The bundle of mail from the Qinghe Nie Sect arrives in Cloud Recesses late one evening. All but one piece of the pile is a stack of invitations to this year’s Cultivation Conference, wrapped in light blue string. The last is a short, handwritten list wedged between two envelopes, unnoticeable until it flutters to the floor.
Lan Sizhui can tell, within a quick glance, that this list isn’t something that was meant to come to them. Were he alone, he would find a discreet place to tuck it away and pretend he never saw it. But Sizhui is in the middle of a crowd of his own making: his fellow Lan disciples and a small group of their friends, fresh from their recent night-hunt and spending one last night in Gusu before trekking to their respective homes. And when he bends to pick up the list, another hand gets there first.
“What’s this?” Jin Ling squints, holding it up to the lantern.
Jin Ling is Sect Leader Jin now, Sizhui silently reminds himself. So plucking it out of his hands would be inappropriate. All he can do is say, mildly, “I don’t think that’s for us.”
“It doesn’t look private or anything,” Jin Ling says, immediately defensive. “It’s just Hanguang-Jun’s name. And… a list of stuff?”
“Give me that.” Jingyi, who apparently does not care tonight who’s a sect leader and who isn’t, reaches to take the list from his hands. “Let’s see. Fresh fruit… spices… wine… lotus seeds? Oh no. Oooh. Well that’s just embarrassing.”
“What?” Jin Ling leans closer. “What is it?”
“This is for Hanguang-Jun’s gift basket.” At Jin Ling’s blank look, Jingyi adds, “You know, for the Cultivation Conference? The hosts usually prepare one for all the prominent cultivators.”
“Really?” Jin Ling says. “I didn’t get one when Gusu Lan hosted last year.”
“Everyone got a basket of our finest medicinal herbs,” one of the Lan disciples says, a bit waspishly. “I put yours in your room myself.”
“… oh.” Jin Ling’s lips purse. “Were those not for the rabbits?”
“Never mind that,” Ouyang Zizhen says, waving a hand. “Why is Hanguang-Jun getting wine and spices? That sounds more like a basket for Senior Wei.”
“It is,, though,” Jingyi says. At the set of curious looks from their visitors, Jingyi shrugs. “Hanguang-Jun hates gifts and loves Senior Wei, so… people just get things for Senior Wei, instead.”
“And that works?” asks another of the Ouyang disciples.
“You mean does anyone actually gain Hanguang-Jun’s favor that way? Not really,” Jingyi says with a shrug. “But what else can they do?”
Sizhui doesn’t realize the sudden clench in his stomach shows on his face until Jingyi turns to him, concerned. “Sizhui?”
“It’s nothing,” Sizhui says. But he can hear himself how unconvincing that sounds. His shoulders sink. “It’s just that not every prominent cultivator gets a gift, do they? There’s never one for Senior Wei.”
Jin Ling’s brow crease. “What’s that supposed to mean? He’s getting Hanguang-Jun’s basket, isn’t he?”
“But it’s not for him,” Sizhui says. It sounds ridiculous coming out of his mouth, but he can’t exactly stop, either.
“He should count himself lucky. He won’t be stuck in those all-day sessions,” Jin Ling says. “That’s a gift in itself.”
“Yeah,” Jingyi says, “Senior Wei’s not even going to the conference, Sizhui. He told me he’s just going to Qinghe to keep Hanguang-Jun company until his presentation is over. And to join a passing night-hunt if he can. And to, quote, eat the unlimited snacks.”
“He won’t attend the conference because he knows he’s not welcome there,” Sizhui says, a little more vehemently than he means to. More quietly, he adds, “That’s what’s bothering me, Jingyi. When was the last time someone wanted to make a good impression on Senior Wei? Just for his own sake. Not as a way to get to Hanguang-Jun.”
There’s an uneasy shift in the room as everyone is forced to consider that. Jin Ling briefly mutters, Whose fault is that? but even that has no heat to it. That’s a complicated answer.
“That’s right,” one of the young Lan disciples mumbles. “When we hosted the conference last year, Senior Wei didn’t attend many of the events, did he? He spent most of the week helping us.”
“It didn’t seem to bother him, though?” chimes in another. “He looked happy.”
But even Jingyi looks downcast now. “Senior Wei doesn’t exactly say when things are bothering him, though.”
“Remember the Midwinter Curse?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.
A collective rueful murmur ripples across the room. Just last month, halfway through a night hunt on the northern edge of Lanling, Wei Wuxian had been struck down by a vengeful spirit’s curse that, if gone unchecked, would have frozen the blood in his veins within a day. You know, it’s actually not bad? was the only thing he’d had to say for himself as his lips turned blue. This would be pretty refreshing in the summer, wouldn’t it? Lan Zhan, do you think we can replicate it? And Sizhui had been struck, sudden and hard, with the completely unfamiliar urge to have a nice, long scream into the night.
“Think of Hanguang-Jun’s feelings, too,” Ouyang Zizhen continues, even louder. His eyes have begun to look suspiciously wet. “Can you imagine some of the things he must have overheard, those thirteen years Senior Wei was gone? The things he must still hear now? If that was my beloved, I wouldn’t be able to stand it.”
The murmuring around the room has become more pronounced: Sizhui catches choked-up fragments of agreement. Even Jin Ling swipes at his eyes with his sleeve. “I’ll talk to that Nie Huaisang,” he declares.
“You can’t,” Sizhui says.
Jin Ling shakes his head hard. “He’s my peer now, isn’t he? I can tell him to prepare something for Wei Wuxian.”
“Do you think he’d be happy to hear that you threatened Sect Leader Nie?” Sizhui says.
Jin Ling shrugs. “You have to threaten Sect Leader Nie for everything, anyway.”
“No, Sizhui’s right,” Jingyi says. “This calls for a more… delicate approach.”
Sizhui’s almost afraid to ask. But Jingyi looks so pleased with himself all of a sudden, he can’t help the sudden jolt of adrenaline. “What is it?”
“Well.” Jingyi’s lips curve into a slow smile. “They’ll be needing this list back, won’t they? And if there happen to be a few – additions – would they really notice?”
For just a moment inside Sizhui, there’s a bloody, but altogether brief, war. The Lan sect rules forbid lying. They’re very clear about that.
But he thinks of that thin, resigned smile he sometimes sees on Wei Wuxian’s face, the one that says whatever’s happening can’t be helped. And he remembers that even Hanguang-Jun makes exceptions.
“We need something to write with,” Sizhui says, as the others crowd around them. “Who has the best penmanship?”
The first sign that something is wrong, when Wei Wuxian steps into the guest house Nie Huaisang has set aside for them for the conference weekend, is the scent of a familiar broth, so thick it’s almost tangible in the air. It’s so warm, so instantly recognizable, that his knees go weak with it. Until he remembers where and when he is, and full-body snaps back to the present.
“Oh no,” he says. But cheerfully, so that Lan Wangji won’t actually think anything wrong.
Lan Wangji, who for his part has not guessed what that scent means, narrows his eyes. “Oh no what.”
The second sign that something is wrong is a clear one: two boxes on a low table near the back of the room. One addressed to Hanguang-Jun, and one addressed to Wei Wuxian.
And the third sign—well. That’s clear the second they take the lids off each box.
“So more accurately,” Wei Wuxian says through his fingers, “they’re both for me, right?”
His face is mostly covered, but he can feel Lan Wangji looking at him. Smiling, in fact, because he is a cold-blooded traitor. “Does this honestly still fluster you?”
“There are things that would fluster anyone,” Wei Wuxian whisper-wails into his palm.
He lowers his hands eventually, after extracting a promise from Lan Wangji to stop laughing. More specifically, Lan Wangji insists he wasn’t laughing in the first place, which is a bald-faced lie in flagrant violation of Lan sect rules, but that’s a fight for later. He reaches toward his box like a live, unpredictable animal. “What do you think—” he starts.
“The children,” Lan Wangji says. At Wei Wuxian’s questioning look, he adds, “Sizhui was upset after last year’s conference.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. “Sizhui? Why?”
“Because you were treated disrespectfully,” Lan Wangji says.
“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says. “When was that? I don’t remember anyone saying much of anything to me.”
“Wei Ying.” There’s a crease in Lan Wangji’s brow now. “They were guests in your home. Not to treat you as their host was disrespectful in itself.”
Wei Wuxian hums vaguely and feels thankful all over again that the Jiang sect didn’t care that much about formalities. If Sizhui was upset, though, that’s another thing. And how he and the other juniors got involved this year, he can only guess, but he can get that story out of them later.
“Right,” he says ruefully, pushing himself to his feet again. “Okay.”
“Where are you going?” Lan Wangji asks.
Smiling over his shoulder, he crosses to the low fire and reaches for the giant pot cozily tucked there. “I’m not doing this on an empty stomach.”
The heavy, roasted scent of the pork rib and lotus root soup wafts upward as he takes off the lid, and he swallows a lump in his throat that he doesn’t have time for yet. Ladling out two overflowing bowls, he shuffles back to Lan Wangji and pushes one to him. “We have Jin Ling to thank for this, I think.”
Wei Wuxian takes a decent gulp of the soup before setting it aside. It’s a little bland, and the lotus root is a bit chewy and obviously not too fresh, but he’s not about to complain. With his hands free, he can pull the box into his lap.
“Let’s see,” he muses, laying out the first gift: a sachet of black tea leaves. The sweet, smoky aroma stirs something at the back of his mind, and he smiles despite himself. “This was the only kind of tea we could grow in Yiling, when I lived there,” he says. “They must have had a bit more success with it over the years if there’s enough to sell now. Sizhui. So thoughtful.”
Next up, nestled in the corner, is a little bound book. Wei Wuxian thumbs through the first few pages, and the visible lines startle a laugh out of him. “This is… poetry?” He pinches a page between his thumb and index finger and waggles his eyebrows. “Of the romantic persuasion. Ouyang Zizhen, more sentimental with every passing year. I hope he knows this is wasted on me. Unless you’d like to recite a few later?”
“You’ll crease the pages like that,” Lan Wangji says, though he’s smiling now.
“It’ll be well-loved,” Wei Wuxian says, though he sets it aside, too, along with a scattering of oranges across the bottom. His fingertips brush fabric. “Oh wait, wait, there’s one more thing.”
He lifts something thin and silky-soft, coiled against the edge of the box. Slowly, he lets it unfurl: a long, ink-black ribbon with vibrant splashes of red. Camellias, he thinks. They look meticulously hand-painted.
Wei Wuxian swallows a sudden shiver. “Do you ever worry that one day, we’re all going to work for Jingyi?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t respond. Which is not a yes, but is also not a no.
Wei Wuxian reaches over to fish the liquor out of the box that is, nominally, Lan Wangji’s. He pours some out into his cup. Then catches the Look dawning on Lan Wangji’s face now that it’s quiet, and pours a generous helping straight down his throat, too.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he says, wiping his mouth. “Look at me.”
He thinks he says it neutrally enough, but something in Lan Wangji’s gaze goes sharp. “What’s wrong,” he says.
“You’re all making me nervous, that’s what,” Wei Wuxian says, a little tartly. Which at least startles a single, quiet laugh out of Lan Wangji.
“Do you dislike it?” Lan Wangji asks. “The gifts.”
“Not so much that I’ll turn them away,” he says, laughing. “I don’t dislike it, but…” He casts around for what he means for a beat. “There’s nothing that I want from any of them. Not anymore. You know that, right?”
“I do,” Lan Wangji says. The confirmation doesn’t seem to make him any happier, though. There’s another pause. “There are things I want. For you.”
Wei Wuxian holds his gaze. He isn’t exactly surprised, after all. “I kind of figured there might be,” he says gently.
“Their respect, for one,” Lan Wangji says.
“Well.” Wei Wuxian wants to laugh again, but it doesn’t feel quite right anymore. “I never had that to begin with.”
“And that was never acceptable,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian has never been humble. Most people would say he had the opposite problem, actually. But he thinks, overall, he has a clear-eyed view of what he’s worth.
But then there’s what Lan Wangji thinks he’s worth. Which no longer feels fundamentally at odds with reality, but is always going to feel fucking staggering.
“… oh,” is all he can say.
“So if the best they can offer right now are gifts,” Lan Wangji finishes, “I would not have them do things halfway.”
Wei Wuxian picks at a loose piece of matting on the floor. It gives him a second to pull himself together.
“I did think about it, you know,” he muses. “Walking into that conference on your arm, in full Gusu Lan regalia. Forehead ribbon and all, obviously. Following every one of your family’s 4,000-odd rules to the letter. Standing in there with you, and A-Ling, and Sizhui, and watching everyone in that room lose their minds waiting for a toe out of line that’s never going to come.” When he looks up to meet Lan Wangji’s raised eyebrow, he grins. “What? I don’t do things halfway, either.”
“Nor would I expect you to.” Lan Wangji smiles, small and soft, until Wei Wuxian’s own smile relaxes into a more natural one. He’s more reluctant than he expected to finish the thought.
“But… you’re doing great work right now, Lan Zhan. Work that’s easier when those people in there trust you.” Wei Wuxian shrugs helplessly. “I don’t want to interfere. I won’t.”
Lan Wangji’s shoulders sink, just a fraction. And a little part of Wei Wuxian takes a moment, as he often does, to marvel at the fact that the great Hanguang-Jun is sitting opposite him, disappointed that they’re not going to ruin a party tonight.
“You don’t have to get along with them forever. We have time to rack up plenty of scandals before we get too old,” Wei Wuxian singsongs. At the noticeable thaw on Lan Wangji’s face, he hums delightedly, knocking the rest of the liquor back. “I never thought you’d be more impatient for that day than I was.”
Lan Wangji reaches forward, brushes his cheek. “I’ve been waiting longer than you,” he says, not unkindly.
Wei Wuxian catches his fingers, brings them to his mouth. “Fair enough.”
Their guest house is a little separate from the festivities, along the back grounds of the Unclean Realm bordering a thick stretch of woods. There’s a stubborn warm wind seeping into the early spring chill. So with Lan Wangji at the opening reception, Wei Wuxian opens up the back veranda to finish off his liquor.
It is, unsurprisingly, quick work. But there’s a whole celebration just a few yards away. Maybe he can snag something without being too disruptive.
He doesn’t need to, though. When he turns to head back through the house, there’s already somebody there, holding a tray.
“Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian drawls, “I think I love you.”
The tray jolts as Nie Huaisang draws himself tighter together. “Don’t say that too loud, Wei-xiong,” he whines. “The last thing I need is Hanguang-Jun getting ideas.”
Wei Wuxian beams, plucking the tray from his hands. “So what have I done so right that Sect Leader Nie is bringing me refreshments personally?”
With his hands free, Nie Huaisang can worry at his newest hand fan, painted with exquisitely detailed waves. “Can’t I catch up with an old schoolmate?”
“Mmhmm,” Wei Wuxian says. He suspects it has a little more to do with ensuring that a certain old schoolmate doesn’t stir up a riot in his home, but he can’t really blame him for that.
“Oh?” Nie Huaisang says suddenly. He’s looking up at Wei Wuxian’s hair. “That suits you well.”
“Oh, this?” Grinning, Wei Wuxian tugs at the end of his new ribbon. “The Qinghe Nie Sect has excellent taste. Though maybe given the circumstances, I should return it?” Poor Sizhui. He had cracked almost immediately under questioning from Lan Wangji.
“No no no, no need.” Nie Huaisang waves a hand. “The Lan disciples apologized en masse this morning. We can leave it at that. Pretty clever, wasn’t it? Adding to the list like that and sending it back to us.”
“Yes, well. They’re as thoughtful as they are stubborn.” Wei Wuxian scratches the back of his neck. “And lucky, in this case. That your disciples accidentally sent them that list?”
“All the more reason we should leave it at that,” Nie Huaisang says mildly. “Sounds like it was our fault to begin with.”
Wei Wuxian gives him a long, low look as he fills a cup for each of them. “Nie-xiong,” he says. “You didn’t happen to send them that list to rile them up, did you?”
Nie Huaisang pauses a moment, his lips in a certain unreadable curl. Then slowly, he slides open his fan. “Wei-xiong,” he says cheerily. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”