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There is one very important lesson that Lan Wangji learns when he is still a little boy.

This lesson has been deeply marked inside his soul, by the Lan clan, by his uncle, the sect rules, but most importantly, by watching his parents. Or rather, by not watching his parents, because he can only see his mother once a month and his father even less.

The lesson is plain and simple: love is bad.

He hears the scorn of the Lan elders when they repeat over and over how the Lan men always become fools when in love. He nods obediently to his uncle’s instructions, to not contact his soulmate as he must focus on his studies, his cultivation rather than inane things like that.

He knows what his father’s love did to his mother, a gentle being locked behind walls, forced to see her children once in a full moon. A prisoner in her own house, never complaining, never less kind over the choice that was robbed of her. Even when he’s too young to understand, he still knows it’s not something he’d wish for anyone.

Being soulmates did not save his parents’ love, is what he learns.

As such, he puts the notion of soulmates aside. He’s aware that when golden cores are properly cultivated, the spiritual energy will bind itself with someone else’s, the person who will most complement him and his cultivation. But he’s aware of it in the way someone’s aware of a trivial, easily dismissed fact, like the footnote of a study book he’ll only skim his eyes over.

That's what works for him and for a long time his soulmate ignores him too. Even after his mother's death, even after realizing that waiting in front of the cottage door would yield no results, there is no comfort in characters drawn on his skin. After he closes himself off even more than before, in a way only his brother can interpret, nothing new comes from anywhere.

He doesn’t think more of it other than a ‘oh, well’ and moves on. There’s no resentment or anger in his heart for this distant person, only indifference.

All of that changes when he’s nine years old.

He is preparing for bed when a light sensation in his arm makes him stop his movements. Pulling the sleeve with caution, Lan Wangji wonders if he accidentally nicked himself on a thorn outside, but then his eyes widen slightly.

In his forearm, next to his wrist, two words are written: ‘Hello, soulmate!’

Lifting his right hand, he traces the words softly, but there’s no volume in his arm. The shapes are something copied through distance with his spiritual energy, immaterial. He takes a sharp breath when more brush strokes follow.

‘Sorry it took me so long to get to you!’

The handwriting is messy and wild, so much it takes Lan Wangji a few seconds to decipher what it says. Even more words follow next.

‘I actually had no idea about soulmates until recently, haha.’

Lan Wangji huffs and pulls the sleeve down. How can a future cultivator have no idea about soulmates? He silently muffles his curiosity over the many other things he can feel filling his arms and lays on his bed.

If there’s a small twinge of excitement in his heart, he ignores it.

Thinking the barrage of words would have slowed down over the next few days would’ve been innocent of Lan Wangji. If anything, his soulmate seems to be even more talkative and enthusiastic, despite not receiving a response.

Wei Ying, he finds out, is a boy. Lan Wangji never heard of such a thing before, of two men being connected through the golden core bond. All the books in the library, he has searched privately, talk about a man and a woman who’ll fall in love deeply and unconcernedly after meeting for the first time and it leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

He really wants to ask his big brother about it, because big brother is smart and wise and he never looks at Lan Wangji like there are questions he would refuse to answer, questions that are silly or ludicrous. What he does is smile softly and say ‘what is it, A-zhan?’ with a warm voice and Lan Wangji feels like he could tell him everything, even though words fail him often.

Despite that, just the thought of confessing to his brother that his soulmate is a boy makes him feel abnormally embarrassed. He doesn’t want to be weird or different, so he doesn’t say anything.

In the privacy and quiet of the jingshi, after the lessons of the day are over, Lan Wangji lets his robes fall, watching the black ink dancing on his naked arms. He’s not interested, he tells himself, but it’s impossible to completely ignore when words fill his skin with no care to what he wants, telling stories of a faraway place, with faraway people.

His soulmate writes about a city called Yunmeng, about the Yunmeng Jiang sect and all the myriads of problems he gets himself into, the playfulness of the merchants that indulge him, the warmth of his older sister and the prickliness of his younger brother. The heat of the Yunmeng climate and the water rushing in his ears.

If he tries, Lan Wangji can even feel the flavor of the lotus seeds in his mouth, the sun burning on his skin, the humidity of the lake under his tongue. It’s a place Lan Wangji has never been before, filled with wonders and mysteries and he often asks himself if such a place really exists or if his soulmate is just especially good at making things sound appealing.

His soulmate who is bright, carefree, and frivolous, giving every subject a levity that most things don’t deserve. And, goodness, does he talk.

Sometimes his uncle will glimpse the long paragraphs of characters covering every inch of his forearm under the robe sleeve and scowl, pet his goatee in the way he does when he finds something particularly irritating. Sometimes he’ll repeat the words that are already engraved on his mind, that the only thing love does is make you a fool.

Lan Wangji bows his head and nods. Wei Ying continues talking. He never responds.

The other kids at Gusu Lan find him stoic and intimidating, often nervously gulping in his presence and escaping somewhere where they can play within the confines of the rules. Lan Wangji tells himself that it doesn’t bother him more times than he will admit out loud. He knows that his cold and aloof demeanor sets a line between him and his peers.

He tightens the hold in his emotions and carries on. At night, when no one can see or guess what he does, he pulls his sleeve and traces the words that keep him company. Wei Ying is his first and only friend, even if Lan Wangji doesn’t answer.

In instances when the loneliness becomes too heavy to bear and the itch tickles his fingers, beg him to put a brush against his skin, wet with ink and imbued with spiritual energy, he conducts a punishment just for himself. Writes all three thousand rules of the sect two times. The ones about high emotions and avoiding excessive feelings towards soulmates he copies thrice.

And then he will stop reading Wei Ying’s writing for awhile. Will pray for a surge of clarity that will rid him of this desire that leaves him vulnerable and prisoner to his own emotions and yet, it’s unavoidable.

He finds himself aching. The lack of words make his days long and empty, makes his heart clench with pain. Soon, Lan Wangji is losing control and checking his arms all over again.

Everyday he repeats firmly to himself: he won’t respond.

Lan Wangji will still read Wei Ying’s messy scrawl, but saying anything becomes part of the small list of wants and desires he keeps tightly wrapped inside himself.

-:-

At some point when they’re twelve, Wei Ying doesn’t write.

After so many years, Lan Wangji has learned more or less his soulmate’s routine. Everyday around nine in the morning he’ll start his messages with a ‘Hello, Soulmate!’ and Lan Wangji traces them carefully during his lessons, prepared to see his arm almost completely black in the next hour. He wakes much later than the Gusu Lan disciples and sleeps much later as well. His training must not be very rigid, for Lan Wangji finds new words during all kinds of unusual hours

But not this day. This day, when nine comes around, his arm is still immaculate. It stays like that after ten, eleven, noon and Lan Wangji’s face betrays nothing of the spark of panic he feels inside.

‘It’s not like he has to write everyday’, he tries to reason with himself, ‘Surely there must be days where he can’t write due to something or another’.

However, no matter how much he thinks of reassurances and explanations, his heart still feels an inexplicable fear at the thought of never receiving Wei Ying’s messages again. Of waiting for him like he waited for his mother, patiently sitting outside a closed door.

He spends that day in an agitated state of mind that even his brother notices. At night, he’s almost tempted to write something, to check if Wei Ying has passed, check if the characters he writes turn white on his skin and disappear as is the sign of a soulmate’s death, when the tingling feeling of a brush interrupts his panic.

Lan Wangji almosts staggers back in relief. Wei Ying is okay.

He quickly pulls his sleeve, looking at the words.

‘Do you exist?’

Lan Wangji blinks. What a strange question, of course he exists.

Before he can process what that even means, Wei Ying writes more, one question right after the other.

‘Are you there?’

‘Am I annoying?’

‘Do you dislike me?’

Sitting down gently on the bed, Lan Wangji watches as more and more doubts form in his arm. He bites his lip with worry when the handwriting starts getting frantic and even more blotched than usual.

‘Do I bother you with this?’

‘Can’t you say anything?’

‘Are you even okay?’

The phantom feeling of a brush moves to his thigh and Lan Wangji startles. There’s still space in his arm, the characters Wei Ying draws are always tiny in order to fit his impressive amount of talking. He pulls the leg of his pants up, apprehensive.

‘Do you not have an arm?’

‘Should I write somewhere else?’

‘Or is it just that I’m obnoxious?’

‘I’m actually irritating you, right?’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’m really sorry.’

‘Do you hate me?’

A drop of water falls onto his knee and he realizes his eyes started crying without his permission. The tear slides down and he follows with his finger the path it forms, flowing on top of the character ‘hate’. Lan Wangji rubs the question over and over but there’s no use. This ink is not on his body but on Wei Ying’s.

‘I’ll stop bothering you now.’

“No.” He whispers, grabbing his thigh where the messages finally stop. He grips at his flesh with such force it becomes red with handprints, framing the shaky ink strokes like a painting.

He wants more than anything to reassure his soulmate he is fine, he does have an arm and he does receive his messages everyday and he doesn’t, in fact, hate him. But he shouldn’t. He can’t.

He can only watch as the words are cleaned away, proof of their existence disappearing.

The next week, Wei Ying doesn’t write and Lan Wangji painfully resigns himself to a life of silence. Why would his soulmate ever write again, after all? No one would continue persisting on something that gains them nothing.

Many times he questions whether staying distant is the right thing, but if he even attempts at holding a brush over his arm, his hand freezes and his throat dries up.

He’s so afraid. He’s so afraid that Wei Ying will hate him. Will be disappointed in Lan Wangji’s bland personality, a person so wild and happy stuck forever with someone boring and strict. He’s afraid that the moment he gives in, all the misfortune he knows follows ‘falling in love’ will drag him by the feet to a secluded little cottage and confine him, his own emotions serving as chains. That he will be the one confining Wei Ying, will isolate his light from everyone else, driven by the force of his heart and the madness of the Lans' devotion.

He painfully resigns himself.

When new ink appears on his arm the eighth day since the event, he almost think he’s hallucinating. Lan Wangji hesitates before looking, scared of what words might come next.

‘Hello, soulmate.’ it spells like it never left.

‘I’m sorry for the things I said last time.’

‘That day was pretty awful and I took it out on you.’

‘I made trouble for Madam Yu again and she said some things that made me feel a little bad.’

‘It’s not her fault though, it’s mine.’

‘It’s not your fault either, so…’

‘I don’t really think you hate me.’

‘I’m sure you must have your own reasons to why you don’t write.’

‘I asked uncle Jiang if maybe my core hadn’t bonded with anyone yet, but he says it has because the spiritual energy sips into the ink when I send you things.’

‘That means you’re out there, right?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll be waiting for you!’

‘I’ll trust you, okay?'

‘You’re my soulmate after all.’

‘I won’t give up on you, I promise.’

Lan Wangji breathes sharply, bringing his arm to his chest. He hugs himself for what feels like hours and he knows Wei Ying is writing even more words, no doubt going on about what happened during the week they were ‘apart’.

Thank you, Lan Wangji wants to write.

“Sorry.” He whispers, instead.

-:-

More time passes, Lan Wangji grows and Wei Ying does too.

Lan Wangji can't deny anymore the warmth that spreads to his limbs when thinking of him, his fast heartbeats when he says something particularly flirty or romantic. Every time he passes by the Wall of Rules, he thinks with a share of guilt that this is fine as long as he can control it.

Wei Ying often boasts about becoming a handsome teenager and Lan Wangji has no doubt about it. Even if his face was ugly, he would be able to charm anyone with words alone.

That's why, when one day Wei Ying excitedly tells him about a female cultivator that took a liking to him, Lan Wangji isn't surprised. From all the tales he tells, he must be a formidable disciple, with strength and looks to match.

A bitter taste still spreads on his mouth. How he wishes he could see how Wei Ying looks, what characteristic in particular must have brought the interested eyes of women onto him. How he wishes he could send this girl the coldest glare possible and tell her Wei Ying is his soulmate.

The connection between two golden cores is certainly amazing, but sometimes not enough to guarantee you'll be able to meet the person destined to you anytime soon. Many things may come in between beforehand and because of that, it's not so frowned upon that young boys and girls explore their likes outside of the bond. At least not frowned upon to any sect besides Gusu Lan.

Qinghe Nie even encourages it if Lan Wangji recalls correctly. Something about having the experience to properly satisfy your definite partner when the time comes.

If it's what Wei Ying wants, get to know his desires and have fun, Lan Wangji has no right to feel sad. He has no right to be jealous when the small space Wei Ying always leaves on his skin for a response remains empty. Even if they ever come to meet, Lan Wangji will probably not say anything even then, so he simply swallows his vinegar and goes on.

Wei Ying describes her as cute and timid, stammering apologies before approaching him. He describes her gently taking his hand with shifting eyes and asking if he'd like to court her.

'I was so flattered!'

'To have quite a brave maiden make me an offer like that!'

‘I almost accepted right then just to honor her boldness!’

Lan Wangji is not proud to say he accidentally ripped the sheets with the force of his grip.

'She actually managed to make me, of all people, speechless, haha.'

'Hey, soulmate…'

'Did you get even a little jealous?'

He immediately freezes, irrationally worrying if Wei Ying can somehow see him, holding the ripped sheets like a kid that broke a precious jar and is hiding the evidence.

'It'd be good if you did…'

'I'd like for you to be a little angry…'

'But don't worry about it!'

‘I rejected her.’

'I want to keep myself for my cultivation partner only!'

'I'll be saving my first kiss for you, so don't let me down, okay?'

Lan Wangji slumps on the bed so shaken his uncle would’ve had a fit if he saw. This attack on his heart was just too strong. He covers his face with his hands, ears blushing furiously. How can he resist something like that?

Wei Ying's first kiss… Being the first and only to touch his lips, to wrap his arms on his waist and pull him close. Would he be taller or shorter? Leaner or wider? Lan Wangji's ears burn like fire.

A knock on the door interrupts him from his mild meltdown and he quickly straightens his back.

He has been in seclusion for a while now, refining his control of spiritual energy through meditation during the day, indulging himself in Wei Ying’s blabbering at night. The only person that can be seeking him out right now is his brother.

He adjusts his robes and combs his hair before opening the door.

"Wangji, sorry to bother you in your seclusion." Lan Xichen says, usual smile in place. He's carrying a tray of tea.

"Brother." He opens the door wider, inviting him inside.

They sit in the low table, each taking turns to pour the tea. Lan Wangji makes sure his arm is covered in the small pause and breathes deeply. How foolish he acted just a few minutes ago. He hopes his hair will properly hide the redness of his ears.

He slightly tilts his chin, an invitation for his brother to say what he came to say.

"Wangji," Lan Xichen starts, "I thought I should inform you that uncle decided to take in disciples from other sects as students as is tradition."

He blinks.

“These disciples will be studying in the Cloud Recesses for a year.” Xichen sips his tea, “They’ll be arriving the day you were planning to leave seclusion.”

Lan Wangji nods tightly. His brother telling him this has a meaning.

“Yunmeng Jiang as well?” He asks, pointedly avoiding the other’s eyes.

“Yes, of course.”

Leaving his half full cup on the table, he doesn’t say anymore, but he knows Lan Xichen knows. His brother was always able to see through him, to decipher the subtle twists in his expression. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse.

Lan Xichen hums softly.

“We will only be accepting male disciples.”

His fists tighten, the nails biting his palms. Brother only looks at him with understanding brimming in his eyes. After a while, he puts his hand on top of Lan Wangji’s and squeezes.

“Wangji, it’s fine. All is fine.”

He nods again. After growing up, he realized why exactly his soulmate was a man, that his eyes strayed towards the male disciples in unconscious curiosity while the practically mythical female disciples didn’t spark his attention at all. It doesn’t really matter, since he doesn’t intend to pursue his soulmate, but it’s still highly embarrassing.

“I merely thought you should know.” His brother smiles and bids him good night.

The final month of his seclusion drags slowly. Wei Ying tells him two weeks later that he will be visiting Gusu and how excited he is. Briefly, he considers staying secluded but decides not to. It would be the same as giving in to cowardice if he avoids going back to classes just because his soulmate will be there.

And, he must admit, tracing the word ‘Lan' written in Wei Ying’s style, he wants to see him. Just see him.

The night he leaves seclusion, he decides to take a walk near the gardens, to calm his anticipating heart. It also doesn't hurt to go through his usual patrol route and check if everything is in order.

Wei Ying told him earlier that they arrived safely in the Cloud Recesses and were allowed a free day to unpack in their rooms. Lan Wangji willfully walks far away from the guest quarters. It's almost torture doing so when he knows Wei Ying is this close.

A sudden noise alerts him. Distraction from his wandering thoughts sounds wonderful right now and he walks towards the wall where a jar is perched on top. A leg crosses over the roof, before a boy his age peeks from behind it. He doesn't seem to notice Lan Wangji, and sits leisurely on the roof, coming from outside.

He sighs. Of course one of the new disciples would break the rules on the first day.

He hops quickly to the roof, startling the boy. He's wearing black robes with red accents, not from any of the main sects. Lan Wangji frowns.

"You are late to curfew. Step out."

"Ah, man!" The other groans, shaking the jars without care, "Curfew? Seriously? What are we, nine?"

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes even more.

"What is that?" He nods towards the jars, though he has a feeling he already knows exactly what's inside.

“It’s Emperor’s Smile!" He grins, raising an arm. When he does, the sleeve of his robe slides down and many tiny ugly characters appear. "If I give you one jar, can you pretend that you didn't see me?"

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

He rolls his eyes, “Why don’t you tell me what exactly is not forbidden in this sect of yours? That would be easier.”

Lan Wangji fists his hands. How dare a complete outsider continuously disrespect his sect in this manner.

“Who are you?” He asks coldly, glancing the boy from top to bottom.

The boy changes his expression and smiles happily, entirely way too pleased with the situation.

“I’m Wei Wuxian, but you can call me Wei Ying! Nice to meet you.”

Lan Wangji freezes.

His throat dries up and he almost stumbles back. Of course. Of course. An unruly disciple who doesn’t follow the rules and has a bright sunny personality? Who else could it be? Who else but his (striking, amazing) soulmate would cause trouble on his first day in?

He swallows with difficulty. Automatically his eyes make an assessment of the boy in front of him, noting the soft slope of his nose, his plump lips, the curve of his neck when he tilts his head to the side, probably wondering why Lan Wangji is acting like he was doused in water.

He feels completely out of his depth. He was definitely not prepared to see his soulmate like this, has no idea how to end this situation and he must end it now.

“You,” It takes everything to not stammer the word, “should have read the Wall of Rules.”

“Well, I didn’t.” Wei Ying (Wei Ying!!) says smugly, “If alcohol is forbidden inside then I’ll just drink it right here.”

Then he removes the cover and tips one of the jars into his mouth.

If Lan Wangji was in his right mind, if this person was anyone but the one in front of him, he would’ve immediately thrown the jar to the ground and broken it. But as it is, he can only stare at the line of his throat, the small droplet of Emperor’s Smile that slides from his mouth down his chin. He feels a little thirsty himself, tongue parched like a desert.

Wei Ying finishes the jar with a loud gulp and pleased moan (a sound that does not help Lan Wangji in his predicament at all). He drops it on the grass and wipes his lips with his sleeve. Again, the tiny characters appear on his arm. Lan Wangji feels silly for not realizing before just how familiar they look.

“Now, just wait while I drink this one, okay?”

That’s enough to pull him out of his weird trance. Lan Wangji pulls Bichen from its hilt and thrusts, aiming for the second jar Wei Ying is bringing closer to his face.

The other leans back quickly, avoiding the attack and standing up with a smirk. Like this, they're both the same height, one or two centimeters of difference. He pulls out his own sword and hides the jar behind his back.

They clash on top of the roof, despite the rule about fighting without permission. Lan Wangji feels both angry and reckless. His emotions are swirling inside of him, confused as to what they should feel. This was not supposed to happen, not like this.

Wei Ying dodges his attacks with fluidity, twirling in what looks like a dance rather than a fight and Lan Wangji can’t help himself from thinking it’s breathtaking. The moonlight makes his skin shine, the long black hair tied in a ponytail complements his boyish charms.

Wei Ying is incredibly beautiful.

He was not supposed to meet him now, his heart was not ready for it. He was not ready to see the wild and rebellious person that kept him company all these years without even realizing.

The collar of Wei Ying’s robe slips slightly down his shoulder and that distracts Lan Wangji enough for the other to jump off the roof and run for the guest quarters, laughing loudly as he goes.

He should probably go after him, force him back outside of the wall, but he can’t. The reality of this situation finally settles in his chest, panting not only from the exertion of the fight.

He just met his soulmate.

-:-

Even though he has no idea Lan Wangji is his soulmate, that doesn’t stop Wei Ying from being completely insufferable to him, treating him so casually it’s irritating, pulling pranks and disobeying the rules. Freely calling his name ‘Lan Zhan’, ‘Lan Zhan’, ‘Lan Zhan’.

And the worst is, Lan Wangji, who already knew he was frustratingly infatuated with this boy that etched himself into his very being finds himself falling all over again, even though he wishes he could deny it to the skies.

He has taken to watching his classmate from the corner of his eye, despite such conduct not being appropriate. His eyes instinctively find him everywhere, his ears instinctively pick up the laughter in his voice. He has permanently put on long white gloves that end at his elbow, wincing internally every time Wei Ying decides to write during the middle of the lessons and he yearns to read whatever silly thought crossed his mind.

It’s not long before Wei Ying gets in trouble again. And again and then again.

When he cheats on the impromptu exam with Nie Huaisang, Lan Qiren decides it’s enough and assigns him to copy Virtue and Conduct, fuming. In what must be a sudden bout of madness, Lan Wangji approaches his uncle afterwards.

“Uncle, I will oversee Wei Wuxian’s punishment.”

The words are out before he can take them back and Lan Wangji has no idea where they came from. Or rather, he knows they came from his foolish desire to get closer to the other boy, to know more about him, the little gestures and mannerisms that writing on skin can’t convey. But he doesn’t know where the bravery to act on this impulse came from. Wei Ying’s audacity truly must be influencing everyone in Gusu.

Lan Qiren narrows his eyes but nods. He wonders what his uncle would say if he found out Wei Ying is his best student’s soulmate. The first thing he’d do is probably spit a mouthful of blood over such an ironic twist of reality. And then, Lan Wangji thinks, he’d probably expel Wei Ying immediately.

He hopes his uncle can forgive him for keeping it a secret, just this once.

The punishment goes as well as expected, which is to say, not at all. Lan Wangji can only tolerate for awhile the whines and playful jabs before he puts a silencing spell on Wei Ying, feeling on edge the entire time. He wanted to become closer to him, true, but he also couldn’t stand the other’s teasing, the way he pressed his buttons with a mischievous smile. If he wants to go through this, supervising his punishment, then he must also carefully maintain his self control.

After some minutes of peace where Lan Wangji can almost pretend Wei Ying is finally copying, the other boy starts humming softly. The silencing spell, although a very useful tool, can not stop someone from humming as it only restrains the movements of the lips and tongue.

Lan Wangji doesn’t look up from his paper, but he does close his eyes briefly, savoring and dreading the soft singing voice at the same time. His fingers twitch with the desire to do something, anything but then he feels the familiar sensation of a brush near his wrist under the gloves and snaps his eyes to the one in front of him.

Wei Ying is still humming, drawing tiny characters on his arm with a surprising amount of focus. When one particular train of thought gives him trouble, he stops and taps the end of the brush on his lips. Lan Wangji stares.

So this is how Wei Ying looks like when he’s writing to him, relaying his daily activities like a journal. Tucking a strand of hair behind his ear, twisting his mouth and scrunching his nose deep in thought.

It’s really… cute.

Lan Wangji is so so tempted to check his arms and see what Wei Ying is writing. Probably about having to waste his time with a boring disciple copying boring rules in a boring place. Still, he wishes he could see.

He ends another phrase with a wild flair of the brush, spilling ink drops onto his hand. Wei Ying smudges the ink even further in an attempt to clean them and Lan Wangji mirrors the action in his own covered hand unconsciously.

He can’t look away.

He can’t look away at all and Wei Ying must finally notice because their eyes meet. Lan Wangji clears his throat and forces his eyes back to his paper that has been empty for awhile now. He figures Wei Ying will probably continue on his long tirade to his soulmate, but instead he pushes a note on his field of vision.

‘Lan Zhan!!!!!!!’

It’s almost bizarre seeing his name in that handwriting, the one that often accompanies him during his day.

‘Lan Zhan Lan Zhan LanZhanLanZhan please please please release the spell!!’

He sighs and turns back to his book.

'Wangji-xiong!!!!!!!’

‘No one knows how mean the virtuous Lan Wangji really is!!! A big meanie!!!’

‘Lan Er-gege have mercy on my poor soul!!!!!’

Wei Ying makes the motion to pass yet another note and Lan Wangji impulsively grabs his hand.

His breath catches. Wei Ying looks startled and then smiles playfully, tugging the hand under his with not enough strength to mean it.

“Stop,” Lan Wangji exhales, “wasting paper.”

Wei Ying then turns his gloved hand upwards and spells on his palm with his finger.

‘Okay, I’ll stop.’

The action is so deliberate and meaningful Lan Wangji’s heart jumps. Does Wei Ying know…? No. He couldn’t possibly.

Lan Wangji nods stiffly and reluctantly pulls his hand back. It seems like this little interaction is enough to make Wei Ying behave, finally getting a start on the Conduct book. Eventually the spell lifts by itself but he thankfully has become too preoccupied actually copying the rules to notice.

By the time Lan Wangji is alone in the jingshi that night, the words of the afternoon have already been washed off. Although he is a little disappointed for not being able to read them, he had the real deal with him all day and for that, his heart gives a tiny skip.

-:-

After many weeks, their time together in the Library Pavillion comes to an end. Lan Wangji keeps the drawing he was given carefully tucked inside a box in his room, secretly delighted to finally have one of Wei Ying’s beautiful artworks, a picture of himself even. His soulmate was always a good artist, the sketches of elegant flowers and birds taking flight that many times decorated his shoulder proof enough of that.

As for punishment, everything Wei Ying copied may as well have been just rubbish doodles. He continues to sneak out at night, disturb the timeless quiet of the Cloud Recesses and influence the other disciples, despite his good work with the waterborn abyss.

In one such instance, Wei Ying sneaks back after curfew once more and Lan Wangji is there to catch him once more. This time, however, the other boy is not satisfied with being disciplined and just grabs him by the waist, falling backwards to the outside of the wall with Lan Wangji's body on top of him.

He is completely mortified by how his body reacts, instantly relaxing inside of Wei Ying's hug, warmth spreading across his limbs. He shoves the other boy hard and flees back to the jingshi.

The next day, they both take punishment. Wei Ying seems surprised and a little impressed at seeing Lan Wangji submit himself to the same beating and he ignores the small happiness that gives him. He asks for more strikes on himself. Maybe it will help him get rid of the ridiculous thoughts the proximity of last night brought into his head.

After leaving the ancestral hall, Lan Wangji sets off to the cold springs to meditate and alleviate his pain. The gelid waters numb his mind until the pained yelps Wei Ying let out fade away.

He is finally relaxing when a voice calls out.

"Lan Zhan!"

'Gods in heaven, what did I do to deserve this?' he thinks, shoulders tensing. He slowly opens his eyes and sees Wei Ying laying on the rocks next to the cold pool, resting his cheek on his hand.

“How did you come in?”

“Zewu-jun told me to come in!”

Lan Wangji is tempted to pinch the bridge of his nose in annoyance. His brother has obviously already found out about Wei Ying’s relation to him and ever since the day they needed help with the waterborn abyss incident, he keeps trying to have the two of them together in the same place.

He turns to Wei Ying again, ready to tell him off when the sight makes him choke.

“W-what are you doing?”

Wei Ying is standing and slowly untying the sash around his waist. He drops the cloth to the ground with no preambles, sliding the already thin and practically non-existent black and red uniform that imitates the Jiang sect's down his shoulders.

He snaps his head to the water, feeling the burn in his ears all more noticeable because of the cold temperature. The muffled noise of clothes being taken off sound magnified to his sensitive ears and he clenches his teeth. The cold springs, although not openly stated by anyone, is also supposed to help with any depraved bodily needs of the disciples, but Lan Wangji thinks right now that the cold only makes the heat unfurling inside him stronger.

There’s a splash to his side and a loud whine as Wei Ying complains about the temperature. Lan Wangji risks a glance in his direction and then freezes all over again, this time for a much worse reason. Wei Ying pushes his bangs out of his face with his left arm and instead of admiring the way the muscles stretch, his eyes lock themselves on the ink on his skin.

No. Lan Wangji grabs his own arm under the water, a grip of panic in his heart. For a second he forgot about this, about how Wei Ying would be able to see Lan Wangji’s body as well, gloves absent in front of him for the first time.

He takes three steps backwards, keeping a safe distance between them. Wei Ying is praising him for his integrity, for giving himself the same punishment, but Lan Wangji doesn’t feel like being smug, too worried with this dangerous situation.

“Lan Zhan, have you been to Yunmeng? Yunmeng is really fun!” The other boy continues, oblivious to his discomfort.

He hasn’t been to Yunmeng but he knows all about it. He knows of Wei Ying’s favorite trees to climb, of the traditionally strong and spicy food, of how to pick lotus seed pods and that they’re best when eaten with the stem intact. Lan Wangji knows all about it because he was told it all long ago.

Wei Ying stops talking and shivers from head to toe. Jumps around, getting even closer to his side of the pool.

“Do not move!” Lan Wangji says sharply.

“But Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying whines, “It’s warmer on your side!”

“It is not!”

The other boy just continues to move closer, a small spark of mischief in his eye. He’s hugging himself to preserve heat, keeping his own inked arm hidden. Lan Wangji steps back again, but for every step back Wei Ying steps forward, getting close enough for him to notice the thin sheen of water stuck in his eyelashes.

Suddenly, this proximity is bringing back all the heat he managed to tame, Wei Ying’s eyes staring at him hooded and shiny. Lan Wangji forcefully shoves the other's shoulder back with his hands, then he widens his eyes when he realizes his mistake. His left arm is now over the water, bare and obvious for all to see.

Immediately, Wei Ying’s smile falls.

“Oh." He breathes, "I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji feels his heart thumping on his throat.

Wei Ying finally moves away, smiling awkwardly and shifting his eyes.

“I get it. You probably don't want me to read what you write to your soulmate, huh? Haha, I get it, I get it. I remember that from the rules, Gusu Lan disciples shouldn’t flaunt it around.”

After hearing that, Lan Wangji is finally able to breathe again. He looks at his arm and notices the blurred mess of ink, completely illegible. When Wei Ying entered the pool, the ink on his arm probably washed off and consequently, on Lan Wangji’s arm as well.

Lan Wangji looks at the Wei Ying again but this time, he's the one avoiding eye contact.

“I’ll leave you alone now.” He says with a pained smile, swimming back to the rock edge and pulling himself up.

He watches, after he has his outer robes on, the boy walk quietly to the exit of the springs. Lan Wangji almost wants to stop him, call him back and find out why he got suddenly so dejected, but the words die in his tongue. It’s better like this.

He doesn't know what exactly provoked such a sad reaction from Wei Ying, but if it helps him keep his secret just a while longer, it's fine.

-:-

Because of his uncle’s absence to deal with the lake in Caiyi town and the shortening of lessons, Lan Wangji spends most of his days in the Library Pavillion. It’s not the same without Wei Ying sitting on the other side of the low table, trying to find new ways to pester him, but he manages. After that night in the cold springs, Wei Ying’s teasing decreased somewhat as the boy spent more and more time in town.

It’s not lonely since Lan Wangji can always refer to his inked arms if he’s missing the other boy, but it’s different. He got used to his constant presence, the wide smile and bright eyes.

The afternoon sun casts the room in shadows, in an ethereal aura that is fitting for a library and it’s late enough that the chattering of birds outside has stopped. This is his favorite moment of the day, when everything stills but retains traces of life and warmth.

He stops writing. In the quiet of the room, an abnormal rustle outside reaches his ears. His spiritual energy picks up on the presence of another person and, sure enough, Wei Ying pops up in the window, sitting on a wide branch of the magnolia tree, as if summoned by Lan Wangji’s thoughts.

“Lan Zhan! It’s been awhile.” He grins, “Did you miss me?”

Lan Wangji presses his lips together firmly before he can answer yes.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, aren’t you a little too diligent? Still copying texts even though you don’t have to look after my sorry ass?”

“No such thing.”

“Haha, of course.” Wei Ying swings a leg from the tree to the windowsill, his arms suspiciously hidden behind his back, “Lan Er-gege can always find ways to be more diligent.”

Lan Wangji huffs and looks back at the table and Wei Ying laughs.

“Hey, I’m here to apologize! I even brought a present.”

With that, Wei Ying takes from behind him two bunnies, held by the belly in each of his hands. Their feet kick from the sudden movement.

“Look! There are so many rabbits by the end of the mountain.” He brings the two bunnies closer to Lan Wangji’s face, their little noses twitching, “They weren’t even bothered I had to hold them like this and didn’t try to escape!”

He lets them go and the bunnies hop around the table, smudging the recently drawn characters and gnawing on the edges of the paper. Lan Wangji glares at Wei Ying, but the boy only smiles.

“This scene is actually pretty cute.” He mutters softly, eyes fond.

That look brings a blush to Lan Wangji’s ears and he clears his throat, picking the bunnies and setting them on the floor to roam around. Putting two bunnies in a room full of books and texts is a recipe for disaster, but to his surprise they soon lay down side by side and fall asleep.

Wei Ying jumps from the windowsill and lays down as well, only next to Lan Wangji, crossing his arms behind his head and an ankle over his knee. Lan Wangji stares.

“What is it?” Wei Ying says, noticing his inquisitive eyes, “Can’t I stay here with you?”

“... You want to?”

That’s definitely not what Lan Wangji expected. That Wei Ying would want to stay in his vicinity for any more time than necessary. The boy shrugs and gets more comfortable, staring at the sky through the window. It’s weird, but Lan Wangji is not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He simply turns back to his text, taking out the sheets the bunnies chewed.

They’re enveloped in a comfortable silence, Wei Ying for once not filling the quiet with his blabbering. After organizing the sheets of paper, Lan Wangji steals a glance to his unusually thoughtful companion.

Wei Ying’s sleeve slides down and his arms are blank. Lan Wangji blinks. Thinking about it, he didn’t actually feel anything through their bond today, his white gloves secured in place.

He opens his mouth and then closes. It’s dangerous to consider bringing attention to their bond. It’s dangerous to be curious about this but still, Lan Wangji is. Despite the trouble and effort, Wei Ying always wrote something every single day. Some days he wrote more, some days less, but it was always there, the feeling in his arm, a secret solace.

“You…” He says carefully, “haven’t contacted your soulmate today?”

It is pretty clear to everyone by now that Wei Ying talked to his soulmate constantly and would always sport a black left arm, would carry a brush in his pocket in all occasions. This much questioning shouldn’t raise any alarms.

“Hm?” Wei Ying spins his naked arm in front of his eyes, “Ah, yeah. I’ll write something later.”

And that’s it. He doesn’t continues on with his ranting like he usually would. Silence falls between them once again, although slightly more strained.

“Hey, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying says after a couple of minutes, “What do you think of this whole soulmate deal?”

“How do you mean?” Lan Wangji asks hesitantly.

“I just think it’s funny.” Wei Ying’s eyes are distant, looking somewhere beyond the Library Pavillion. He makes a meaningless gesture with his hand, “At first you’d think it’s something really beautiful and romantic, out of an epic tale but no one talks about the ugly parts.” He inhales softly, closing his eyes, “The stories that don’t work out. Just because two people are destined for each other, doesn’t mean they’ll want that.”

Lan Wangji furrows his brows. He knows that better than anyone else. He immediately thinks of his parents, of his mother’s spirit locked inside the depths of the Cloud Recesses.

This is something different, however. Wei Ying is talking about his own situation, about never being answered and Lan Wangji’s heart clenches.

“You know, my soulmate…” He continues and Lan Wangji doesn’t dare breathe. “I make sure to write to them everyday but I don’t think I have one.”

“There has never been a case.”

Wei Ying shrugs and smiles, but the motions are bitter.

“There hasn’t been a case but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

Lan Wangji feels a painful twist in his chest. He could never, would never allow himself to forget that day when they were young when Wei Ying bared his insecurities to him, hoping against everything that it’d be enough to elicit a response, however small. And that he was ultimately disappointed by him, by Lan Wangji.

“Maybe…” Wei Ying says, voice weak, “Maybe I’m destined to be alone forever. Maybe there’s nobody out there that can complete someone like me, haha.”

“No!” Lan Wangji says forcefully.

Wei Ying startles, surprised at his abrupt shout.

“You…” Lan Wangji swallows, feeling the finer hairs on his nape stand up, a strange kind of fear that rises within him whenever this subject is reached, whenever he feels his control of his emotions slipping, “Anyone would be lucky… to be your fated person.”

Wei Ying smiles faintly.

“Thanks, Lan Zhan.” He lays back down, staring at the ceiling, “If you of all people thinks that then I’ll believe it.”

He feels utterly useless. Obviously the other isn’t feeling much better. After all, it doesn’t matter what Lan Wangji says, Wei Ying’s arm stays empty.

If the silence was strained before, now it’s outright awkward. Lan Wangji straightens his back and stares at his covered hands.

During these years there have been many times when he felt guilty and troubled over his choices, over never answering to Wei Ying’s call, yet none of those times can compare to now. Now, with the subject of his feelings sitting right in front of him, confronted by the person itself and yet still unable to do anything but give a pointless and empty remark.This is shameful.

Lan Wangji is interrupted from his self-deprecating thoughts by a nudge.

Wei Ying nudges his thigh lightly with his foot, pretending not to notice. Then he steals a glance at Lan Wangji and smiles, as if to say ‘water under the bridge. Let’s bring the mood back up'.

He is so frustrated. First he couldn’t make him feel better, now he’s forcing Wei Ying to basically do the work of lifting their spirits for him.

The foot nudges him again and that sets him in motion.

He wants to do something but he has no idea what. Words escape him like always and nothing he could say would make this situation any better. Frustration builds in his chest and Lan Wangji impulsively leans over Wei Ying’s sprawled body.

Wei Ying looks at him with wide eyes, certainly not expecting this. The robes are loose on his shoulder in a way that can only be described as enticing and Lan Wangji leans close to his face, feeling his breath on his cheek. He slides his gloved hand on Wei Ying’s waist and squeezes and how he wishes he weren’t wearing those stupid gloves, able to feel the texture of his sash with his palm and then feel skin on skin when he slides his hand further on the opening of the robe. With his other hand he supports his weight by the side of Wei Ying’s head, staring down.

It seems like Wei Ying falls out of his stupor, because he also raises a hand and picks the end of the forehead ribbon that fell near his shoulder. Wei Ying smirks and tugs, not enough to pull it off completely but enough to tease, just like everything Wei Ying does.

Lan Wangji needs to remind himself that he has no idea what it means. A traitorous voice in the back of his mind says ‘he has no idea of anything’. You kept him in the dark.

Wei Ying puts the ribbon delicately over his lips, eyes daring Lan Wangji to come closer and he does. He leans even more, ready to press his mouth against the ribbon, against Wei Ying’s mouth. His eyes slip close, his lips part.

A shout rings out in the room.

“Wei-xiong! Wei-xiong!”

Lan Wangji jumps back as if hit. Nie Huaisang continues to call his friend somewhere near the window.

Wei Ying lays there for a second in a daze, before he stands up and goes to the windowsill. He leans over and looks around, searching for his friend.

“What is it, why are you shouting? Loud noise is prohibited, do you want Lan Zhan to punish you?”

Meanwhile, Lan Wangji is too busy trying to get his heart under control. He was about to do something extremely foolish. He barely registers Wei Ying climbing down the tree, back to his friends’ companies.

He stands up and brushes invisible dust from his clothes. His ears are burning and he’s sure the blush is spreading to his cheeks. He picks the two bunnies and walks towards the jingshi.

After placing the rabbits on a small clearance near the porch, he enters his room and locks himself inside.

He could have kissed Wei Ying.

The thought keeps pounding on his head, the memory of his scent, earthly and musky, like the grass after a day of rain wafting in his nose. He places a hand over his heart, sitting down on the bed before his knees fail him. Wei Ying was so close, so available, so there. The boy he has been in love with for years was right there in front of him, eyes open and inviting and Lan Wangji could have kissed him.

He let his emotions get the best of him, like he always does with Wei Ying around. It’s inevitable, as long as they stay near each other, Lan Wangji wants, yearns, does everything he knows he shouldn’t. He pinches his leg to clear his mind for a second, the heat in his gut cooling down.

What right did he have to kiss Wei Ying, when he was the source of his dismay, of his insecurities and self-doubt. What entitlement did he have to make advances on the person he’s left alone all his life. He has not earned the place beside him, he has done nothing to deserve the sweet smiles Wei Ying offers him with ease, unaware of everything.

His hands become clammy with the thought that comes next. He needs to tell him the truth.

After today, he can no longer continue their interactions pretending he doesn’t know Wei Ying’s most sought after wish, it’s unfair to the person he holds dear in his heart. He tries to imagine what his childhood, his life would have been like if Wei Ying had never started a conversation, had never took interest in the person on the other side of the bond.

Empty and lonely. Colorless.

So he must. He must tell Wei Ying, even if he is disappointed, even if he is upset his golden core attached him to plain old boring Lan Wangji. Even if Lan Wangji can’t ever be enough to the brilliant soulmate he’s stuck with.

With this firmly decided, Lan Wangji prepares to sleep, thinking he may have lifted a weight from his shoulders. However, he still tosses and turn all night, the memory of the almost kiss torturing him until dawn.

-:-

In the morning, Lan Wangji feels unbelievably calm and refreshed.

Today, he’s telling Wei Ying the truth. He’ll expose himself more than ever in his life, give himself fully and accept whatever comes next. There’s a certain freedom to it that he never thought possible, some kind of feeling that has been repressed inside of him for many years and now can be set loose. Like a bird that is fighting against its cage only to realize the door has been open all along.

He goes through his routine methodically, washes himself and meditates through the morning. It’s almost nine when he stands up again and leaves the jingshi in a hurry, walking swiftly to the guest quarters.

He planned all of it last night, where and how to say it. He’ll ask Wei Ying to join him in a stroll down the mountain, following the path of flowers and then take his hand when they reach the bottom. He’ll look at him in the eye and not hesitate, he won’t tremble or have second thoughts. In this fantasy, he won’t be afraid like all the times before.

Lan Wangji’s mind runs ahead of itself and he breathes deeply to focus. Right now, all he needs to do is get to him, nothing else.

So focused he is, he doesn’t notice the disciples on his way that gasp at his sight and stay gaping while he passes by. He doesn’t notice the whispers that start after he’s made a turn, the subtle pointing. One of the braver disciples tries to catch his attention, but so focused he is, he doesn’t stop.

He doesn’t stop until he hears Wei Ying’s voice, loud and unreserved like always.

“Did you have to do this?” Wei Ying groans, “I am shameless but not to this extent!”

Nie Huaisang’s chuckles follow after.

“Wei-xiong, whoever said it was this disciple that did that? Would this person ever do something to trouble Wei-xiong?”

“You totally would.” Wei Ying whines and Lan Wangji steps into the corridor, coming face to face with them.

Wei Ying’s eyes meet with his and they both stop.

Lan Wangji opens his mouth in surprise.

Black ink is crawled across Wei Ying’s cheeks.

The words ‘Wei Wuxian’s property’ boldly displayed.

Both Nie Huaisang and Wei Ying are staring at him with wide eyes and he brings a hand to his own cheek, heart beating madly. Nie Huaisang looks like he’s about to get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness but Lan Wangji can only stare at Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying says, dumbfounded. His eyes trace over Lan Wangji’s face, as if he can’t believe the mark in him is identical.

“Wei Ying…” He whispers, horrified when the other’s eyes change. There’s a flash of hurt there so tremendous something shatters inside Lan Wangji.

“Ah…” He mutters, “I see how it is.”

And then Wei Ying is turning around and running.

“Wangji-xiong, t-this one is s-so sorry, I didn’t mean to--”

Lan Wangji doesn’t listen nor does he pay any attention to Nie Huaisang’s bows, instead he goes after his soulmate.

“Wei Ying!”

He continues running but Lan Wangji manages to shorten the distance enough to grab his arm, making him stumble. Wei Ying snaps his head at him, eyes glassy with tears and fury.

“Lan Zhan, I don’t wanna see your face right now!” He yanks his arm back, “Get lost!”

Lan Wangji recoils, watching the boy’s back as he runs away. Distantly he thinks he hears Nie Huaisang catching up to him, out of breath and still apologizing, but all sounds feel muffled and far away. Ten minutes later, when he checks himself in a mirror, the words have already been washed off his cheeks.

The walk back to his room happens in a blur. He doesn’t take anything from the world around him until he’s finally back in the safety of the jingshi, away from any prying eyes and then, only then he allows himself to breakdown.

He puts his face in his hands and shakes, out of regret and guilt. It was not supposed to be like this. Wei Ying’s face when he turned was full of sadness and anger and disbelief, but worst of all, it was betrayed. He looked at him like Lan Wangji had twisted the knife and spit in the wound and honestly, Lan Wangji has no doubt that’s exactly how it feels.

To be the one responsible for putting such a look on Wei Ying, he wants to take a hundred, a thousand punishments and in the end he knows he’d still feel helpless.

And now, without the opportunity to explain, to secure the fragile thread they were walking on together, Wei Ying is out of his reach again. Always out of his reach, yet always close enough for him to be unable to do anything but be attracted to his light, like a moth.

He lowers his hands and looks at them, covered in the white pristine gloves, spotless.

Lan Wangji is thrown back to a moment years ago, when he was so sure he’d never be spoken to again, when he basically let Wei Ying slip through his fingers and the only thing that stopped it from happening was Wei Ying himself holding onto Lan Wangji like a lifeline, refusing to be let go.

Is he really going to let Wei Ying go again? Is he really going to accept this ending, when Wei Ying had never given up on making something out of nothing, searching for needles in a haystack, the needles Lan Wangji had hidden?

He slowly pulls the glove off.

His arm is clean and unblemished, the pale skin soft like jade.

He walks to a table near his bed and picks up a brush.

And then he writes.

-:-

For the next couple of days, Lan Wangji attracts more stares than usual. His appearance ever since he was a child had always made people stop, compelled to look at his features and marvel at his beauty, but this time, they stare for a completely different reason.

He has both sleeves pulled and tied on his shoulders and both arms covered from top to bottom in characters. He internally cringes at the shaky and crude brush strokes on his right arm, drawn with his unaccustomed left hand, but he makes no effort to wash it off. If he wants to convey his feelings and ask for forgiveness, he must be willing to throw away at least this much of his pride and face.

Wei Ying continues to avoid him, but the few times they cross paths, one look at Lan Wangji’s arms makes him turn his nose and pulls his own sleeves tighter on his wrists and Lan Wangji tries to convince himself that Wei Ying’s cold eyes that glared at him fiercely at first, now had softened to an hesitant hurt.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a beginning.

Lan Qiren finally comes back and furious would be a polite word to describe the way he pulls Lan Wangji by the wrist, drags him to the ancestral hall where he can scold his nephew away from everyone else.

"Lan Wangji what are you doing?!” His uncle spits, on the brink of breaking the ‘no shouting’ rule, “Are you not aware that your behavior is shameful? Is this how I raised you? Didn’t I always warn you? And now you’re doing the very thing I warned you about? Breaking the rules, becoming a fool in love?”

Lan Wangji stays quiet for the remainder of the speech, bearing the earful with a bowed head and straight shoulders. When his uncle finally finishes, face so red it’s purple, he raises his head and looks him in the eye.

“Uncle, I understand your concern.” He starts with, because he can’t say he’s sorry, not really. Not if this is what it takes for Wei Ying to smile at him again. “However this is what I choose to do. I want to pursue this, even if doing so makes me foolish.”

Lan Qiren’s scowl becomes impossibly angrier and he huffs sharply like a bull.

“I knew this boy would be a bad influence on you, I should have expelled him months ago! He caused trouble from the second he got here! Such a disrespectful person is incorrigible and now his actions are reflecting on you as well! Did he put you up to this?! Wangji tell me, is he harassing you?!”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes.

“Wei Ying makes me happy.” He says softly.

A few seconds pass in tense silence, Lan Qiren too stunned to say anything else. He opens his eyes again and meets his uncle’s gaze head on, hoping he can understand that Lan Wangji is serious and that of all the moments in his life he didn’t ask for anything, he’s asking now.

Uncle exhales and his complexion returns to as close to normal as possible in this situation. He pets his goatee with a disapproving frown.

“From my understanding, he is avoiding you.” He says simply, eyeing the words in his arms and Lan Wangji’s chest stings, “You’ll continue to chase after him even if he doesn’t want you?”

The message in his tone is implicit but clear. Will you lock him away? Will you imprison him? Will you take away his freedom?

“... No.” He says softly, “If such is Wei Ying’s wish, I’ll stay away from him forever. But I won’t give up while there is still a chance.”

Lan Qiren huffs, “You’re not like your father.”

“Thank you.” Lan Wangji bows deeply and leaves.

The second he steps out of the ancestral hall, someone is grabbing him harshly and pushing him onto one of the empty corridors on the side, shoving him against the wall.

Wei Ying has an angry scowl on his face that does not suit him at all. He was made for smiles and laugh lines, quirked lips and joy. Despite that, Lan Wangji still thinks he looks lovely.

“Eavesdropping is prohibited.” He says, years of conduct and rules melded into him coming out instinctively.

Wei Ying snorts sarcastically.

“I don’t think you’re in a place to nag me about rules, Lan Zhan.” He says and pointedly looks at his arms.

The dry ink pulls at his skin as he shifts uncomfortably under Wei Ying’s scrutiny. Lan Wangji never had a way with words. He couldn’t wax poetry about his soulmate’s beautiful eyes or the sweet glee in his voice when he’s teasing others or the brilliance in his gestures when he’s going on about some topic he’s passionate about. He could only write the wishes poured forward from deep in his heart, that Wei Ying will forgive him, give him another chance, that he’s sorry.

He also wrote the other’s name an embarrassing amount of times.

Wei Ying nods back to the Ancestral Hall, a complicated expression crossing his face.

“What was that, Lan Zhan? Why did you say all that? First I just thought you wanted me to feel bad but don’t tell me you’ve actually gone crazy?”

“It was only the truth.” He says.

Wei Ying snorts again and then he laughs, but there’s no joy in it.

“You know what’s funny, all this time I was feeling like shit because I really… fell in love with you,” his voice breaks and Lan Wangji can’t look away, “to the point where I was even happy my soulmate didn’t care because then I could just love you without guilt, right?”

He smiles weakly.

“Little did I know the soulmate that doesn’t want me is you. Isn’t it hilarious?”

Lan Wangji gently brings his hands up and cradles Wei Ying’s cheeks.

“You made me feel really unwanted, you know?” He finally meets Lan Wangji’s eyes, vulnerability plain to see behind the beautiful dark gray color.

There’s no need to say more. Now Wei Ying knows that Lan Wangji was there since the beginning, was there to read about Madame Yu’s harsh words and Jiang Wanyin’s occasional bursts of animosity, the doubts, the uncertainties, all covered with little ‘hahas’ and funny anecdotes in between. Always covered but undeniably there.

“I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Lan Wangji repeats the words written in him because he has no idea what to say except that he’d like to spend the rest of his life making Wei Ying sure he’s wanted and yet it’s too soon to make such promise, while he still doesn’t know if it will be welcome.

Wei Ying leans against his hand, sighing.

“Why? Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you ever write to me?”

“Was afraid.” He starts, softly, “Was scared of being vulnerable, feeling too much. I always thought… that love was painful but didn’t realize it could also be good.”

Lan Wangji smiles and Wei Ying’s eyes widen.

“Until I met you.”

He picks one of Wei Ying’s hands and kisses the knuckles, pouring all the love he can with this simple action.

Wei Ying gapes at him and then blushes to his roots.

“W-where did you learn to say such things, Lan Zhan!” He stammers, “That’s totally unfair! I’m supposed to be the sweet talker in this relationship!”

“Hm.” The word ‘relationship’ makes his heart threaten to burst through his chest.

Wei Ying studies his eyes for a moment and then smirks. He leans close and nuzzles the side of Lan Wangji’s face.

Are you a fool in love, Lan Zhan?” He whispers.

“Hm.” He almost forgets to answer as dazed as he is, “Since the first time.”

His soulmate leans back surprised, “The first time we met? At that rooftop?”

Lan Wangji circles his hands around Wei Ying’s waist and pulls him closer, so close they have no air in between them. He smiles, remembering a thought from months ago. Wei Ying is just a little shorter and just a little leaner but he fits perfectly.

“The first time you said ‘hello, soulmate’”

Wei Ying smiles so wide until he's chuckling, his beautiful eyes creasing at the corners and Lan Wangji doesn’t waste any more time, chasing those lips with his own.

It starts out chaste, just a light and ephemeral touch, but soon enough Wei Ying is pressing his mouth with intent, catching Lan Wangji’s bottom lip with his teeth and then they’re sliding their tongues against each other, wet and messy. It’s their first kiss, no experience or method behind it, but the enthusiasm makes up for it, the time spent longing makes up for it.

Wei Ying scratches his nails lightly ont the side of his neck and Lan Wangji moans, biting and licking into his mouth, a fierce heat blooming between them.

When they part, Wei Ying smiles again, cheeks stained with red and lips swollen from kissing Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji wants nothing more than to see this sight forever.

His soulmate fixes the collar of his robe.

“You better always answer to me from now on or I’ll be really mad.”

It’s said in a teasing tone, but he nods firmly and marks that as a vow in his mind.

Wei Ying rolls his eyes playfully and takes out a very thin brush and ink bar from inside his sleeves. He takes one look at Lan Wangji’s covered arms and then looks around, checking to see if anyone’s coming.

Lan Wangji almost laughs. If anyone saw the manner in which they embraced each other just a few seconds ago, they would have already fled a hundred miles, telling everyone to avoid that corridor.

Satisfied with their fleeting privacy, Wei Ying opens the front of his robes, exposing his chest and he shivers.

He wets the brush with his tongue, Lan Wangji following the action with an irrational spark of arousal and rubs it on the bar, picking the ink with the strands. Even distracted by the allure of his movements, Lan Wangji notes that Wei Ying was still carrying such items after their falling out. Was he holding onto the hope that everything would turn out fine? Was he aching just as much as him? Or was it just out of habit?

A familiar sensation interrupts his musing. Wei Ying slides the brush on the left side of his chest, under the collarbone with much concentration. His spiritual energy flows to the ink, giving power to the words.

When he’s finished, he passes the brush to Lan Wangji, raising an eyebrow. His vow from before still in mind, he picks it up and parts Wei Ying’s robes as well.

He smooths over the characters translated from his own skin with his thumb and then writes it as well, side by side.

Wei Ying smiles and holds his hand as they walk away from their sweet bubble, ‘I love you’s’ branded in their hearts.