scowl.

“You idiot! You fucking idiot! Luo Qingyang is fine! All is fine!”

Wei Ying blinks, “What?”

“She never attempted suicide at all! It was all fake!”

“What…” He says, “are you saying?”

“A-xian,” his sister steps forward, seeing this conversation is going nowhere, “Maiden Luo did not actually commit suicide. She was being forced into the marriage against her will by her father and staged it all so she could run away.” She places a hand on Wei Ying’s forearm, grounding him. And thank the Gods for that, because he feels like he’ll lose the floor under his feet any second. “We found out a couple of weeks after everything.”

“You are a fool!” Jiang Cheng slaps the back of his head and screams in his face, “Why did you run before things were resolved!” He slaps again, “Did you think we were going to take your life for hers?! Why didn’t you have faith in us!”

Jiang Cheng gives him a final slap and Wei Ying snaps, shoving his arm away.

“That's all well and good!” He says, angrily, “But even so Madam Yu still hated me! Uncle Jiang still sacrificed his family for a nobody!” He feels tears well in his eyes again. Why is he being such a crybaby today? “And Jiang Cheng, you love me but you also resented me! It’s fine! It’s all fine! Because I understand it all, so why couldn’t I leave without making any more trouble! I just wanted you guys to be happy!"

He’s left panting by the end of it and Yanli looks at him shocked.

Jiang Cheng punches his arm again and then hugs him again.

“You idiot. You idiot.”

This time Wei Ying is the one who hides his face in his brother’s neck. It’s almost reminiscent of the times he was scared by dogs and Jiang Cheng comforted him (after making sure the creatures had gone away). He’d grumble and mumble his displeasure at being hugged, and yet he hugged back just as much.

“A-xian…” Yanli tucks a strand of his hair behind his ear, “All you said is true. But our mother’s insecurities are her own. Our father’s choices are his own. And A-cheng’s feelings are also his own. You were never the one at fault, our choices on how we treated you were always our own.”

She leans her head in her brothers’ shoulders, all still closely embraced.

“I’m sorry you felt like you had to bear it all. I promise you, we regretted it so much when you left. Even mother.”

Wei Ying almost smiles through his tears, remembering Lan Zhan who said it all to him today as well as weeks ago. That he wasn’t responsible for others' actions. He was never responsible.

“I’m sorry too.” He sniffs, “I’m sorry for not having faith in you.”

The three stay cuddled together in the middle of the throne room long into the new morning, completely forgetting the rest of the people watching such a heartwarming reunion.

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Ying’s face, full of tears and snot.

He smiles.

-:-

After that huge scene in the palace, Lan Qiren very reluctantly accepted his nephew’s feelings for the secretly young master posing as a servant. Especially since that technically meant the alliances he planned with the Jiang estate would continue on. The Jiangs fixed and re-tied the bonds with their estranged brother and excitedly sent a letter to their parents, communicating everything that happened. The second prince’s 18th birthday finally ended in peace, after a very unpleasant beginning.

“And Lan Zhan and I rode into the sunset on our way to elope! The end!”

“What are you saying?” Mo Xuanyu laughs, “That all happened yesterday.”

“A-yu!” He whines, “Don’t ruin my fun! Now, tell me the truth. You totally knew this was gonna happen. That’s why you weren’t sobbing into my chest when I was about to leave!”

Mo Xuanyu rolls his eyes fondly, “Who do you think told His Highness Xichen about your departure?”

Wei Ying leans closer and says mischievously, “Yeah? Is that the next official couple? You and Lan Xichen?”

Mo Xuanyu blushes, “He’s okay… for a noble.”

Wei Ying laughs.

“Hahaha, my dear friend. You’ve been corrupted!”

“Don’t I know it?” Mo Xuanyu smiles, “Though I think one stable boy slash high royalty romance is enough for this place. I don’t think the king will be able to handle another one.”

Wei Ying winks, “Just wait until Prince Xichen’s coronation in october. Then he won’t be able to do anything about it.”

“Wei Wuxian, you madman.”

They laugh together some more when footsteps alerts them to a new person in the stables. Prince Lan Wangji stands outside, looking at Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan!” He runs to his lover and pecks his lips, “We’re riding today?”

“Hm.”

Wei Ying enters the stable and starts preparing Bichen. He does it quickly and efficiently, setting the saddle, tying the travel pouches and two ribbons. One red and one white with blue. He brings Bichen outside.

“Why are you doing that?” Mo Xuanyu comments, “You don’t work here anymore, outsider!”

Wei Ying laughs and throws an arm on his shoulder.

“A-yu, don’t worry! I’ll come visit whenever I can!” He sniffs dramatically, “I’ll never forget the days I shovelled shit with you!”

“You’re living in the castle, A-ying, I can just drag you here whenever I want!”

Wei Ying ruffles his hair and smiles, “Aw, you’re no fun.”

Lan Zhan clears his throat loudly.

“Wei Ying.” He says, in his own teasing way.

Wei Ying bounces to him, hugging him around the neck.

“My, Lan Zhan, don’t be so jealous! I’m just saying goodbye to my friend!”

“Hm.”

“Hahaha, Lan Zhan, you’re so cute!” He kisses the pink ear in front of him, his jaw and then pulls back, before he gets ahead of himself, “Let’s go!”

They walk to Bichen, who is waiting patiently for his owner. Lan Zhan mounts on the saddle and extends his hand down to him. Wei Ying grins and climbs up, hugging his waist tight, basically molding himself to Lan Zhan’s back.

“Lan Zhan, what should I do? You always ride so fast I have no choice but to hold you tight!”

He sees the small smile Lan Zhan is trying to hide and presses a soft kiss to his shoulder.

They ride together, no destination in mind, until the sun sets. Hairs flowing in the wind, hearts filled with love.