It's been a long, boring journey, in the best way. Wei Wuxian's really never had this sort of leisure to just travel before, seeing mountains, admiring rivers, gazing at rocks. Sometimes they step in when they find trouble. It's like a honeymoon, without the fuss of a wedding or a bride beforehand.
Lan Wangji would make a perfect bridegroom, though.
Wei Wuxian amuses himself with imagining it for a while -- Lan Zhan dressed in red and gold, the Cloud Recesses covered with vulgar, gaudy red paper characters pasted all over the severe white stone of the Recesses. His imagination only balks at coming up with an appropriate bride for Lan Zhan. She'd have to be gently bred and quiet, refined like Lan Zhan himself.
He gets distracted from trying to decide which sort of bride Lan Zhan would have by the much more important question of what would happen to the toasts at the wedding. Would they make an exception? Would they toast with tea or water?
Lan Wangji doesn't ask him what he's thinking about, even though Wei Wuxian usually spends his time talking his ear off. He always seems perfectly content to just walk holding Little Apple's lead rope and pace steadily forward. Wei Wuxian wonders why Lan Wangji never insists on using Bichen instead of walking on hot, dusty roads, leading an ugly donkey with a scrawny omega on it. People passing them keep giving them incredulous looks, like they have no idea why that noble looking cultivator is putting up with this indignity.
Maybe Lan Wangji doesn't realize it's an indignity? That doesn't seem very likely, but it's possible -- and very likely -- he's never spent a lot of time with an omega before unless both of them were heavily chaperoned.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," says Wei Wuxian, rolling over on Little Apple to face him.
"Have you ever known an omega?"
Wei Wuxian expects him to say 'no' -- the Gusu Lan sect is famous for their strict gender segregation, after all. When he was studying there, even when they went on night hunts, Wei Wuxian hadn't seen so much as a female alpha, let alone an omega.
"Yes," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian sits up in surprise. He doesn't say anything for a while, and finally Lan Wangji glances up at him and then pulls Little Apple to a gentle halt. He takes a shiny red apple out of his sleeve and gives it to Little Apple. Little Apple crunches it noisily but turns his head away from Lan Wangji enough that his white robes aren't splattered with apple juice.
"Have you --" begins Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji keeps waiting.
Wei Wuxian tries again. "Were you close?"
Lan Wangji says, "It was my mother."
The only thing that Wei Wuxian knows about Lan Zhan's mother is that she died when he was very young. All of the Gusu Lan people were good looking, but to produce two sons like Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji, she must have been extraordinary. He tries to imagine her, but fails. "Oh," he says. Then, because he can't let well enough alone, "What was she like?"
"She let us put her makeup on," says Lan Wangji. He's quiet for a minute. "She was always happy when we came."
Wei Wuxian can remember that too, just a little: his beta father carefully painting his mother's lips and brows for her, and the thrill of being allowed to tap a cinnabar dot on her forehead or help comb her long hair before his father bound it up for her. The way that his mother smiled at his father, a soft secret between the two of them, before she included him in it as well.
"Have you ever been around any other omegas?" says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji flicks him an unimpressed look. "Have you?"
"Don't be stupid, what omega would come near me," says Wei Wuxian. "The Yiling Patriarch eats innocent omegas for breakfast, and roasts stalwart alphas for his dinner!"
Lan Wangji nods solemnly. "Terrifying."
"See that you remember that," says Wei Wuxian, haughtily.
Lan Wangji, perhaps wisely, chooses not to respond. They go on until it's almost dusk, just following the road. Wei Wuxian squints into the glare of sunset and says, "Are those chimneys?"
Lan Wangji lifts his hand to shade his eyes and says, "Mmm."
"Do you want to see if there's an inn?" says Wei Wuxian. It wouldn't be the first time they slept out on the road, but Lan Wangji always looks vaguely dissatisfied about it -- maybe some alpha instinct to be in a secure area, maybe because he's as clean as a cat and hates being unable to bathe every night. Anyway, if they stay on the road they'll have to find something for Wei Wuxian to eat. Wei Wuxian is thoroughly tired of Gusu Lan Sect's idea of travel rations. They're horrible, dry little bars that taste like hay and dried, sour fruit, and he swears they're made like that to get the juniors to get to the point where they can live without food that much sooner.
Lan Wangji says, "We'll go look," in a final sort of way, which means that if the inn doesn't come up to his exacting standards, they're spending the night in the woods anyway. It's true that a night sleeping out in the forest with a clear spring to wash in is infinitely to be preferred to spending a night with innumerable bloodthirsty little bedfellows in a straw mattress, and dirty water in a grimy pan to wash in the next morning.
When they get to the village, Wei Wuxian is pleasantly surprised to find a courier station and a respectable looking inn beside it. A stablehand comes up to them and offers to take Little Apple. Lan Wangji passes him the reins and Little Apple looks at him. Lan Wangji stares at him for a second and Little Apple goes suddenly and suspiciously docile, holding still while Lan Wangji very seriously offers Wei Wuxian a hand down and then going with the stable hand without as much as an ear turned backward in annoyance.
"He never listens to me like that," complains Wei Wuxian. He was the one who freed Little Apple to live a life of adventure, yet Little Apple holds him in contempt, as a person who is occasionally smart enough to find an apple to give him.
Lan Wangji just looks at him.
Wei Wuxian sticks his lower lip out at him and swans his way into the inn.
The landlady says, "How many rooms would you like, sir?" at Lan Wangji, in a way that strongly implies that Wei Wuxian had better not be chasing after a handsome alpha cultivator trying to return him to the bosom of his family before Wei Wuxian managed to irretrievably compromise himself.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to say "Two, please, auntie," in an effort to save Lan Wangji's reputation, but before the words leave his mouth, Lan Wangji says,
Both Wei Wuxian and the landlady stare at him. It's clear that the landlady is trying to figure out if this upright-looking cultivator is the one actually taking advantage of a scrawny omega with donkey shit on his boots, but Wei Wuxian isn't much less confused. He gives a doubtful squint at Lan Wangji, who returns his look with his usual calm.
"With a bath," adds Lan Wangji.
There's no reason to spend money to get a room with a bath, even if Lan Wangji is as fussy as a cat about cleanliness.
"Lan --" begins Wei Wuxian.
The landlady tries to be discreet when she looks at Wei Wuxian's neck, but Lan Wangji steps in front of Wei Wuxian, shielding him from her eyes, and pulls out his money pouch, stacking money on the counter.
The landlady looks at the money. Her eyes widen slightly.
"Breakfast and dinner as well," says Lan Wangji. "And stabling for the donkey."
Wei Wuxian feels an urge to kick Lan Zhan's leg as hard as he can. He knows perfectly well that it won't have any effect but breaking his own toe, but he wants to, so badly. He can't even pinch him. He'd just scrabble fruitlessly for a grip on his skin. For a second he vividly imagines goosing the bastard, but he's a little afraid of how Lan Zhan would pay him back.
He opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, the landlady reaches out and picks out a very fancy looking key. "If the gentlemen will follow me?" she says.
The room is actually nearly worth the money Lan Wangji paid for it, somewhat to Wei Wuxian's surprise. In his experience, a rural inn like this had two sorts of accommodations: shitty, and shitty as hell. This one was quite decent, by Wei Wuxian's standards, and barely passable by Lan Wangji's, going by the way he wrinkled his nose the slightest bit.
Wei Wuxian scrubs his face and hands in about thirty seconds and then sits on the bed and waits, bored, for Lan Wangi to finish washing his face and hands to some impeccable Gusu Lan Sect standard. After a while he lies down and dozes off. He's sleepy, in a pleasant way, and the quiet sounds Lan Wangji makes as he washes lure him deeper into sleep.
He doesn't wakes to the sensation of warmth drifting over his skin, not quite touching, but vividly present in a way that makes pleasurable goosebumps rise over his skin. He blinks his eyes open with an effort -- he's so warm and sleepy, and the presence above him makes him feel so cozy and safe -- and finds Lan Wangji standing over him, one hand almost touching his skin.
"Ah," says Wei Wuxian. "Are you ready?"
"Mm," says Lan Wangji. He moves away to let Wei Wuxian get up, and then turns to the basin again. "You never clean your face properly," he says, frowning at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian is too lazy to argue with him. "Wash it yourself, then," he says, tilting his chin up in challenge, and he's shocked when Lan Wangji actually pulls him over to the wash basin and dips a cloth in the clean water.
Wei Wuxian expects to have his face washed off, but Lan Wangji is surprisingly gentle about it. He wipes down his face and neck with careful attention, only hesitating slightly when he gets to Wei Wuxian's bonding gland. The cloth doesn't actually touch it, but Wei Wuxian can feel the possibility like flames licking over his skin.
"Hahaha," he says. "Hey, Lan Zhan, would you treat me this nice if Mo Xuanyu was an alpha?"
Lan Wangji pauses. Then he scrubs the cloth vigorously over Wei Wuxian's face and scent gland -- not hard, exactly, but very firmly, like a cat holding down another one to wash their ears.
"Ow!" says Wei Wuxian. It doesn't really hurt, actually, it just tingles unbearably like his skin's gone suddenly over sensitive. "I can't believe you'd treat a delicate omega like this!"
Lan Wangji puts the cloth down and says, "I'd treat you the same, no matter what." He looks at Wei Wuxian very seriously, and his eyes deepen from their golden hazel to a rich amber, warm as honey.
He looks so intense and focused that Wei Wuxian licks his lips subconsciously. Lan Wangji's eyes drop down to Wei Wuxian's mouth, and they just stand there until Wei Wuxian's nerve breaks and he steps back. For a minute, he's almost disappointed that Lan Wangji lets him -- but Wei Wuxian knows better than that. Even if he isn't quite sure what 'that' could be.
He feels flushed and warm, probably from standing next to Lan Zhan, who always looks like an iceberg but runs almost feverishly hot, like most alphas. It was always a surprise, to feel such warmth from a man who looked like he was carved from glacier ice. It's tempting to someone who runs as cold as Wei Wuxian, especially in this new body of his. He wants to see if he can come close and steal all that heat. Maybe he'd even surprise a flinch out of Lan Zhan if he put his cold hands on his skin.
That's a bad idea. Instead he blows out a breath and says, "I'm hungry, Lan-er-gege! You should feed me!"
"Mm," says Lan Wangji. He reaches into his sleeve and pulls out a thin, gauzy silk scarf dyed in cloud-pattern and hands it to Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian stares at it blankly for a moment before he realizes that he's meant to wear it around his neck to cover his bonding gland. Even after he woke in this new body, he's never bothered with any of the things omegas are supposed to do. Lan Wangji has a point, though -- forgetting things like covering his scent gland is one thing if they're alone on a night hunt, but very different if they're going to be around people who don't know Lan Wangji's reputation.
He takes it and wraps it clumsily around his neck. He's seen Yanli-shijie wrap hers, of course, but he's still not quite sure how it should go. Lan Wangji clicks his tongue once and takes the scarf off again. He wraps it around Wei Wuxian's neck and fastens it with a deft, elegant knot.
A dead silence falls as they enter the dining hall. Wei Wuxian falters for half a step. Then he flings his head up and marches in like he doesn't feel the pressure of the staring carters and farmers at all. Murmuring fills the air, but dies down again when Lan Wangji follows closely behind him.
One farmer near the door, gray and grizzled, makes a disapproving sound. It's true that a proper alpha ought to have come down to personally order the best they could afford and carry it back up to their omega. Madam Yu, strict and formal, had always gone to the extent of refusing to eat before her husband and daughter finished eating -- her own father had held to the old fashioned custom of only eating what his wife had left on her plate. Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian were expected to offer first Jiang Fengmian and then Yanli-shijie the best from the dish, and then offer it to Madam Yu.
Wei Wuxian is probably making Lan Wangji lose a considerable amount of face by going downstairs to eat like he doesn't trust him to bring him food, instead of staying snug and bored in their room. He hesitates again, but Lan Wangji pushes him gently forward, leaving his hand barely touching the small of Wei Wuxian's back. His touch burns through Wei Wuxian's robes and warms his skin.
This display of indulgent possessiveness, however small, changes the tone from Wei Wuxian being forced to come out and face a room of strangers to Lan Wangji accompanying his spoiled, doted on omega on an adventure of very slightly dubious propriety.
Wei Wuxian doesn't know how Lan Wangji does it. Even the old alpha is looking at them with benevolent nostalgia.
Whatever, at least it's working in Wei Wuxian's favor.
Lan Wangji steers him gently toward a half-enclosed table in the back of the room. It looks easily defensible and a little private, a little quieter than the rest of the room. They sit down and Wei Wuxian looks around. Two - no, three exits easily accessible even though the room is crowded with customers. There's a sword hung in its scabbard on the wall, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that it must be rusted inside to the point of falling apart if someone tried to draw it. The scabbard is still good, sturdy enough to get in some good hits in a pinch.
"Stop thinking," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian blinks, drawn back from his assessment of the room. "Did you say something to me?"
"No," says Lan Wangji, but he tilts his head toward the waiter approaching them. "You order."
"Don't regret that," says Wei Wuxian, half joking.
Dinner is very good -- mapodofu with rice, a bowl of bok choy and tofu sauteed with ginger and spring onions for Lan Wangji, who declined to share the mapodofu after Wei Wuxian poured extra chili oil on top. Lan Wangji pours a cup of tea and pushes it silently toward Wei Wuxian. He reaches for the pot again but Wei Wuxian makes a grab for it first. Lan Wangji pauses, surprised, and Wei Wuxian manages to return the pour of the tea before Lan Wangji quite realizes what's going on.
Lan Wangji looks a bit confused, his eyebrows drawn a bit together. It's natural enough -- Wei Wuxian had learned this not in Jiang Yunmeng Sect or even from the Wens at the Burial Mounds. He learned it from his parents, who did every small ritual to express their love for each other eagerly, with the perfect courtesy that came with loving each other best in the world. First his father would offer tea to his mother, then his mother to his father, and finally he would be poured tea.
He tries not to think about the fragments of the memories that remain of his parents, the dinners where it was a laughing competition to sneak the best bits to the other's bowls before they got a good bit to yours, the warmth of their love for each other and for him.
Lan Wangji accepts the tea, even though he still looks unsure about it. It feels -- nice. It feels good to repeat the rituals that his parents had held so dear.
"Are we going to look for another nighthunt?" says Wei Wuxian, after they finish their first cups of tea. Lan Wangji reaches for the pot and hesitates for a bare second, long enough for Wei Wuxian to take the tea pot and pour again for him. Lan Wangji takes it after he sets it down and pours him another cup too.
Wei Wuxian doesn't really care that much for this tea, but it seems to make Lan Wangji happy to pour for him, so it's fine.
Lan Wangji considers Wei Wuxian's question and then lifts one shoulder slightly, as good as saying "I'll do whatever you feel like".
Which, in all fairness, will happen anyway, but sometimes it's nice to know for sure that Lan Wangji will stick around to deal with whatever trouble Wei Wuxian finds.
"Haven't heard of any," says Lan Wangji. "Wouldn't," he adds thoughtfully. It's true, nobody would tell an alpha traveling with a presumably delicate and high-strung omega about anything dangerous, even if he clearly was an experienced cultivator.
"Hmm," says Wei Wuxian. "Feel like a jar of wine, Er-gege?"
Lan Wangji lifts one eyebrow. He doesn't say anything when Wei Wuxian flags down the waiter with a bright smile. "Heyyy, bro," he says. "Can we get a jar of something good?"
The waiter hesitates, looking at Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian swallows down his irritation and says, "The best you have."
The waiter seems to decide that even if Lan Wangji is angling to get an innocent omega drunk and vulnerable, there's enough burly alphas around to beat the shit out of him for trying it, cultivator or no cultivator, and says, "Just a minute, sir."
When he brings back the wine, even Wei Wuxian is impressed -- the jar is very old, with a crackled glaze that glows softly in the lamplight. More interestingly, he can make out the faintest wisps of ghostly energy surrounding it. Tsk tsk, thinks Wei Wuxian, someone's been helping themselves to grave goods. "What an unusual wine," he says, propping his chin on one hand. "Don't you think, Lan Er-gege?"
"Mm," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian pokes a finger leisurely at the seal of the wine. Old, leather, very pure beeswax covering it. "Was the wine made by this house, gege?" he says.
The waiter looks a little anxious. Several someones have been helping themselves to grave goods, then. Wei Wuxian flicks another look at the sword on the wall with considerably more interest. Then he looks back at the waiter and smiles.
The waiter takes an instinctive step back.
"No, no," says Wei Wuxian, still smiling. "Sit down for a minute! Talk with us."
The waiter swallows hard.
The story Wei Wuxian pries out of the reluctant waiter is a depressingly familiar one to both him and Lan Wangji. Heavy spring rains and winter melt that caused a landslide and the discovery of an ancient stone tomb that was temptingly both accessible and unguarded -- the first cautious explorations, the finding of valuable grave goods --
"They left the coffin intact, I hear," says the waiter, as if that makes anything about the story better. "And they didn't take everything! Just ... a share."
Both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are too experienced to hear that as anything other than "we nearly cleaned it out". He sighs and says, "I suppose that's why they say it's better to be lucky than righteous."
"Sir?" says the waiter.
Wei Wuxian points at the sword hanging on the wall. "If that tomb's owner wakes up and misses their sword, what do you suppose you'll be able to do? You might as well resign yourself to washing your neck and waiting for it to come chop your head off." He's exaggerating a little, but it's for a good cause anyway.
"We left offerings!" says the waiter, voice going high pitched in his anxiety.
"Hmm," says Lan Wangji. He looks very cold and severe, the epitome of a righteous cultivator who will, no doubt, report this humble village for grave robbery at once.
"It's our own village's tomb!" insists the waiter.
Wei Wuxian leans forward and bares his teeth in a smile. "If you're so sure that they won't mind," he says. "Why don't you share a bowl with us, gege?"
The waiter, as expected, turns an ugly shade of greeny-white.
"I didn't think so," says Wei Wuxian. He's still smiling, but the waiter suddenly looks more afraid of him than of the wine or of Lan Wangji. That's fair. Wei Wuxian is by far the scariest thing in any room that he's in. "I'll tell you what. You hand over the rest of that wine you've been selling to people who don't know it's from a grave and that sword, and Hanguang-jun will probably be merciful enough to deal with the tomb for you."
The waiter drags his eyes over to Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian can almost see the sweat dripping off his forehead. He swallows hard and then scurries off.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji.
"What?" says Wei Wuxian lightly. "Isn't that letting them off lightly, Lan Er-gege?"
Lan Wangji shakes his head slightly, but he doesn't object. They really do need to investigate the tomb. The original owner may not be around to care what happened to it and their grave goods, but there were plenty of other things that would find a ransacked tomb with offerings left in front of it an ideal nest.
"Mm," says Lan Wangji, and then, "Border territory."
"What sect?" says Wei Wuxian.
"Jiang Yunmeng," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian sighs as the waiter comes back, staggering under five or six jars of wine and the sword. "It can't be helped."
"Tomorrow," says Lan Wangji. He's right, it's definitely better to deal with it in the morning.
When they get back to the room, Wei Wuxian barely lets the door close before he flings himself on a cushion and makes grabby hands at the jars Lan Wangji is carrying.
"Resentful energy?" says Lan Wangji, giving him a pointed look and setting the jars down just out of his reach.
"You know there's barely any there," says Wei Wuxian. "And besides --" he holds out his hand and hums, making a twisting motion with his fingers like he's pulling something off the wine jars. A thin thread of smoke -- the accumulated resentful energy around the jars -- drifts away from the jars and toward him. It wraps itself affectionately against his hand and he flicks his hand again, allowing it to dissipate into the air.
Lan Wangji's mouth goes tight and unhappy.
Wei Wuxian squints at him. "What?"
"You should not --" begins Lan Wangji.
Oh. "It's fine," says Wei Wuxian dismissively. "You think the Yiling Patriarch can't control a little bit of resentful energy like that?"
Lan Wangji says, "Not the point," but he refuses to explain what his point is.
"Anyway, gimme wine," says Wei Wuxian, making grabby hands again.
Lan Wangji says, "One jar."
"Sure," agrees Wei Wuxian. The other jars will have to be returned to the tomb, or poured out properly somewhere, but it seems like a pity to let it return to the earth without appreciating it. "What about you, Lan Zhan? Are you going to have some?"
Lan Wangji purses up his mouth in a very Lan Gusu Sect expression. "Alcohol --"
"Do you ever do anything that is forbidden by that damn wall?" says Wei Wuxian. He doesn't mean to snap, but Lan Wangji just drives him crazy sometimes. If he spent just one day not caring about all four thousand fucking rules carved on that stupid wall, he'd be a better person for it, Wei Wuxian is sure.
Lan Wangji, surprisingly, says, "Yes."
Wei Wuxian stares at him. Lan Wangji doesn't say anything else, just looks at him calmly.
"Anyway," says Wei Wuxian at last, "we're not at the Cloud Recesses. One bowl won't make your ancestors disown you."
Lan Wangji doesn't respond, and Wei Wuxian sighs. "Fine, I won't bother you about it. Bring the wine over, Lan-er-gege, and I'll enjoy it myself."
Lan Wangji hesitates again, and then suddenly and decisively, picks up one of the wine jars and breaks the seal. He takes a large gulp of it before he hands it to Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian isn't quite sure if he's hallucinating or not. It wouldn't be the first time, certainly, but this is a pretty fucking weird thing to hallucinate over. They just stand there, staring at each other, before Lan Wangji sways once and says, "Bed."
"What?" says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji lies down on the bed, robes, headpiece, boots, and all, and arranges himself in accordance to the rules of the Gusu Lan Sect, which honestly always reminds Wei Wuxian of the guest of honor at a wake.
"Um," he says. It takes him a minute to remember the funeral wine he's holding, but when he does he takes a huge gulp of it. The wine slides down, sweet and still alcoholic despite its age, and the professional part of his brain curses the villagers thoroughly again. The rest of his brain puts the jar to his mouth and chugs the rest of it down, relishing the slight burn on his throat.
When he lowers the jar again, he almost drops it in surprise. Lan Wangji, instead of lying there like a corpse until five am like Wei Wuxian expected, was sitting up again, his body bending at the waist in a frankly unnecessary display of his core muscles. He swings his feet over the edge of the bed and stands upright like he's being pulled by the strings of a puppet master. Then he moves toward Wei Wuxian with light, predatory footsteps.
Before Wei Wuxian can quite decide if he needs to run away, Lan Wangji reaches for him and pulls the scarf off from around his neck.
Wei Wuxian feels like an earthquake is shattering everything around him, shaking apart his foundations, as Lan Wangji tosses the scarf aside disdainfully -- and then pauses and picks it up again. He smells it thoroughly, end to end, mouth slightly open to taste the scent. Finally, apparently satisfied, he bunches it up in his fist and rubs it against his own neck gland until it's so saturated with his scent that Wei Wuxian can smell it from half a room away. Then he smooths it out again and tosses it to the dressing table on one side of the room.
"Lan Zhan?" says Wei Wuxian, cautious.
Lan Wangji glances over but doesn't respond. Instead, he prowls around the room, rubbing his wrist glands against the windowsill and the sides of the door, before marking every piece of furniture in the room. Everything smells like him, sandalwood and agarwood incense. The smell penetrates everything, heavy and possessive. Holy shit, thinks Wei Wuxian, they're going to have to air this room out for a month before it stops smelling like territorial alpha.
Wei Wuxian doesn't know what it says about him that he feels safer than he has in a long time, but that's not exactly the point, is it? Lan Wangji finishes marking everything he can reach in the room and turns his attention back to Wei Wuxian. He walks over and bends his head enough to sniff the air over Wei Wuxian's neck with a serious expression. He looks focused, as if it's very important that he memorizes every nuance of Wei Wuxian's scent.
Should he let Lan Wangji do it? Should he punch him? Should he run screaming away? He doesn't even know what Lan Wangji is smelling on him that merits that sort of complete attention.
Finally Lan Wangji lets out an annoyed huff of air and turns away. Wei Wuxian thinks he's going to go back to bed, but instead he pulls a spatial bag from his sleeve, and pulls out a set of clothing. Then he goes to the bathroom and begins filling the tub.
Wei Wuxian has a bad feeling about this. He starts backing slowly toward the door. "Lan Zhan, don't you think it's a bit late to be bathing?" he says.
Lan Wangji doesn't even bother to answer or even look at him, busy spreading out towels and clothing. He reaches into his sleeve again and pulls out a vial of oil. When he pulls out the stopper it fills the air with some subtle spicy scent, which intensifies when Lan Wangji pours half the oil into the tub -- gum benzoin. Lan Wangji places a piece of soap on the stand beside the tub and takes off his outer robe. For a wild second Wei Wuxian thinks Lan Zhan is just going to strip down and get in the tub in front of him, but instead Lan Wangji rolls up his sleeves in a peaceful, leisurely way, and tests the water.
"Lan Zhan?" says Wei Wuxian cautiously. "Are you all right?"
Lan Wangji turns toward him. Wei Wuxian realizes that his eyes are blank, as if he's sleepwalking. He tilts his head at Wei Wuxian, like a curious hawk, and Wei Wuxian's heart sinks.
"Are you drunk?" says Wei Wuxian. "Holy fuck. Holy fuck, Lan Zhan, you're drunk!"
Lan Wangji doesn't respond except to take several deliberate steps forward back toward Wei Wuxian. We Wuxian backs further up against the door and grasps the latch. Lan Wangji takes another step forward.
"Lan-er-gege," says Wei Wuxian, desperate, "Why don't you take a little nap?" He could try to run but he's no match for Lan Wangji in cultivation or physical training. He thinks he'd probably get about a hands-breadth into the hallway before Lan Wangji recaptured him.
Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he's seen this scene before in the cheap pornography Nie Huaisang had collected religiously when they were boys. Except, in the books, it was always a trembling omega maiden with limbs like toothpicks and a bust like a pair of melons, cowering back in fear as a leering alpha with a straggly beard advanced on her. In those books, though, usually a younger, handsomer, more attractive alpha rescued her at the very last second, and reaped the benefit of the inevitable aphrodisiac incense that she'd been dosed with.
He's pretty sure this is not going to play out like that. For one thing, if you said to Lan Wangji that a nubile omega maiden had been wickedly captured and dosed with aphrodisiacs, he'd definitely rescue her and then calmly knock her unconscious until the effects wore off. And if by some strange twist of fate Lan Wangji actually wanted to seduce a nubile omega maiden of any gender, all he would have to do is suggest he was interested in the idea. The line of hopefuls would stretch down the path to the Cloud Recesses and wind three or four times around the base of the mountain.
For another -- "Lan Zhan?" he says. "Lan Zhan, you know it's me, right?"
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji obediently. Then he says, "Wei Ying," again, like he wants to just say Wei Wuxian's name.
"Right," says Wei Wuxian, half to himself. "You know it's me. Probably. Great. Okay."
Lan Wangji takes another step forward. "Wei Ying."
"Lan Zhan, isn't it time for bed?" says Wei Wuxian desperately.
"Bed," says Lan Wangji, in a tone that sounds almost eager. Then he frowns. "Bath," he says, firmly.
He reaches for Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian tries to duck to avoid him, but Lan Wangji is, as expected, too fast and strong.
Lan Wangji lifts him easily up in his arms and carries him across the room to the bathroom. Wei Wuxian braces himself to be dumped into the tub, but Lan Wangji puts his feet on the ground long enough to rip his robes off. Lan Wangji pulls apart the sad remnants of his black robes and holds them with one finger, looking contemptuously at the tattered fabric. He tightens his grip and Wei Wuxian's robes dissolve into dust.
"Hey!" says Wei Wuxian, indignant. It was true they were shitty, second hand robes, but they were his shitty, second hand robes. They were pretty much his only set, too, so Wei Wuxian has no idea what he's going to do. Wander around in his under-robes (also a common plot point in Nie Huaisang's book collection) and beg the landlady for new clothes? Steal them off the laundry line? Wear Lan Wangji's robes and make a disgrace of the Gusu Lan Sect?
Lan Wangji takes a step forward, crowding Wei Wuxian toward the tub. Wei Wuxian realizes that if he doesn't get into that tub himself, Lan Wangji is absolutely going to dump him in there himself like a squalling kitten. "Lan Zhan, aren't you ashamed to treat an omega like this?" he says desperately. "What would your unc--"
Lan Wangji takes another step forward and grabs hold of Wei Wuxian's undershirt, and with a shock of power that Wei Wuxian can feel against his skin, disintegrates it into dust as well. Wei Wuxian swallows hard. There's a time to fight and a time to give in, and right now it's definitely time to take off the rest of his clothes and sit his ass in that bath before Lan Wangji does it for him. He steps into the tub and sinks down into the warm scented water. It's perfect, of course, just on the right side of boiling hot. "There," he says. "Happy?"
Lan Wangji tilts his head to the side again.
"I'm taking a bath," says Wei Wuxian. "You don't have to help me.. It's fine. You go lie down and --"
Lan Wangji pulls the raggedy ribbon from Wei Wuxian and gives it a sneer before it dissolves into dust too. Wei Wuxian's hair falls in clumps and bundles around his face and back, the tips floating and sinking into the water like entangling seaweed. Lan Wangji slides his long fingers through it, separating the strands like he's enjoying himself.
Wei Wuxian tries to hold still. He's kind of afraid that Lan Wangji will fall asleep halfway through bathing him, and then, well, he'll just have to figure out how to drag Lan Wangji back to the bed.
But Lan Wangji doesn't fall asleep.
Instead, he washes Wei Wuxian's hair and skin, with the attention and dedication to detail to be expected of a Lan of Gusu. He rinses out Wei Wuxian's hair carefully, tilting his head back with one big, warm hand on his forehead so not a drop of water or a single bubble gets in Wei Wuxian's eyes. Finally, satisfied, he pulls the drain plug and pulls Wei Wuxian up to his feet and wraps him up snug in towels before he picks up the vial of oil again. He anoints Wei Wuxian's hair and skin carefully, making sure Wei Wuxian is never exposed to the cold air until he's completely dry.
Lan Wangji has a strange look on his face, very contented but yet melancholy. He looks like he's in a dream he's had too many times before. Wei Wuxian's heart twists. The expression on Lan Wangji's face is too horrible. He wants to erase it and make it never come back, but all he can do is stand, obedient as a doll, and let Lan Wangji put him in under robes that hang over his wrists and droop low to his feet.
Finally he takes a step away and looks over Wei Wuxian, like he's checking for any flaws in his handiwork. He heaves a tiny, pleased sigh.
He begins to purr.
Wei Wuxian's brain goes blank.
Lan Wangji leans forward, still purring, low and soft, and smells him again. His nose doesn't even graze Wei Wuxian's skin, but Wei Wuxian feels the heat of him against his own skin.
Lan Wangji pulls back. In the next minute, he brushes the scent glands of his wrist over Wei Wuxian's hair, pushing it back, and dragging them over the sides of his neck and down his arms until he reaches Wei Wuxian's own wrist glands. He stops for a minute, and then repeats the movement, insistently.
Well, shit, thinks Wei Wuxian, he'd heard that Lan Wangji had been acting like a widower for years and years, but he would have never dreamed that Lan Wangji missed his mate so badly that he would just drunkenly mark any omega that he saw!
Lan Wangji repeats the gesture again, and the tone of his purr switches from content to somehow pleading. Wei Wuxian can't stand it. He isn't sure what he's doing but that look in Lan Zhan's eyes can't be borne. He lifts his own hands up and clumsily copies the gesture, starting from the crown of Lan Wangji's head and down his sides, brushing his wrist glands against Lan Wangji's again. It tingles and aches in a way that makes him want more and more of it.
Suddenly he hates whoever broke Lan Zhan's heart. He wishes he could just make them suffer half of what Lan Wangji has, a vicious impulse that rises from the dark place in his heart. But he can't, so he repeats the gesture again, and tries not to shiver as the sparks from his wrist glands grow more intense. He can smell himself overlaying Lan Wangji's scent -- petrichor, he thinks. Rain on a dry grave.
The shock of recognition makes him pull back. "There, feel better?" he says brightly. "Are you happy now, Lan Zh--"
Lan Wangji swings him up in his arms and carries him to the bed. Then he arranges himself so he's lying on his back, and Wei Wuxian so he's crushed against Lan Wangji's chest.
"Bed," says Lan Wangji, sounding incredibly pleased with himself through his purrs, and falls straight into the deepest possible sleep.
Wei Wuxian, lying trapped against Lan Wangji's hard and uncomfortable bosom, says "What the fuck."
Nobody and nothing answers him.
Wei Wuxian wakes up even more unwillingly than usual. He's very comfortable and everything smells deliciously of sandalwood, but after a minute he regains enough consciousness that it's impossible to go back to sleep again, even if he wanted to -- instead he sits up and rubs his eyes. He catches something odd from the corner of his vision and looks down -- instead of his usual ratty robes, patched and just on the edge of decency, he's dressed in fine ramie and silk, his hair braided neatly and tied up with what feels like a silk ribbon.
He still smells like Lan Wangji, and he likes it too much to be happy about it.
When he sits up, he sees Lan Wangji sitting on a cushion by the low table. He's leaning his cheek on one hand, a shockingly relaxed pose for the great Hanguang-jun, but a very beautiful one, with his hair falling softly over his shoulder and over the pure white sleeves of his robes. He looks up at Wei Wuxian as Wei Wuxian moves his feet over to the edge of the bed.
"It's late," says Lan Wangji, not exactly an accusation, but more a statement of fact.
"I had a busy night," says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji, aggravatingly, refuses to respond. Instead, he puts a marker in his book. The marker is a scrap of red silk ribbon, rather faded and frayed. Lan Wangji smooths it down carefully against the page and closes the book. Wei Wuxian has a brief but extremely vivid fantasy of snatching the book away from him and hitting Lan Zhan over the head with it. He decides it's probably a bad idea though -- he can't guarantee he'll win against Lan Wangji with his current comparatively frail body, and he'd rather be choked than allow Lan Wangji to allow him to win.
"Breakfast," Lan Wangji says. Then, as if to be perfectly accurate, "Lunch."
Wei Wuxian tries not to glare at Lan Zhan. If he doesn't remember what happened last night, he's being awfully calm about having possibly compromised a (presumably) innocent omega. "Do you know what you did to me last night?"
"No," says Lan Wangji.
Before Wei Wuxian can make up a lie about it, Lan Wangji says, "Food." He lifts up a cover on the table, and Wei Wuxian's nose twitches at the scent. Well, fine. He'll interrogate Lan Zhan about if he actually remembers anything or what he's willing to believe after he shovels that entire plate of xiaolongbao into his mouth. Besides the dumplings, there's a bowl of congee with preserved egg and pork liver, with a scattering of green onions on top and swirls of red chili oil on the surface like strange cinnabar characters on a sheet of white paper. There's youtiao and soy milk to dip it into, and even scallion pancakes. Lan Wangji pours him a cup of tea, fragrant and just slightly flowery.
Wei Wuxian may not remember the time he spent being dead, but every time he thinks about not having anything delicious to eat for thirteen years he gets more depressed about it, so he sits down and starts shoveling food into his mouth without shame. It's only when Lan Wangji reaches over to wipe off a smudge of congee from his chin that he realizes that Lan Wangji is simply just watching him eat, and also that there's a hugely different meaning to an omega eating food an alpha has provided than there is to a beta mooching food off someone who tolerates his presence.
He pauses, and Lan Wangji takes his chance to wipe his face off with a soft cloth. Lan Wangji's face is very serious as he examines Wei Wuxian's face for any further stains and then puts the cloth down again.
Wei Wuxian has no idea what is going on. He swallows his last bite of congee and says, "Did he bring the artifacts?" He hopes the waiter from last night had paid attention to what they had said.
Lan Wangji nods. "Delivered." He pauses. "Early."
We can't all be Lan Gusu disciples and like to get up before the sun, thinks Wei Wuxian crossly. He says, "Did he tell you where the grave is at?"
"Yes," says Lan Wangji.
"Let's go, then," says Wei Wuxian.
The site of the grave that had been robbed was only a few li away, but they take Little Apple with them anyway to carry the depressing amount of treasure they'd gotten from the waiter's accomplices. He must have scared them wholesomely -- which was good, but neither Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian had any illusions about how long they would stay scared. They needed to seal off the tomb now, not risk something worse happening later.
Wei Wuxian walks beside Lan Wangji, instead of riding Little Apple. The load was quite heavy, but even so Lan Wangji doesn't seem quite pleased to have Wei Wuxian walking beside him instead of being on Little Apple. Wei Wuxian was perfectly happy there, avoiding Little Apple's resentful looks when he helped himself to an apple from his feed bag.
"Those aren't good," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian swallows a bite and says, "Food's food." Lan Wangji makes a face like he wants to cringe but is too wellbred to do it. "Anyway, doesn't your wall of rules say you shouldn't be picky about food?"
"That's not food," says Lan Wangji, driven to irritation. "That's livestock fodder."
Wei Wuxian takes a giant chomp of the apple. Lan Wangji sighs.
The tomb is set on the side of a natural-looking hill. Wei Wuxian can't tell by looking at it if it was dug out from a hill or if the builders had made the hill to look that way. Either way, the hill suffered a large landslide within the past five years, which exposed the stone supports of the entrance.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and listens. He hears the air moving, the birds chirping and singing, even the rustle of wild animals creeping along. He doesn't hear any discordant note. Whoever this tomb had been made for was long, long gone, leaving quietly and without resentment.
When he opens his eyes again, Lan Wangji shifts his eyes away from him, but it's clear that he had watched him very carefully.
"It's fine," says Wei Wuxian. "There's nothing but dust here now."
"Mm," says Lan Wangji.
The entrance to the tomb itself has been carelessly blocked off by a large boulder, almost as tall as Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian waits as Lan Wangji slowly pushes it to one side, not easily but without strain. The entrance is large enough for even Lan Wangji to enter without doing more than bending his head a little. Behind it is a flat stone propped up haphazardly on smaller rocks. A few burnt incense sticks and some rotten fruit lie on top of it, along with some half-consumed paper money and grave goods.
Wei Wuxian wrinkles his nose. Lan Wangji murmurs, "Disgusting."
Wei Wuxian can't argue. They venture further in, lit by one of Lan Wangji's light talismans, and follow the path of disturbed dust to the tomb chamber. The walls are painted with scenes from the owner's life, although Wei Wuxian can't tell if they had been an alpha or an omega. The painted figures offer to the gods, sit next to their spouse, go hunting, watch dancing girls: the paintings are so vivid that Wei Wuxian can almost hear the wail of the dixi and strum of the guqin, the cry of the erhu.
They stand in silence before the coffin, looking at the paintings, before Wei Wuxian remembers his manners and bows to the coffin. "Honored Ancestor," he says, "We've come to return your stolen things."
"Do you think they know?" says Lan Wangji suddenly.
Wei Wuxian lifts one shoulder. "How would I know?" He doesn't remember being dead. There had been a flash of all consuming pain and a sense of relief that it was, at last, over -- and then darkness. He didn't know how long that darkness had cocooned him before he woke again. It might have been a second. It might have been a hundred million years. But he was at rest and he had been glad of it. "It doesn't matter anyway."
"Mm?" says Lan Wangji.
"Rituals are for the living," says Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji is silent for a minute, and then says, "I suppose." He moves forward and gently puts the sword back on the stand, and Wei Wuxian puts the jars of wine back on the shelf. He takes one and breaks the seal, pouring it in front of the coffin.
They finish replacing everything and stand in front of the coffin again. Wei Wuxian finds himself holding his breath -- but whatever he is half expecting never happens.
"Come," says Lan Wangji at last, and Wei Wuxian follows him back out of the tomb.
They decide to go back to the inn for the night and settle where they'll go the next morning. Wei Wuxian doesn't say anything but he feels itchy and restless after coming out of the tomb, in a way that being badly startled by a grave good in the shape of a dog doesn't quite explain. He wants to stay close to Lan Wangji but he doesn't want to say anything about it.
Lan Wangji seems to notice anyway. He doesn't comment on it. Instead he matches his pace to Wei Wuxian's, his broad shoulder almost bumping against Wei Wuxian's.
Wei Wuxian has to admit, in the silence of his heart, that it would be good to reach out and take Lan Wangji's hand.
When they get back to the inn, they hear the landlady talking to someone. Her voice sounds very flustered and respectful. "Honored cultivator, there's no reason for your visit. Some other great cultivators went this --"
"Oh," says a very familiar sharp voice. "And who would those 'great' 'cultivators' be?"
Jiang Cheng sounds more like his mother every passing minute of his life, thinks Wei Wuxian, somewhere between affection and irritation, and then he freezes.
"These gentlemen!" says the landlady, pointing at them. She looks extremely relieved, like she's going to abandon them to their fate.
Jiang Cheng turns around.
"Sect Leader Jiang," says Lan Wangji, politely.
Jiang Cheng ignores him. He stares at Wei Wuxian in ghastly horror, before Jiang Cheng's mouth closes with an audible click. He reaches for Wei Wuxian, and says, on a snarl, "What the hell do you think you're --"
Wei Wuxian wants to let him grab his arm and yell at him all he likes. It's nothing more than he deserves, probably. But he flinches back a little, instincts making him back away from the threat, which makes Jiang Cheng freeze for a second before he visibly recovers himself. His lips compress, going even more hard and thin. Jiang Cheng reaches for Wei Wuxian again.
Behind them comes a low thrum of a growl, almost subvocal, but reverberating like thunder.
Jiang Cheng jerks away from Wei Wuxian. For a second, it seems like the both of them are twenty years in the past and Madam Yu is growling at them to make them behave, before sanity kicks in and he remembers, all over again, with the same sickening twist of his stomach, that she will never growl at them again.
Both of them turn to face Lan Wangji, very slowly.
"Hanguang-jun," says Jiang Cheng.
The sound goes both louder and deeper. Lan Wangji flicks an icy look at Jiang Cheng, and then an even colder look at Jiang Cheng's hand encircling Wei Wuxian's wrist. Jiang Cheng is frozen in the face of Lan Wangji's overwhelming aura and doesn't let go until Wei Wuxian twists his wrist in his grip.
Jiang Cheng drops Wei Wuxian's hand like it's made out of red hot iron.
The growling modulates, just barely. Lan Wangji stares at Jiang Cheng, waiting for him to make one wrong move.
Jiang Cheng looks at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng.
They look away from each other before Lan Wangji gets more agitated, but the messages of 'what the FUCK, Wei Ying' and 'how the fuck should I know!' are transmitted loud and clear.
Lan Zhan is still staring coldly at Jiang Cheng, and for the first time in a long time, Wei Wuxian fully believes that Lan Zhan is going to beat the shit out of someone. He says quickly, "Sect Leader Jiang, would you like to speak to this humble one?"
Jiang Cheng flashes him another incredulous look, but 20 years of reading each other like a book comes to the fore and he says, "Yes."
"Let's, um --" Wei Wuxian becomes the focus of one of Lan Wangji's best cold and incredulous looks. Desperate times, he guesses, so he hooks his hand around Jiang Cheng's arm and drags him bodily out of the lobby and to the room Lan Wangji had rented for them. He shoves Jiang Cheng in and slams the door behind them, leaning against it like he has any chance in this world or the next to hold it against Lan Wangji if he chooses to push his way in. He locks it and then stamps up close to Jiang Cheng.
They glare at each other.
"What the hell!" says Wei Wuxian.
"That's my line!" says Jiang Cheng. "You're -- you're an omega now!"
It's a real effort not to roll his eyes like he's fifteen again, but Wei Wuxian manages it. "Insightful as always," he says.
Jiang Cheng looks visibly torn between his instinctive deference toward omegas, and his equally instinctive desire to just fully slap the shit out of Wei Wuxian. "Why are you an omega now?"
Wei Wuxian just looks at him. Jiang Cheng thinks it through and says, "Why would --"
"I don't know either!" says Wei Wuxian. For a second, he wants to tell Jiang Cheng how weird everything is, how he smells everything so much now, how he flinches at loud noises and how people keep staring at him, not like he's the dreaded and insane Yiling Patriarch, but like they're undressing him. "I sure as hell wasn't expecting this to happen when I died, you know."
Jiang Cheng doesn't exactly look sorry, but he does look taken aback for a second, before he thinks of something else.
"Why the hell are you traveling around with Hanguang-jun?" he hisses. "Doesn't he hate you?"
"I thought so too!" says Wei Wuxian. The way that Lan Wangji seems to tolerate his presence beyond just keeping an eye on him in case he goes crazier confuses him too. He doesn't want to think about it too hard. "Maybe it's just an alpha thing?"
Jiang Cheng says, "Not fucking likely! He always looks like he's smelling shit when an omega gets near him." Then he stops, thinks, makes the worst face he can, clears his throat, and says, "Have you - er -"
"Er? I don't know what 'er' is," says Wei Wuxian, in his most asshole voice.
Jiang Cheng gives him a look so much like Madame Yu that Wei Wuxian takes half a step back. "You know what I mean," says Jiang Cheng. Then, like it's choking him, "Have you -- have you had that time yet?"
This is honestly the most horrible discussion Wei Wuxian has ever been forced to have with his foster brother, up to and including 'I am here to kill the Yiling Patriarch with five hundred of my close friends that all hate you'. He casts a yearning look at the window, but they're on the second story and he can't be sure he'll land safely. "I don't see why it's any of your business," he says.
"Wei Ying," says Jiang Cheng, which is stupidly unfair of him.
Wei Wuxian sighs. "No."
"You have to be careful," says Jiang Cheng, and then, more horrifyingly, "You ought to get married before it happens. What if someone --"
"Thank you very much for your concern, Sect Leader Jiang!"
First off, fuck Jiang Cheng and his nagging -- wasn't he Wei Wuxian's shidi to begin with? Second off, Jiang Cheng had never, in his life, ever worried about going into heat, and probably would never have to worry about his spouse going into heat either, if the rumors about his blacklisting were at all true. It wasn't the matchmakers' fault. Wei Wuxian also would rather eat Gusu Lan food for the rest of his life than put up with Jiang Cheng as his husband.
"I'm worried about you!" yells Jiang Cheng. "What if Lan --"
"Lan Wangji isn't that sort of person!" says Wei Wuxian hotly. He shouldn't defend him like this -- it's not like Lan Wangji needs him to defend him anyway. Anyway, Wei Wuxian knows it already. Lan Wangji's too good to be the friend of the foster son of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect -- how much more absurd is it for him to be involved in any way with the feared Yiling Patriarch, returned from the dead in a stolen omega body? Anyway -- "I'll deal with it if it comes."
"How?" says Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian feels like they're twelve and arguing about stupid things again. "How should I know? There's not a book about it, you know! I'll just -- I'll go into seclusion to cultivate or something."
Jiang Cheng's lips compress, but he doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. Wei Wuxian knows as well as he does that simply going into seclusion isn't going to solve this problem. Omegas are rare in cultivation families -- and there's a lot of alphas, and even betas, who believe legends about the effects of sharing a heat with an omega to improve cultivation. Wei Wuxian can protect himself, but only to a point. The most sensible thing to do would be to find a partner as soon as possible, but even that's easier said than done. Mo Xuanyu couldn't find a partner -- what luck is the Yiling Patriarch going to have finding a partner that won't betray him?
"I wish you would consider it," says Jiang Cheng. Then, with a look like he's eating sour apples, he says, "I could --"
"NO," says Wei Wuxian. The thought of bonding, even for as long as a heat, with Jiang Cheng makes his skin crawl.
Jiang Cheng tries not to look relieved. He clears his throat and says, bossy as usual, "What do you mean to do?"
"Jiang Cheng," sighs Wei Wuxian, "I'm not a member of your sect any more."
Jiang Cheng's face twists. Wei Wuxian can't bear it. "I have to go," he says, and makes for the window, because dropping two floors to an almost certain broken leg is infinitely better than that look on Jiang Cheng's face.
Jiang Cheng says, his voice sharp: "Wei Ying!"
Wei Wuxian pauses unwillingly.
"Promise you'll be careful," says Jiang Cheng. Twenty years fall away, and he's just Wei Wuxian's foster brother, fussing over his recklessness.
"You know I never keep my promises," says Wei Wuxian, and jumps out the window.
Halfway down the side of the building, he does briefly regret his desire for an immediate and dramatic exit overpowering his common sense, but just as he's bracing himself for a bad landing, he sees a flash of white reaching up for him. Before he realizes what, exactly it is, he's landed safely in Lan Wangji's arms. Lan Wangji only takes half a step back to rebalance himself, and Wei Wuxian finds himself held securely, arms around Lan Wangji's neck.
Wei Wuxian stares at him foolishly. Lan Wangji smells really good. He's known since the days they spent together cooped up in the Library Pavilion, but somehow it's especially clear right now.
"Wei Wuxian," says Lan Wangji. It doesn't sound like he's saying hello. It sounds almost like he just wanted to say Wei Wuxian's name.
"Lan Wangji," says Wei Wuxian in return, and suddenly he can see why Lan Wangji would want to say his name. It feels good in his mouth. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!"
"Hmm?" says Lan Wangji. He sets Wei Wuxian down, so his feet just barely touch the ground. Wei Wuxian clings on instead of stepping back. It seems quite natural to him, perfectly correct, to let Lan Wangji bear two thirds of his weight.
"Let's go somewhere," says Wei Wuxian. "Before Jiang Cheng gets down here."
"All right," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian blinks.
"Hmm?" says Lan Wangji. He doesn't let go of Wei Wuxian. His hands are warm and Wei Wuxian wants to sniff the shoulder of his robes to see if that lovely scent is from his clothing or Lan Zhan himself.
"You don't mind?" says Wei Wuxian.
"Mind what?" says Lan Wangji. He tilts his head a little, like he's curious about Wei Wuxian is talking about.
Well. If Lan Zhan doesn't mind, Wei Wuxian doesn't mind either. "Hahaha," he says. "You'll make such a great husband!"
Lan Wangji lifts his eyebrows, like he's waiting for Wei Wuxian to elaborate.
"You always go along with what I say," says Wei Wuxian. "Hahaha, your wife will be lucky!"
"I don't always," points out Lan Wangji. Which is true. Lan Wangji can be as bossy as hell when he wants to be. He definitely needs to have a good wife, someone who won't let him boss them around all the time. Someone who could make him smile, or even let out one of his vanishingly rare tiny chuckles. Someone who could keep up with him, and drag him away from his books and his meditation when he looked like he was about to grow moss in the Library Pavilion. Someone like --
Wei Wuxian shakes himself.
"I would be," says Lan Wangji.
"A good husband," says Lan Wangji. His eyes look into Wei Wuxian's like he's trying to look into the bottom of Wei Wuxian's heart.
Wei Wuxian's heart thumps hard, and an electric thrill goes down his spine. Lan Wangji has really beautiful eyes, he thinks nonsensically. They're such an intense shade of gold and he's got such absurdly heavy black eyelashes. Somehow, he manages to look away.
"Hahahaha," manages Wei Wuxian after a moment. "Save that sort of thing for a sweet omega!"
Lan Wangji's mouth curves up just the tiniest, smuggest bit. "You're not sweet?" -- and Wei Wuxian remembers that yes, technically, he is an omega.
Wei Wuxian swats at him, which Lan Wangji avoids easily. It would be so easy to get used to this. He looks away instead of saying something stupid.
Lan Wangji waits for a minute, like he thinks that Wei Wuxian might have something else to say. When Wei Wuxian keeps quiet, he says, "Where are we going?"
Wei Wuxian glances up at the window he'd just jumped out of. He's a little surprised Jiang Cheng isn't hanging out of it cursing him, but he's probably too mad to do it. Maybe he'll send someone down to make sure Wei Wuxian hasn't gotten blood on the ground.
"Somewhere," says Wei Wuxian. "Does it matter? Let's just go."
"All right," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian doesn't really pay attention to where they're going until they're an hour or two away. Seeing Jiang Cheng always made his stomach twist, no matter how civilly they interacted: there's too much history between them that drags him down. He keeps quiet, trying to push down the heavy feeling in his stomach, but he spends too much time thinking and not enough paying attention to where Lan Wangji is leading him. He looks up and realizes that they're walking on a forest road, dappled with sunlight and soaked in the smell of pine-needle loam.
"Where's Little Apple?" he says finally.
"Sent ahead," says Lan Wangji.
"What?" says Wei Wuxian. "Why?"
"It seemed easier," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian catches himself gritting his teeth. "Where did you send my donkey?" he says, trying to keep his tone even. It's been a long day already and he's not in the mood to deal with even Lan Zhan's bossy alpha bullshit.
"The Cloud Recesses," says Lan Wangji, still in that horribly calm, reasonable tone.
Wei Wuxian stops.
Lan Wangji continues walking forward. Even though the red tinge rising into his eyes and the sudden shrill pound of blood in his ears, Wei Wuxian thinks that Lan Wangji looks like a painting of a scholar walking through a pine forest. He's so beautiful and remote that Wei Wuxian's stomach clenches.
"Why did you send my donkey to the Cloud Recesses," he says through his teeth.
Lan Wangji finally stops and flicks him a glance through his stupidly beautiful eyelashes. "Won't that be more convenient?"
Wei Wuxian, not for the first and undoubtedly not the last time in his two lives, vividly imagines just shoving Lan Zhan into the nearest mucky puddle he can find and holding him there until his prissy white mourning robes are covered in slimy mud. He'd probably end up dragged in right behind him, but it'd be worth it. "Speak clearly," he says. "Why would it be more convenient?"
Lan Wangji stops for a minute. Then he says, "I am at fault."
Wei Wuxian is ready to bite him in the neck, just tear his throat open and let the blood spray everywhere.
"I didn't realize that you didn't know it was coming."
"Lan Zhan," says Wei Wuxian on a low growl.
"Your heat is coming," says Lan Wangji.
"What?" says Wei Wuxian stupidly. And then, "What are you talking about?" For a second all he can think about is the yellow books Nie Huaisang had when they were at the Cloud Recesses, talking breathlessly about an omega maiden's first flowering of yin.
Lan Wangji just looks at him, and for a second Wei Wuxian's mind goes blank before he gets angry, mean angry, like he's always fighting against, and he says coldly, "I see why you sent my donkey to the Cloud Recesses then. Is that why you --"
"Why I did what?" says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian remembers the feeling of Lan Wangji's hands dragging over his skin, marking him with this scent. He'd felt so warm, so cherished, and it turns out that it was just Lan Wangji reacting to an omega's preheat. He presses his lips together. "If you don't remember it's fine," he says flatly.
Lan Wangji repeats, "I was in the wrong."
Jiang Cheng's always had a god damn crow's mouth, but this time he's gotten Wei Wuxian but good. For a minute, Wei Wuxian wishes he could transport himself right the fuck back to the Lotus Piers and punch Jiang Cheng straight in his unlucky mouth. "You don't even know for sure," he argues. Mo Xuanyu's never had a heat, as far as Wei Wuxian has been able to learn. If he had, he wouldn't have been sent back in disgrace to his mother's family, but married off as quickly and quietly and as far away as possible.
"I know," says Lan Wangji.
"Even if you know," says Wei Wuxian, laying as much mocking stress as he can on the word 'know', "What good is it to go to the Cloud Recesses?" Even if Lan Wangji, like Jiang Cheng, is worried about his theoretical virtue, there's plenty of other places he can go to take refuge. Hell, he could just go back to the ruins of the Burial Mounds and any idiot stupid enough to try to claim the Yiling Patriarch on his own grounds, destroyed as they might be, would get what was coming to them and to spare.
Lan Wangji gives him a flat look, the one he always uses when he think Wei Wuxian is being stupid on purpose. "You think about it." He turns his back and begins walking forward again.
"Think about what?" says Wei Wuxian, to the uncaring trees.
In Lan Wangji's defense, he doesn't seem to appear to be interested in dragging Wei Wuxian back to the Cloud Recesses kicking and screaming again. They head toward the site of a rumored fierce corpse infestation, not Gusu, and Lan Wangji continues to treat Wei Wuxian with the same courteous indifference and care that he always had. He even lets Wei Wuxian listen when he practices the guqin at night.
Wei Wuxian is glad of the reprieve, and ashamed of his own relief. He doesn't know what he thinks. It would be safe at the Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan is right about that. But does he want to depend on the Gusu Lan Sect for his safety? It's somehow different when it's only Lan Zhan, but --
They've been traveling for a week or so, Wei Wuxian still going around in circles about what he ought to do, when he wakes up one morning feeling colder than he ever has since he held the Stygian Tiger Amulet for the last time. He's so cold he feels like relighting their small campfire and just standing in the center of it.
They're in an abandoned temple for shelter, with massive stone slabs as the floor. Wei Wuxian lies curled up miserably in his robes and blanket and tries to convince himself it's really not that bad. His cave in the Burial Grounds had always been cold and damp and smelled vaguely but persistently of the blood pool. It was horrible, even Wei Wuxian was forced to admit now. Lan Wangji would have had an aneurysm if he'd ever seen it. He's so fastidious and tidy. He probably would have thrown Wei Wuxian out by his ear and tried to scrub it down, whether it worked or not.
Well he could have scrubbed and looked mad as much as he wanted, Wei Wuxian wouldn't have left. Wei Wuxian knew the Wens would have stayed there, desperate for shelter, if he hadn't claimed it. It was good enough for him, but not for the tired, grieving old people and children.
When he finally lifts his head, Lan Wangji is up and shaking out the dust of the temple from his cloak. He looks over at Wei Wuxian and says, "It's morning."
Wei Wuxian sits up, wrapping his arms around his knees to suppress another shiver. Lan Wangji pulls out a small, square package wrapped in oiled silk from his sleeve and holds it out to Wei Wuxian. He should take it -- even Lan Gusu field rations are better than being hungry, but the thought of the strange texture and horribly bitter yet cloying taste makes him feel sick to his stomach.
"I don't want it," says Wei Wuxian. He sounds petulant even to himself, but Lan Wangji doesn't say anything. He continues to hold the packet out silently, like if he waits long enough Wei Wuxian will give in and eat the horrible stuff.
He doesn't want Lan Gusu food. He wants Jiang Yunmeng food. He wants - he wants to go home and eat Yanli-shijie's lotus root and pork rib soup. He wants her to sigh and shake her head at him when he adds too much chili oil to it.
He buries his head against his knees. His eyes sting, hot, but he takes a deep breath in and out, trying to control himself. When he looks up again, Lan Wangji is still standing there, patient as a statue. "I said I didn't want it!" Wei Wuxian snarls.
Lan Wangji doesn't reply. Instead he puts the packet of field rations away and comes closer, stopping when Wei Wuxian flinches away.
Wei Wuxian's head hurts. His stomach hurts in deep, throbbing pulses, twisting into cramps. He can suddenly smell every mote of dust and the ghost of every rotted offering ever given to the god of this place. Mostly he smells Lan Zhan, his cool sandalwood and agarwood fragrance suddenly overpowering. He doesn't know if he likes it or if he wants to break away and rush outside to drink in the cold air outside. It's so much. Everything is too much. He wants to find a small, safe space to stay in until he stops feeling so dizzy. He wants - he wants --
"Lan Zhan," he says, his voice cracking. He's afraid to admit he knows what's happening already, but it's undeniable now.
Lan Zhan kneels next to him and puts his hand on Wei Wuxian's forehead. His hand is warm, almost hot, and it feels so good that Wei Wuxian leans into it with an indrawn breath almost like a sob. He reaches up and clutches at Lan Zhan's sleeve. "Lan Zhan," he says. "Lan Zhan, please --"
A shock of relief flashes through him when Lan Zhan kneels down and pulls him into his arms. He doesn't fight his instinct to bury his face in the crook of Lan Zhan's neck. Lan Zhan's arms curl more securely around him. It takes him a second to figure out what he's feeling, but then he realizes that he feels safe. He hasn't felt so warm and protected for a long time.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan. His voice, as calm as it is, still carries an undertone of urgency. Wei Ying lifts his head again and winces as the motion, as small as it is, makes his head spin. He breathes through the greying out of his vision and looks up at Lan Zhan.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan again. "You --" His hand slowly clutches a handful of Wei Wuxian's outer robe, as if he can't quite control it. "Your heat."
"I don't want it," says Wei Wuxian, knowing he's being childish, but knowing, too, that Lan Zhan will indulge him again. "Make it stop."
Lan Zhan huffs out a puff of air, too controlled to be a laugh. "Can't."
Wei Wuxian knows that, but he doesn't want to. He feels like he did when he was six or seven and Jiang Cheng dared him to jump off the highest cliff to the waters of the Lotus Piers below. He's dizzy with fear but he wants to jump too, wants to fly into the welcoming pool below.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan, insistent. "What do you want?"
Wei Wuxian's head is foggy. All he wants is a safe space to hide and to pull Lan Zhan with him, to hide away until this chill in his body passes and he can think again. "Want?" he says. Lan Zhan's heart is beating like a war drum under where Wei Wuxian is holding onto his robes.
"You have to decide," says Lan Zhan. "Where do you want to go?"
Wei Wuxian forces himself to think. His own heart is pounding so hard he can feel it pulse in his ears and fingers, down to his toes. There's surely an active temple somewhere where he can hide, or he can probably claim sanctuary in the ancestral hall of the Lotus Piers. Madam Yu's spirit wouldn't deny him that, at least. She was harsh but looking back, he knows that in her own way she had loved him.
But he wants to be selfish. Just this once. Every time he tries to do the right thing he ends up fucking it up -- so what if he just takes what he wants for once? If he's going to live with the regret anyway, he wants to earn it, at least one time.
"Lan Zhan," he says.
"Mm?" says Lan Zhan, curling in closer. Wei Wuxian knows he must be affected by Wei Wuxian's own scent. Lan Zhan's own scent is rising, heavy and enveloping him, surrounding him in a rising heat that chases the cold away at last.
Wei Wuxian curls his hands tighter, holding on like Lan Zhan is the only thing between him and falling into the abyss again. "I choose Lan Zhan," he says. He doesn't dare look up to see Lan Zhan's face, afraid of what he might see. He can't bear it. "It's all right if you don't choose me," he says. "But I choose you."
When he's not so muddled with the rise of his heat, when he has time to think about it, he'll probably regret this honesty. But here and now, raw with longing and forced to look at his deepest self, he can't make himself take it back.
Lan Zhan doesn't push him away in horror or disgust. If anything, his arms tighten around him, crushing tight, like he's afraid Wei Wuxian will struggle away and escape. "It's all right if you don't choose me," he says. Wei Wuxian realizes that he's repeating his own words back to him. "I chose you. I chose you."
Wei Wuxian looks up at last. Lan Zhan's eyes are shining like the midday sun.
"I did," says Wei Wuxian. "I chose you."
"I did," repeats Lan Zhan again, in a voice so low and tender that Wei Wuxian is afraid that he's dreaming again. "I chose you. Forever?" he adds and Wei Wuxian hears a note of anxiety in his voice that he never thought he'd hear from him.
"Forever," he says.
Lan Zhan's arms squeeze tighter yet, as if he wants to pull Wei Wuxian into his body and keep him there. Wei Wuxian curls in to him, arms going around Lan Zhan's narrow waist and muscled back. Lan Zhan buries his head in Wei Wuxian's shoulder.
Something damp and hot soaks into Wei Wuxian's robes, but he doesn't say anything. He feels like crying himself, like tears are the only thing that will relieve the hot, heavy tenderness that overwhelms him now that he's opened the floodgates of his heart.
Wei Wuxian doesn't know how long they stay like that, clinging together like they'll shatter if they let go. He breathes in as Lan Zhan breathes out. Gradually Lan Zhan's crushing grip begins to relax, and he lifts his head up. Wei Wuxian looks back at him, and Lan Zhan draws in a deep breath. "Will you?" he says. "Will you really?"
"Yes," says Wei Wuxian, "I will, oh I will, yes, yes --" He can't say anything more because Lan Zhan is standing up, still holding him in his arms, like he's afraid Wei Wuxian will turn into dust if he lets go, or as if Wei Wuxian will change his mind and run from him again.
He should. No doubt Lan Zhan is affected by Wei Wuxian's coming heat. Wei Wuxian is afraid his heart will wither away if Lan Zhan regrets this like he should.
Lan Zhan says, "You can't change your mind," in the bossy way he used to nag about Wei Wuxian breaking the rules, about using resentful energy -- anything, Wei Wuxian realizes now, that made Lan Zhan worried for him. "You can't."
"I won't change my mind," says Wei Wuxian. He swallows hard. "Will you?"
"No," says Lan Zhan, with the unshakable certainty of the mountains of his birth. He moves through the temple and Bichen comes out of the sheath, singing, as they step outside.
"If you don't, I never will."