“We ran out of talisman paper?” Wei Ying offers, with a smile that is too innocent to be believable. His eyes glitter with mirth and he winks audaciously, well aware that Lan Zhan has no intentions of scolding him for not staying in the library. At least the children seem to have gotten something out of the afternoon.
The junior disciples watch the exchange between them with wide eyes, their awe of him a palpable thing in the cold air. Still, as Wei Ying teases him gently and slings his arms around Sizhui and Jingyi’s shoulders in delight, the children relax. Fractionally. Enough for the smallest of them to quietly scamper forward and tug on Jingyi’s sleeve. He flicks a nervous glance up at Lan Zhan, but his excitement overcomes his nerves.
“Brother Jingyi, did you see me? Did you see what I did?” he whispers, practically vibrating where he stands. “Senior Wei showed me how to make the talismans work...I see what you’ve been talking about now!”
Jingyi squats down to the child’s eye level with a bright grin, nodding. “I did see A-xin, and I’m so proud of you!” He looks up at Wei Ying slyly. “Senior Wei’s a really good teacher, isn’t he?”
The child nods so hard it’s a wonder his head doesn’t bobble right off his neck. “Senior Wei, can you come and teach our class tomorrow? If Teacher Lan isn’t better yet?”
Instantly, his husband is surrounded by young children, each of them looking up at him with wide, hopeful eyes. They don’t even notice that they are all now standing less than a foot away from the chief cultivator and arguably the most well-known disciple of their clan. Sizhui hides a soft laugh behind his sleeve and Jingyi looks entirely too pleased with himself. Wei Ying, though, chuckles nervously, rubbing the side of his nose and shooting a somewhat desperate glance at Lan Zhan.
“Ah, ah, ah I’m sure Master Qiren has planned your classes very carefully while your teacher is sick,” he says, twisting his fingers into the hem of his winter cloak. “I will always be happy to help out, but I wouldn’t want to mess up his schedule.” His husband shakes his head and pats the nearest child’s hair. “But we had great fun today, and you learned something, yes?”
“Yes, Senior Wei!” the novices chorus eagerly, and Wei Ying huffs out a laugh, his lips curling beautifully as the corners of his eyes crinkle.
“Now, I have to talk to your Hanguang-Jun for a moment--Sizhui, Jingyi, do you mind helping them get everything put back in the classrooms before supper?”
Their son agrees quickly, and with another set of very formal bows (and more than one childishly longing look at his husband), the juniors depart. The smallest one turns to wave at Wei Ying as they head back up the path to the library pavilion, which Wei Ying returns heartily. Lan Zhan feels a warm, fond smile curve his mouth--barely there to anyone else, but when Wei Ying turns to look at him, his husband’s whole face softens.
Wei Ying steps forward, crowding in close to wind his arms around his waist and resting his weight against Lan Zhan’s chest. Lan Zhan can feel the chill radiating off his love, how icy his fingers are even through the layers of cloth at the small of his back. “Mmm, you’re always so warm,” Wei Ying says with his eyes closed in bliss, tilting his face up expectantly.
As he ever has (and ever will), Lan Zhan obliges.
He kisses his husband lazily, one hand cupping his cold, wind-chapped cheek, until Wei Ying pulls back with a happy hum. He leans up to peck Lan Zhan on one cheek, then his nose, before finally stepping back and releasing him.
“Hello,” he says, his eyes still sparkling impishly. “I’ve missed you today.”
It has been less than eight hours since they saw each other over breakfast...but Lan Zhan nods anyway, and takes his husband’s hand. He frowns slightly at how cold those fingers are, quickly gathering the other hand and briskly chafing the skin. Wei Ying lets out a happy sigh, staring at their joined hands with a tiny smile.
“Your gloves?” he asks, a touch of exasperation coloring his words. He himself has bought Wei Ying no fewer than three pairs of gloves in the past month, and he knows Sizhui has loaned him his spares on at least two night hunts.
“Still on the table where you laid them out for me last night. Probably,” Wei Ying says, his smile turning sheepish and apologetic.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan murmurs, but does not stop rubbing his love’s cold hands.
“In my defense, I’ve never actually lived in a place where gloves are a necessary part of your wardrobe in the winter.”
“Anyway, do you want--” Wei Ying begins, and is interrupted by a voice from further up the path.
“Your Excellency! Excellency, you’re needed...your uncle requests your presence in the guest quarters,” a disciple calls, and just the fact that he has raised his voice to get Lan Zhan’s attention tells him he is not going to like what he finds.
Instantly, all of the tension comes rushing back to his shoulders, and he cannot help a small grunt of impatience. Wei Ying presses his lips together and turns his hands over to squeeze Lan Zhan’s hands in sympathy. “Duty calls,” he whispers, leaning up to kiss him sweetly one more time. “I’ll get supper for us and take it back home? Invite the boys to join us?” he says, reading Lan Zhan’s mind for all intents and purposes.
As it had earlier, the idea sounds wonderful.
“Mn, please,” he says, regretfully disentangling their hands as the disciple calls for him again.
The snow that has been poised all day long finally starts coming down, heavy, fat flakes like clouds in the air. Wei Ying looks up at the sky, grinning as they land on his face, his hair, his eyelashes. He’s beautiful even in the flat, gray light of the winter afternoon, dusted with crystalline white and flushed from the cold. He’s always been the most beautiful thing Lan Zhan has laid eyes on, no matter what face he wears. He turns away, reluctantly.
He’s having a pleasant evening with his family. He doesn’t care if he has to cause a diplomatic incident to get it.
He does not have to cause a diplomatic incident.
But it is a near thing.
Still, he doubts very much that any of their guests will have the nerve to test his patience tomorrow so hopefully they will be able to solve this whole affair sooner rather than later. They had better. It is still fairly early in the evening, but night falls swiftly in the mountains, moreso in the winter. The snow has thickened considerably, coming down in a steady fall that shows no signs of letting up. He makes a mental note to check their supply of firewood before he enters the jingshi and call for more in the morning...the cold has never bothered him, but he knows his love feels it keenly.
He makes his way down the winding path that leads to the home he shares with Wei Ying, but as it comes into view...he stops. He always does.
The windows are covered against the cold and the snow, but gentle golden light seeps out of every crack and seam. The smoke of a fire puffs out of the clay chimney along one wall, and he knows the fireplace will be roaring merrily, inviting warmth ready to wrap around him as soon as he steps through the door. As he stands there, Wei Ying’s laughter rings out from inside, piercing the evening stillness like sunlight piercing a cloud.
For sixteen years, there was no light or warmth waiting for him here. For sixteen years, his beloved’s laughter was a distant memory, a ghost he could neither clutch close nor let go of. It hurt to remember that sound. It hurt more to think he might forget it. For sixteen years he’d existed on the very edges of life only his duty and his desperate love for his son--their son--keeping him tethered to a world that Wei Ying no longer existed in.
And now he has this. All of this.
A home, spilling over with laughter and love and light. The heart of the man who has owned his since he was a teenager. Days and days and days filled with the chattering voice he had thought silenced forever. Nights and nights and nights with Wei Ying in his arms--his to hold, to kiss, to desire, to make love to whenever they wanted. Wei Ying here, and alive, and always looking at Lan Zhan like he has just finished hanging the sun, the moon, and every star for Wei Ying’s personal enjoyment.
The life he had ached for, for so long. The life he had never dared to think he could have.
He regrets the way things ended up, a lifetime ago. For the rest of his life, he will regret the people who should not have died. The betrayal and questions his brother must now learn to live with. The pain and suffering his love had endured. The pain and suffering he endured. So many of them did not deserve the fate that had been dealt them. But he cannot regret this. If the pain of the past was the price he had to pay to have this life with the man he has loved longer than he has known what love is...he would pay it a thousand times over. He is moving again, opening the jingshi’s door. The small room is pleasantly warm, especially after the walk from the guest quarters, and Lan Zhan relaxes minutely. He slips his cloak off and hangs it to dry, turning to find Wei Ying is already up and bouncing across the floor towards him.
“Lan Zhan!” he calls, as though they had not just seen each other less than an hour ago. Sizhui and Jingyi politely hide their faces as Wei Ying throws his arms around him, kissing him far more soundly than he’d ever do out on the paths of the Cloud Recesses.
He lets his love drag him over to their small table. Supper is already laid out and steaming, and his sinks down into his seat beside Wei Ying. Their son and his best friend (perhaps more? He is not sure he buys into Wei Ying’s theories about a change in their relationship, but they are sitting much closer than they usually do) wait for them to serve themselves before digging in, and Lan Zhan sits back to savor his tea. Wei Ying’s voice washes over him in a soothing wave as he draws Sizhui and Jingyi into animated conversation, the juniors long since used to the fact that Wei Ying refuses to allow the ‘no talking during meals’ within these four walls. This, he thinks, is contentment. This is happiness.
And later, when Sizhui and Jingyi have bade them goodnight and headed for the juniors’ quarters, when he has his husband in his arms and they are spent and sweaty and sated beneath the blankets, he decides that this is joy.
“Thank you for assisting with the novices’ class today,” he says finally, breaking the gentle quiet of the room. Wei Ying’s head is pillowed on his chest, and he is slowly carding his fingers through his love’s long hair. Wei Ying snorts a little, turning his face to press a sloppy kiss to Lan Zhan’s still-heated skin.
“‘Course,” he mumbles. “Not like I mind, you don’t have to thank me.”
Lan Zhan hums, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. He does not have to thank his husband, but he knows his uncle will not...and Wei Ying could not have been expecting to have the care of several small children for hours on end today. “Jingyi was correct,” he says after another few moments of quiet. “You are an excellent teacher.”
This time, Wei Ying rolls over to half lie on top of him, crossing his arms over Lan Zhan’s chest and resting his chin on top of them. He is blushing faintly, his face twisting into something that is half-pleased, half-uncomfortable. “Ah, I don’t know if I’d go that far. You’ve only seen me supervising night hunts and explaining talismans. That stuff’s easy, not much different from what I did at--” His voice hitches slightly, before finishing a little softer, a little sadder. “At Lotus Pier.”
Lan Zhan tightens his arms around his husband. He had not meant to bring up bad memories. “Not easy,” he says quietly. “Not for many people.”
Wei Ying huffs out a laugh. “Ridiculous,” he says, in a fairly decent impression of Lan Zhan’s usual tone.
“Would you want to? Not just take the juniors on night hunts...teach classes here?”
The laughter is louder this time. “Can you see me writing lesson plans and grading papers? Lecturing all day?”
Lan Zhan does not point out that his husband usually ends up grading half of the juniors’ night hunt reports anyway, and that a lesson plan would have just involved him writing down what he was going to do with the novices before he did it. He also does not miss the wistfulness that fills his love’s eyes before he blinks it away. Admittedly, he cannot see Wei Ying being happy lecturing...but somehow he doubts any class Wei Ying taught would stay strictly in the realm of lecture anyway. The more he thinks about it, the better he likes the idea.
“You would be good at it.”
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you have too high an opinion of me. You’re my husband, you have to think I’m good at everything.”
“Not good at cooking,” Lan Zhan says immediately. Wei Ying laughs again, burying his face in his arms. “Cannot put things away properly,” he muses, and Wei Ying smacks his chest lightly.
“Can so, I just don’t see the point of putting my things away if I’m just going to use them again.”
“ Terrible at picking up wet towels.”
This time, Wei Ying pinches him, still laughing helplessly. “All right, all right, you win. You don’t have to think I’m good at everything. I still think the idea of me teaching actual classes is ridiculous.”
Lan Zhan just tilts his head slightly, brushing his lips over the crown of Wei Ying’s head. He thinks of the way the young disciples had all gravitated towards Wei Ying in Coffin Town, hanging on his every word and trusting him implicitly after even such a short time. He thinks of the way Sizhui is usually surrounded as soon as his cohort is assigned a night hunt, the juniors furtively encouraging him to ask Wei Ying to accompany them. He thinks of the young novice that Jingyi said had had so much trouble in his classes, staring up at his husband with wide, worshipful eyes.
He thinks of how happy Wei Ying had looked, standing on the practice field with the novices. How he fairly bounces with delight when he is set to accompany Sizhui and the others, even if Lan Zhan cannot go with them. How freely his shares his knowledge and experience, with no other expectation than to share something useful.
Not ridiculous. Not ridiculous at all.