The letters start arriving in Cloud Recesses a few weeks after their parting on a windswept ridge at the edges of Gusu district. They’re crumpled and ink-stained, with characters that run together as though Wei Ying was in too much of a hurry to raise the brush fully of the paper. They come every two or three weeks, which is more often than Lan Wangji would have expected and that makes something inside him hum like the last resonating notes of a plucked guqin string.
In person, Wei Ying will share every passing thought that flashes through his brilliant mind like darting minnows in a stream, but the effort of holding on to them long enough to put down on paper seems to mean something. Lan Wangji can’t help but hope it means that Wei Ying treasures their tenuous connection as much as he does.
He considers each and every one of the letters a gift, and wishes a reply could reach Wei Ying before he inevitably moves on to the next village or town. But then, the one-way conversation is not unfamiliar to him, being much like a conversation with Wei Ying himself before—before everything, when Wei Ying still poked and prodded at him and made him feel like the only person who didn’t understand the joke. By the time Lan Wangji formulated a response, Wei Ying had already moved on, leaving him to play catch up once again.
Were there always so many dogs in all the places we visited while searching for our 'dear friend'? Wei Ying writes, in a letter Lan Wangji receives in autumn. It seems impossible that there weren't, and yet we hardly ever saw any.
Lan Zhan, did you scare them all away before I ever noticed them?
The tips of Lan Wangji's ears burn when he finally makes out the part that Wei Ying canceled out. It was true, he did.
A week after Cloud Recesses celebrates the Mid-Winter Festival in their own restrained manner, a courier arrives from Qinghe with a packet containing an official letter from Sect Leader Nie seeking advice on matters relating the Nie Sect’s use of sabres. Also inside the packet is a letter in a familiar careless hand. It is unusually brief and missing the incisive and humorous observations Wei Ying peppers his letters with.
I have accepted Sect Leader Nie's invitation to winter with him. He assures me that hot water (and the finest wines) will be readily available and in plentiful supply! How can I refuse an offer like that? At the very least, conversations should prove interesting. I will be here until the snows melt and the passes are clear enough for travel
and there should be more than enough time for a letter from Cloud
Lan Wangji specifically extended Wei Ying an invitation to winter in Cloud Recesses when he pressed a jade entry token into Wei Ying's hand before they parted. He even had the token specially made and engraved with his seal to ensure that no sentry would dare deny entry to the Yiling Patriarch and his cantankerous donkey. And yet… Reading the letter, Lan Wangji is fifteen again, trying to understand the obscure pain that settled in his chest every time he saw Wei Ying laughing and joking with the other disciples; Nie Huaisang chief among them.
Time continues to pass monotonous day by monotonous day. The receding of winter means the passes are open once more to cultivators seeking the Chief Cultivator’s advice which, once obtained, was often disregarded. Lan Wangji is no dictator, and will never be one, so the waste of everyone’s time is a source of constant irritation for him. He keeps his face blank and continues on, regardless. There are changes he hopes to make in the way the cultivation world operates, especially the stranglehold the noble families have on access to learning. Wei Ying, being the son of a servant and a rogue cultivator, would never have had the chance to come to Cloud Recesses to learn if he hadn’t been taken in by Jiang Fengmian. How many talented, innovative people like him were never given the opportunity to improve?
Another letter arrives.
Lan Zhan, I write to you from Yunmeng! Thank you for that wonderfully bland letter that I received from you while in Qinghe! It was like a serving of Cloud Recesses food in letter form. I'm glad I'm not the only one paranoid about letters sent to and from Qinghe.
My stay with Nie Huaisang was edifying, although I must note here that he lied about having the finest wines—there was no Emperor’s Smile! He no longer hides how much he knows about everyone's business—this is far more than the idle gossip of noblemen. He must have quite the network of spies to be able to gather all that information. I was amused to note, however, that he shared nothing compromising about your actions as Chief Cultivator, or your clan.
Now that we know he was the bird that stalked the mantis, I can’t help but be suspicious of his candour. Perhaps he knows there's no point in hiding, perhaps he wants me to convey to you that he can be a useful ally. Perhaps I am just seeing shadows everywhere and he is merely engaging in gossip with an old friend. Not having you around to tease is making me maudlin, Lan Zhan.
Lan Wangji pauses for a long time after reading this line, the ache in his chest making it hurt to breathe. I am waiting for you here in Gusu, he thinks.
Nie Huaisang reports that you told off Sect Leader Yao for attempting to bribe you! Is it true you quoted your Lan Sect rule at him? What was it again? Attempting to bribe an enforcer? I remember being on the receiving end of this! Did you want to attack him with a sword like you did me? That slimy, old fart would have deserved it if you had.
Lan Wangji did not. The only person who ever sparked such strong impulses in him was Wei Ying.
He felt one such strong impulse several weeks ago when he heard from Sizhui that Wei Ying was in Yunmeng. He wanted to get on Bichen and fly straight to Yunmeng to protect Wei Ying. The sound of Jiang Wanyin’s enraged scream at Nightless City and the harsh grate of metal on stone rang loud in his ears, the hiss and crackle of Zidian as Jiang Wanyin tried to attack Wei Ying from behind as they left Lotus Pier. Even seeing Wei Ying weakened and bleeding was not enough for Jiang Wanyin to control his rage. No, he did not want Jiang Wanyin anywhere near Wei Ying.
But he accepted that Wei Ying still loved his brother in spite of it all, so he stayed where he was in Cloud Recesses. He fulfilled his responsibilities and tried not to pick fights with aggravating sect leaders and hated the distance that separated him from Wei Ying. In the end, it seemed like his worry was for naught, as Wei Ying passed through Yunmeng without encountering his brother.
Lan Zhan! Hanguang Jun! Lan-er-gongzi! the latest letter begins. Lan Wangji can hear the salutation in Wei Ying's exuberant voice. A pang of loneliness shivers through him as he holds the stained and ragged letter. Spring has fully taken hold and the trees outside the jingshi are full of birdsong but his heart still feels trapped in winter. My errant feet have brought me back to Gusu. Can I steal you away from your duties for a few days?
It has been too long since I will be at the Jinjiang Inn in Caiyi Town in two weeks’ time and will stay there for a month. If you are busy, I'll understand! The letter was sent a week ago and is signed simply, Wei Ying.
The first tendril of hope unfurls in his chest, tentative and hesitant.
He glares at the official documents stacked in orderly piles on his table: one for nuisance requests, one for matters that could be sorted if the parties would but set aside their pride for five minutes and have a proper discussion, one for matters that actually need the intervention of the Chief Cultivator. That last pile is minuscule compared to the rest. The sects prefer their Chief Cultivator to speak much and do little which, unfortunately for all parties involved, runs completely counter to his preference to speak little and do much.
He has a sudden, mad urge to reduce all the unnecessary letters to cinders and make straight for the inn where Wei Ying will already be staying at. It's probably for the best that right at that moment, his brother taps on the frame of the open door and walks in.
Lan Xichen appears, at a passing glance, to be his old self—serene and welcoming, not a hair out of place. But Lan Wangji can see by the shadows under his eyes and the set of his mouth that his months of seclusion in Gentian House have brought him little peace.
Lan Xichen looks at the letter in Lan Wangji’s hand. “Is that,” he says, scrutinising Lan Wangji’s face, “a letter from Wei Wuxian?”
Lan Wangji nods.
“Is everything all right?”
He nods again.
A patient smile curves the corners of his brother’s mouth, a small thing, a pale ghost of past smiles, but a smile nonetheless. Lan Wangji takes it for the blessing that it is.
“Forgive me for saying so," Lan Xichen says, as he seats himself opposite Lan Wangji, "but you do not look all right.”
How like his brother to still worry about others even though he is just out of seclusion. “I am fine,” Lan Wangji says, because he is, even though every part of his being wants to be somewhere else. He puts away the letter, hoping that the act will help him put away his impatience to be gone, and pours his brother a cup of tea.
Lan Xichen accepts the tea as gracefully as he accepts the matter as closed. “I have received a petition from another administrator who served under Jin Guangyao.” His voice barely hesitates over the courtesy name. He has not used the more informal A-Yao in Lan Wangji’s hearing since Guanyin Temple, but that hesitation tells him more about his brother’s emotional state than the loudest wailing would. “Another orphan, like Xue Yang.” Another outcast vulnerable to Jin Guangyao’s manipulation, someone who’s loyalty could be easily won.
After coming out of seclusion, Lan Xichen claimed the task of reviewing all of Jin Guangyao's major decisions during his time as Chief Cultivator. It worries Lan Wangji that his brother has taken on responsibility for Jin Guangyao's actions, but the work is helping his brother in some way, and for that reason alone, he continues to support Lan Xichen's choice.
He doesn't know whether it makes things better or worse that Jin Guangyao’s actions hold up to scrutiny for the most part. As Chief Cultivator, Jin Guangyao cleaned up the mess created first by Wen Ruohan, and then by Jin Guangshan, and left a smoothly-running bureaucracy behind that accepted the transition of power to a new Chief Cultivator with relatively good grace. Some of the common folk Jin Guangyao employed remained fanatically loyal to him, though, much like Su Minshan right up to his death, and Lan Xichen is determined to weed them out.
“The man seems earnest enough,” Lan Xichen continues, “and eager to assist you as the new Chief Cultivator.” His eyes cloud over. “But then, perhaps I am not the best judge of character—”
“Brother,” Lan Wangji interrupts, uncaring that he is breaking a sect rule. “Not everyone you choose to show kindness to will be unworthy. The fault was not yours. It was his.”
His brother extended that same kindness to many, including Wei Ying even though he was reviled as the Yiling Patriarch. It was not his brother’s fault that he failed to see through Jin Guangyao—hardly anyone did.
Lan Xichen turns away to look out the window. “Had I not trusted—”
“We might not have won the Sunshot Campaign without the information he passed on to you.”
A wry smile is playing about his brother’s lips when he turns back to face Lan Wangji. It doesn’t hide the sadness in his eyes. “Two consecutive interruptions, Wangji. Your Wei Ying has been a positive influence on you.”
Not mine, Lan Wangji thinks, sadly. “You are changing the subject, brother.”
"I do not trust myself anymore," Lan Xichen says.
"I trust you."
There’s a note of resigned amusement in the way Lan Xichen speaks his name, familiar from all the times he was being particularly stubborn about something. He can let the matter rest for now.
"Now it is your turn,” Lan Xichen says. “Why did you have that look on your face when I came in?"
It’s become so rare to see that hint of mischief in his brother’s eyes that Lan Wangji finds himself answering almost in spite of himself. "Wei Ying is in Gusu."
"Ah." A furtive smile tugs at Lan Xichen's lips. Lan Wangji is reminded of all the times his brother had put one or the other of them in each other's path. Lan Xichen takes a contemplative sip of tea. "You should go to meet him."
At Lan Wangji's silence, Lan Xichen says, "Do not let this chance go, Wangji. I will take care of things while you are gone."
Lan Xichen quirks a brow. "Do you think I'm not up to it?"
"I do not doubt you." Having been groomed to lead the Lan Sect since young, Lan Xichen is for better suited to the role of Chief Cultivator than he is. Lan Wangji only accepted the role because Lan Xichen was still healing from the grievous wound to his heart. His brother protected him as best he could in the aftermath of Wei Ying’s death, Lan Wangji could do no less when his brother needed him.
"Then please go, Wangji." The plea in Lan Xichen's voice is so naked that Lan Wangji's heart aches to hear it. “It will ease my heart to know that some happiness came from all of this for both of you, who have been so ill-used by..." Lan Xichen’s voice trails off, unable to speak the name. "Let me atone. It will help me to sleep better at night." They both know it for the lie it is.
"Brother. You have nothing to atone for." Lan Wangji's heart is a heavy, sharp-edged stone in his chest. "But I will go."
A small, grateful smile is his only answer.
One day. He forces himself to spend one day catching an amused Lan Xichen up on the matters needing his attention as acting Chief Cultivator while Lan Wangji is away. But with one thing and another needing his attention, it’s late afternoon of the next day before he's flying out over the hills of Gusu towards Caiyi Town. Towards Wei Ying.
It is only by chance that he happens to spot a man in black robes standing at the edge of a grassy ridge, silhouetted against the sky. Even if Lan Wangji couldn’t recognise the lean lines of that body anywhere, the donkey with eye-catching red tassels on its halter would have confirmed his identity. Wei Ying looks very alone standing in that ocean of grass, and Lan Wangji feels an instant of stomach-clenching, paralyzing fear as he recalls the last time he saw Wei Ying at the edge of a high place.
He brings Bichen down to alight some distance behind Wei Ying, needing some time to calm himself. Do not ask. Do not ask Wei Ying to stay in Gusu. Every time he asked, it ended in anger and misunderstandings. Let him be free.
His resolve is shaken when familiar notes swirl through the air. Their song. The song he wrote as a boy in Cloud Recesses trying to make sense of the storm Wei Ying roused in him, the song he’s played for only one person, the song that told him Wei Ying had come back to him.
His feet are moving before he’s even conscious of the decision to approach. "Wei Ying."
The notes from the dizi cut off as Wei Ying goes absolutely still. Over the quiet whisper of the wind through grass, Lan Wangji can hear the rapid beat of his own heart. Wei Ying's hands drop to his side slowly, so slowly, as though time has slowed down for both of them. He turns, a look almost of fear on his face. And then...
And then, Wei Ying smiles—slow and beautiful and warm and relieved as though Lan Wangji standing before him is a treasured dream fulfilled. "Lan Zhan," he breathes.
The hope Lan Wangji carries in his chest spreads its wings further. Feelings clog up his throat and try to spill forth but as always, he can’t find the words to speak them. He’s never felt the lack in himself as keenly as he does now while staring at Wei Ying’s dearly-missed face.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying cajoles. “Say something. You're making me nervous."
"It is good to see you," he manages at last.
Wei Ying’s smile brightens till it rivals the sun in the sky. “Ah, Lan Zhan, did you miss me too?”
Too, Lan Wangji thinks. “Mn.”
Any further discussion is interrupted when Little Apple ambles up to Lan Wangji and bumps its head against his arm.
“Aiya, you brazen donkey! Lan Zhan just arrived!” Wei Ying shoves at his donkey, but is completely ignored as Little Apple nudges Lan Wangji again.
Lan Wangji hides his amusement at Wei Ying calling anyone—or anything, in this case—brazen as he pulls an apple out of his qiankun pouch and barely retracts his fingers in time to avoid them getting bitten off.
Wei Ying watches Little Apple crunching on the apple with a deeply offended look on his face. “How can you get food from Lan Zhan before me?” he says, to the donkey. “You really are too much.”
"I will buy you food now," Lan Wangji says, “if it will make you feel better."
Wei Ying waggles a finger at him. "You’re teasing me, I know. But the joke’s on you, Lan Zhan, of course I accept." So saying, he takes Little Apple's reins and falls into step with Lan Wangji.
"You’re not riding?"
"I would walk with you awhile," Wei Ying says, a soft smile playing about his lips as he bumps his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s.
Lan Wangji nods, contentment filling his heart now that they are side by side once again. It is enough.
As with most things involving Wei Ying, peace does not last long. There is a misadventure involving a startled pheasant, a startled donkey, an equally startled Wei Ying now astride said donkey, and, unfortunately, a very muddy riverbank.
An hour later, after stopping to collect Wei Ying’s things from Jinjiang Inn, they walk—that is to say Lan Wangji walks and Wei Ying squelches—into the finest inn in Caiyi Town.
"Your best room," Lan Wangji says to the prosperous-looking innkeeper who rushed out to the courtyard to meet them. During his travels with Wei Ying, they always shared one room, and he’s reasonably sure Wei Ying won’t mind continuing the practice.
The innkeeper's gaze flicks to the mud-encrusted man by his side. It's already an improvement from Wei Ying's original state of mud-encrusted and leaf- and twig-festooned, but there was only so much they could scrape off without help of a bath. Completely naked, Lan Wangji's mind supplies, unhelpfully.
The innkeeper frowns, lips curling slightly in distaste at the scent of mud wafting in the air. Lan Wangji stares down his nose at the innkeeper, daring him to comment on Wei Ying's filthy, bedraggled state. In an uncharacteristic move, Wei Ying shrinks into himself as though trying to make himself less noticeable.
The innkeeper swallows and smiles ingratiatingly when he notices Lan Wangji's forbidding expression. "Certainly, Hanguang-Jun," he says, in an obsequious voice. "I also have a room above the stables that would be perfect for your... manservant."
Lan Wangji is about to remind the man in very short and blunt sentences that he did not ask for another room when he feels a tug at his sleeve.
"It's alright, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, in a low voice. "The stable is fine for me."
Wei Ying is about to walk off when Lan Wangji wraps an arm around his shoulder and tugs him back into place. Always quick to defend others but not himself, always used to being put down and belittled—Wei Ying deserves the world, and Lan Wangji will do his best to give it to him.
"Your best room," Lan Wangji says. "Now." From the corner of his eye, he sees a shy smile on Wei Ying's face before he ducks his head.
"Y—yes, Hanguang-Jun," the innkeeper stammers, eyes flicking between them in consternation. “This way."
They follow the innkeeper to a large, well-appointed corner room. Lan Wangji keeps his arm wrapped around Wei Ying who has started to shiver in the cool evening breeze that blows through the open windows that line the corridor.
At the door to their room, the innkeeper bows and waves them in. "I will have a tub sent up straight away."
"Hot water," Lan Wangji says, voice flat.
With a nod, the innkeeper scurries off.
As soon as the door closes behind him, Wei Ying turns to him. “Aiya, Lan Zhan. There was no need to make a fuss.”
Lan Wangji gives Wei Ying a look before setting his things down on the low table. “I did not make a fuss.”
“So stubborn,” Wei Ying sighs. “Nothing wrong with sleeping in the stables. I’ve slept in many. They’re more comfortable than you’d think.”
“You are cold and wet. You might fall sick.” Wei Ying has no golden core to keep him warm, to help him heal from wounds, to give him strength. He will always place himself last on the list of people that need taking care off. It is Lan Wangji’s constant worry that something will happen to Wei Ying while he’s too far away to do anything about it.
“Not even half a day and I’m already causing you trouble.” Wei Ying’s face falls when he catches sight of the mud streaks on Lan Wangji’s white outer-robe. “I’ve dirtied your clothes,” he says, sounding strangely defeated.
“The mud will wash off.”
Instead of meeting Lan Wangji’s gaze, Wei Ying picks at a streak of dried mud on the back of his hand. It flakes off and drifts to the floor. Almost to himself, he says, “I wanted—Ah. It doesn’t matter.” The corners of his mouth are turned down, giving him a disconsolate look.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji waits until Wei Ying looks up. “You are never a bother.”
Wei Ying’s soft inhalation sounds abnormally loud in the silence that stretches out between them. When a knock on the door interrupts them just as Wei Ying opens his mouth to say something, Lan Wangji is not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. By the time the two men who knocked on the door finish setting up the tub and filling it with hot water, the moment is well and truly lost.
Lan Wangji’s fingers move with practiced ease over the strings of his guqin, the familiar measures of their song resonating through the air to the accompaniment of splashing water and Wei Ying’s chatter as he bathes behind the privacy screen—words tumbling over themselves like a dam released. The urge to play the song had tugged at Lan Wangji ever since he heard the plaintive sound of Chenqing in the wind.
"Do you know,” Wei Ying says, “I think Nie Huaisang is the reason why there are so many hideous portraits of the Yiling Patriarch? Remember the ones we saw in Qinghe?" Wei Ying makes a disgruntled noise. "Hideous things. I look nothing like that! I don't have hairy moles or—or—”
There's a short pause probably indicating Wei Ying manfully wrestling himself back to his original point. "Anyway. I look nothing like those portraits. And I think that’s the whole point. I had a most oblique conversation with Nie Huaisang over some very good wine where he not quite apologised for dragging me back from the dead. At least I think that’s what he was doing. Hard to tell with him." Wei Ying's voice dips and falls as he speaks and Lan Wangji tries not to picture him naked in the tub, pale shoulders wet and gleaming, long sinuous line of his back as he twists and turns to wash his body. "So I think he's been commissioning those portraits as a way to make it up to me. No one would ever suspect me of being the Yiling Patriarch with those portraits floating around."
That sort of misdirection seemed entirely in character with the person who orchestrated Jin Guangyao’s downfall without getting a single drop of blood on his hands. If Wei Ying, the only person who even comes close to matching that convoluted and subtle mind, thinks Nie Huaisang is behind the portraits, Lan Wangji is inclined to believe him.
"Are you angry he brought you back?" It's something they've never discussed, and Lan Wangji would go so far as to say it was a topic he actively avoided. His life feels nearly complete now that Wei Ying is back, but perhaps Wei Ying doesn’t feel the same, perhaps death was a release for him. He had chosen to fall, after all.
The silence in the room is ringingly loud, not even the sound of water breaking it.
"Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says finally, voice hushed. “What a question. Not even a day back from the dead and you were once again in my life. How could I be angry?"
Lan Wangji's fingers strike a wrong note that hangs discordantly in the air. Why do these statements fall so easily from Wei Ying's lips? It is like being a boy in Cloud Recesses again as he’s left wondering if Wei Ying means the things he says or if he’s just trying to provoke a reaction.
A pained yelp from Wei Ying scatters all his thoughts. He’s up and around the privacy screen in a flurry of robes before he's considered the fact that Wei Ying is naked in the tub.
"Lan Zhan!" Frantic splashing accompanies Wei Ying's startled cry just as Lan Wangji is abruptly reminded of that fact by the sight of bare wet skin and wide surprised eyes.
Lan Wangji turns sharply on his heel and faces the wall, the tips of his ears burning. "Wei Ying. Are you alright?"
"Yes, yes," Wei Ying says, in a rush. "My fingers got caught in my hair, that's all. Thank you for coming so quickly to my defense, though." Lan Wangji can hear the smile in Wei Ying’s voice as well as something else, something that feels almost as tactile as the brush of soft fur against his skin.
"May I help?” Lan Wangji asks, addressing the question to the wall.
"W-what?" Wei Ying stutters.
"Your hair," Lan Wangji says. “It is tangled."
"Oh!” Wei Ying sounds oddly breathless, and Lan Wangji resists the urge to turn around to check on him. “Yes, please. It's completely hopeless."
“I will get the comb.”
When Lan Wangji approaches the privacy screen again, comb in hand, he allows himself one silent moment to prepare himself before he steps around it. Wei Ying has turned around so his back is to Lan Wangji and in the lamplight his skin gleams like gold. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. Lan Wangji settles behind him and gathers a handful of hair and begins to comb out the tangles. A fine tremor runs through Wei Ying and there is a slight hitch to his breath as he inhales.
“Are you cold?” Lan Wangji asks.
Wei Ying shakes his head in response.
Lan Wangji cannot help but let his eyes rove over the bare skin of Wei Ying’s back as he works the comb through the thick, tangled mass of hair. He frowns at the way the knobs of Wei Ying’s spine stand out under his skin. Wei Ying has lost weight since they parted. Lan Wangji resolves to feed him up as much as he can until they have to part once more. He is still Chief Cultivator and can only leave his responsibilities to a still heart-sore Lan Xichen for so long, and Wei Ying prefers to roam the world, free and unencumbered.
"You have not been eating enough."
Wei Ying gives an affronted squawk. "Aiyo, Lan Zhan, you'll end up single like this! Too direct! No woman will marry you!"
Lan Wangji’s mouth compresses into a tight line as he gently works the comb through a stubborn knot of hair. "It's fine."
"You… don't care if you never get married?"
"I don't care if no woman will marry me." Truthfully, there is only one person he wants to marry, and if that doesn't come to pass, then he is content to remain alone for the rest of his life.
In the breathless silence that follows, Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Ying will finally understand what he’s trying to say—what he’s been trying to say for years now. When the silence continues to drag out agonising second by agonising second, Lan Wangji wishes he had kept quiet after all. Perhaps it was not the best idea to make that disclosure while he sits right behind a naked Wei Ying. Lan Wangji is just about to ask if Wei Ying would rather have his own room when Wei Ying laughs wonderingly, light and almost breathless.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “You are full of surprises.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to make of that, but Wei Ying hasn’t pulled away so either he missed the implication or he doesn’t mind. Lan Wangji hopes it’s the latter.
As Lan Wangji works his way through one section of hair after another, Wei Ying tips his head to the side and rests it on his knees. His body goes loose and pliant and very very tempting. Lan Wangji would think he’s fallen asleep except that he can see the contented curve of his lips. He looks… at peace.
After his return to life, Wei Ying seems to appreciate silence more. His boundless energy is less frenetic, more focused, and without the malign influence of the Stygian Tiger Seal, his temper is less volatile. Even his interactions with Lan Wangji feel kinder and less combative. Despite the tragedy that surrounded the investigation Nie Huaisang sparked off, working together with Wei Ying was a most painful kind of joy and Lan Wangji misses him more than he can express. He’ll treasure every moment of Wei Ying’s visit to Gusu and store up the memories to last him until their next meeting.
This quiet moment between them will probably end up as one of his most cherished memories, and so he continues sliding the comb through Wei Ying’s hair even though every last knot has been untangled. By the time reason reasserts itself and Lan Wangji puts down the comb, Wei Ying’s hair lies like a silken waterfall down the leanly-muscled planes of his back.
He makes himself stand up. “Wait here.”
Wei Ying hums a quiet assent and doesn’t move so much as a muscle. Lan Wangji retrieves a small bottle of oil that he uses to keep his own hair from getting tangled. Wei Ying made free with it when they traveled together, but it’s clear he’s been less than conscientious about caring for his hair, or himself, since they parted. Lan Wangji pours a few drops of oil onto his hand and gently works it through Wei Ying’s wet hair.
Wei Ying makes a happy sound as the light, warm scent of sandalwood perfumes the air. “I’ll smell like you again,” he murmurs, dreamily.
Lan Wangji likes the thought of that much more than is seemly, but he’s long reconciled himself to the possessiveness of his love for Wei Ying.
When he’s done, he stands up, taking the comb and bottle with him. "The water is getting cold." Which is his fault since he took so much longer than necessary with Wei Ying’s hair. “Do not stay too long.”
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying turns to look at him over his bare shoulder. “Thank you.” His smile is so very sweet and so very tempting that Lan Wangji can only nod before turning around and retreating back to the main area of the room.
Once the water has been changed and Lan Wangji is ensconced in the tub, Wei Ying entertains him by recounting the details of his more unusual night hunts. Over the sound of Wei Ying’s voice, Lan Wangji can hear the rustle of Wei Ying moving around and the sloshing sound of his beloved Emperor’s Smile being poured.
It’s domestic and intimate and eases the ache of loneliness that’s been his constant companion since they parted on a ridge outside Cloud Recesses. There are days when the jingshi feels oppressive and its corners echo with the ghost of Wei Ying’s voice. Now, the sound of that voice fills the empty place in Lan Wangji that Wei Ying had carved out for himself by dint of sheer audacity, sneaking over Lan Wangji’s defenses like he snuck over the wall of Cloud Recesses clutching his contraband alcohol, with his smile like sunlight.
The thought of returning to the quiet of the jingshi after Wei Ying leaves Gusu is enough to make Lan Wangji consider helping himself to some of that wine.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, voice gone suddenly serious. “When I was in Qinghe, Nie Huaisang gave me some rare books he tracked down.”
Lan Wangji pauses in the middle of squeezing the water out of his hair. “Regarding?”
“To help you rebuild yours?” He knows Wei Ying misses being able to wield Suibian. Before leaving Cloud Recesses, he entrusted the sword into Lan Wangji’s care, stroking his thumb over the carved wooden sheath as though in farewell before he handed it over with a wistful look.
“I think so. But there’s nothing quite like my case since…” Wei Ying’s voice trails off.
Since no one had ever willingly offered their core up to another person, Lan Wangji thinks.
“Wei Ying. If there is any help I can provide, I will give it.” Lan Wangji has faith in Wei Ying’s genius. If anyone can find a solution, it’s him. And if he cannot, then Lan Wangji will let himself grow old with Wei Ying and enter the reincarnation cycle. They will find each other again and perhaps their next life will be a kinder one.
Wei Ying forces a laugh. “I don’t know, Lan Zhan. The case studies are on drained cores, tainted cores, damaged cores. Even if there are principles I can apply, the chances of success… And without Wen Qing…” The sudden quiet in the room feels full of the shadows of pain and death. “Aiya. Look at me, getting maudlin. You’ll think I’ve become boring in your absence.”
“I do not.” Lan Wangji picks up a clean inner-robe and is about to pull it on over his still-wet body when Wei Ying starts talking again, clearly wanting to put the subject of golden cores behind him.
“Did I tell you about the case of the vengeful ghost in the red dress?”
“You did not.” Lan Wangji is uncomfortably reminded of the vengeful ghost that had tormented Wen Chao. He picks up his towel and resumes drying himself while Wei Ying recounts the tale of the ghost and how he had no choice but to eliminate her.
“Can you believe it, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying says, once the story is done. “The woman’s own father buried her in a red dress so she would come back as a vengeful ghost. He wanted revenge on the man who wronged her, but first the man died, then the man’s fiance died, then even he himself began to sicken…” Wei Ying’s voice is quiet as he continues. “Revenge—it rarely goes according to plan.” There’s a pause. “Unless you’re Nie Huaisang,” Wei Ying says wryly, followed by the sound of a cup being set down on the table.
Lan Wangji steps out from behind the privacy screen dressed, very daringly, in only the under-robe and his trousers. His hair is loose about his shoulders, unbound except for his forehead ribbon. Only one person would he ever allow to see him like this.
A thrill goes through him when he finds Wei Ying similarly dressed as he sits cross-legged next to the low table in the middle of the room, right hand fidgeting with a small, stoppered bottle. His thick black hair is drying into its familiar full-bodied vigor. Lan Wangji has dreamed of burying his fingers in that hair ever since he was a confused boy of fifteen.
The scene is stunningly intimate—the kind of domestic familiarity shared only by cultivation partners or married spouses—and Lan Wangji is near-consumed by how much he wants.
Catching sight of him, Wei Ying lurches to his feet with a nervous look on his face. His gaze takes in Lan Wangji from head to toe and back again. He swallows visibly. "Lan Zhan, I—" He holds up the bottle in his hand. “This is for you," he says, words tumbling out in a rush. "I got it from an apothecarist I helped out. It's to help soothe—scars." Then, for no apparent reason that Lan Wangji can discern, Wei Ying blushes a furious pink and can’t quite meet his gaze.
"Thank you," Lan Wangji says, touched by Wei Ying’s thoughtfulness. He studies the high colour on Wei Ying’s cheeks. There’s something purposeful in Wei Ying’s actions that’s intriguing, but he’s content to let whatever Wei Ying has planned play out. After all, he’d been content to wait out the rest of his life to see Wei Ying again in the next.
"I can"—Wei Ying flaps the hand not holding the bottle in Lan Wangji's direction—"rub it on for you. The apothecarist said it's best applied right after bathing."
It’s an offer that could have come from one of Lan Wangji’s more fervid dreams. He stares blankly at Wei Ying, his ability to form sentences burned away like morning mist in the heat of the day.
Wei Ying's hand drops back to his side. "Nevermind." His lips curve into something that looks more grimace than smile. “I know you don't like to be touched."
This sudden consideration for his boundaries strikes Lan Wangji as being wildly out of character for Wei Ying, who is the only person in his life who touches him without hesitation. “Not if it's you," he says.
Wei Ying’s eyes widen and a smile blooms on his face, warm and glowing, bright as the sun. Lan Wangji’s heart is none to steady in his chest as he sits down next to the table with his back to Wei Ying.
The air in the room feels heavy with potential, like a storm incoming, as he sheds his under-robe, folds it neatly, and places it on the table. Then, with determinedly steady hands, he gathers up his still damp hair and pulls it over one shoulder to bare his back to Wei Ying's gaze.
Wei Ying settles on the floor behind him, a quiet, pained exhalation the only reaction to the scars that Lan Wangji has borne for nearly seventeen years now. Time stretches as he clears his mind of expectations and focuses on the sound of the bottle being uncorked and the light, herbal scent of the oil.
"Ready?" Wei Ying asks.
The first, hesitant touch makes the skin of Lan Wangji's back twitch. No one has touched his scars since they healed. In fact, no one has really touched his bare skin since the sect doctor removed the last of his bandages and pronounced him healed. Now, his skin feels almost unbearably sensitive to the glide of Wei Ying’s finger over each raised scar, his touch so careful and gentle that it feels like an apology. Wei Ying must know, then, how those scars came to be since he is too curious by nature not to ask otherwise, and Lan Wangji can guess who was the person who told him. He’s surprised his brother took such a direct hand in the matter, but he’s grateful to Lan Xichen for removing the burden of the telling from him.
Wei Ying has only covered the upper half of his back when Lan Wangji hears the hitch in Wei Ying’s breathing and feels the faintest tremor in the fingers spreading oil on his skin.
“Do they still hurt?”
“No.” They sometimes pull uncomfortably when he practices his sword forms, especially in the cold and dry winter months, but that is an inconvenience easily ignored. “I do not regret it,” he adds, because Wei Ying probably blames himself for them. “It was my choice and I knew the consequences when I made it.”
He can hear the sound of shaky breaths behind him as Wei Ying continues to stroke trembling fingers across his back.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers on an exhale. The warm heat of his palm is pressed to the center of Lan Wangji’s back for just a moment before it’s removed, leaving the spot feeling cold and bereft.
Wei Ying gets up, and—in a move that makes Lan Wangji’s heart race—kneels down in front of him. Almost hesitant, with eyes that hold the sheen of unshed tears, Wei Ying points at the Wen brand on Lan Wangji’s bare chest. “May I?”
Lan Wangji can only nod and pray that Wei Ying won’t ask about the brand. Not now, not when something breathless and burgeoning seems to be spinning into life between them. How he got it is something he never told a soul, not even his brother, whose eyes held such sadness the first time he saw it. Lan Wangji will always wonder if he might have saved Wei Ying from pain and suffering and death if he’d only had the courage to step outside the strictures of his life like Wei Ying did. Wei Ying sacrificed everything to honour his promise to stand with justice. Lan Wangji did not. But now that he has Wei Ying back, he would rather put that time of half-crazed grief and guilt behind him, a time when even the pain of the brand seemed a welcome surcease to the tearing pain of loss.
When Wei Ying draws in a breath and opens his mouth, Lan Wangji’s entire body tenses. After a quick flicker of a glance up at Lan Wangji, Wei Ying holds his peace. That act reminds Lan Wangji just how truly kind Wei Ying can be.
With careful fingers, Wei Ying smooths the oil slowly and carefully over the rough, raised surface of the burn scar right over Lan Wangji’s heart. Goosebumps race over his skin and it takes all of his control to remain still while the scent of sandalwood and herbs rises around them, carried by the heat of their bodies. They’re so close that it would only take leaning forward just a little for Lan Wangji to press a kiss to Wei Ying’s perfect lips, lick the beauty mark just under his lower lip.
“There,” Wei Ying says, a little breathlessly. He stoppers the bottle and settles back on his heels. He puts the bottle on the table with a quiet click. As Lan Wangji pulls on his under-robe, very conscious of how they're both barely dressed, Wei Ying peeks up from under his lashes. “Lan Zhan,” he says.
“The song… the one you wrote,” Wei Ying says, fingers worrying the frayed hem of his inner-robe. Lan Wangji's heart stops beating entirely in the space of time it takes for Wei Ying to inhale once, deep and shaky. “Is it called…Wangxian?”
Something hurt and tight inside Lan Wangji uncoils for the first time in years as his heart starts to hammer away in his chest. “You remembered.”
A strange sound escapes Wei Ying, not quite a laugh, not quite a gasp, even as his beautiful eyes fill up with tears. He tips forward and rests his forehead on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, shuffling closer into the vee formed by Lan Wangji’s crossed legs. “I thought it was a dream,” Wei Ying whispers. “A pathetic fantasy cooked up by a feverish brain. You're Hanguang-Jun—the best, most honourable person in the world. Surely you couldn’t have written a song for me, for us.”
Lan Wangji strokes his hand gently down the fall of Wei Ying’s hair, heart aching for their younger selves and the misconceptions their mutual silence bred. “No dream.”
When Wei Ying looks up, he’s—the only word Lan Wangji can think of to describe it is—glowing. There’s so much happiness in his eyes and tenderness in the soft curve of his smile that Lan Wangji's breath catches at the sight. It is everything he’s ever dreamed of seeing on Wei Ying’s face and more.
"I was such a fool, Lan Zhan. I think I've loved you for a long time, even as far back as Cloud Recesses.” The look he gives Lan Wangji is endearingly sheepish. “All those years I thought I wanted your attention, when really, I wanted your heart."
"You had it," Lan Wangji says. "You have it."
Wei Ying gives a soft cry and buries his face in the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck. “Too direct, Lan Zhan. Ah, my heart is racing...”
Lan Wangji wraps his arms around Wei Ying’s lean body and tugs him even closer. “Why now,” he asks. He’s loved and yearned for so long that he cannot help but to seek answers... reassurance.
Wei Ying whines, sounding very embarrassed. His breath is warm and moist against Lan Wangji’s skin.
“I missed you.” The quiet confession is made to Lan Wangji’s collarbone. “Every day, everywhere I went, I missed you. Even when Sizhui and Wen Ning were with me, I missed you.” He looks up, face flushed and expression rueful. “I know it’s selfish of me to want more after everything you’ve already given me, but… I kept thinking of how you tried to save me at Nightless City, how you wouldn’t let me go, and I couldn’t help hoping that… maybe… maybe that moment in the Xuanwu Cave wasn’t a dream after all.”
“You are the least selfish person I know.”
“I think I will be very selfish about you, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji smiles. He sees nothing wrong with the sentiment.
Wei Ying raises a hesitant finger and just barely brushes it against Lan Wangji’s mouth, as though still unsure of his welcome. “May I?”
Lan Wangji buries his fingers in the thick mass of Wei Ying’s hair and pulls him into a kiss that speaks his answer for him—he was never one for words, after all. Maybe his kiss can express the love he’s carried silent and hidden away in his heart for so many years. And it’s sweet, so very sweet, but underneath it runs a river of heat that rises in both of them until Wei Ying pulls back with a gasp.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers. “I… I don’t really know what to do. Everyone thinks I’ve—but—I’ve never—I mean, I know the principle but—”
Lan Wangji cuts Wei Ying off with a kiss. “It is the same for me.”
“It’s been so many years… You—” Wei Ying shakes his head. “Never?”
“For me, there is only you.”
“I’m sorry.” Wei Ying’s face crumples. “I’m so sorry. It took me so long to realise and then I left you for so long.”
“Not your fault." Lan Wangji wipes away the tears making their way down Wei Ying's cheek. "You are here now, that’s all that matters.”
"Ah, Lan Zhan. How can you just—say such things? Have a care for this man’s poor heart!" So saying, Wei Ying clambers into Lan Wangji's lap without any regard for his heart, throws his arms around Lan Wangji's neck and kisses him and kisses him and kisses him.
It is long past five in the morning but Lan Wangji is still in bed because Wei Ying is wrapped around him like a vine—a particularly tenacious and naked vine still bearing the marks Lan Wangji left on his skin, marks that didn’t heal overnight unlike the ones on Lan Wangji’s skin. Lan Wangji brushes one such mark at the juncture between neck and shoulder as he watches Wei Ying sleep safe and warm in his arms.
From the shadows under his eyes, Wei Ying looks like he hasn't slept well in too long. When they shared a room during their investigation, Lan Wangji learned that Wei Ying is prone to nightmares. He flinches and frowns and begs for mercy or calls out the names of people long dead. A gentle touch and speaking Wei Ying’s name are often enough to soothe him back into sleep.
The nightmares reveal all the pain and guilt hidden behind Wei Ying’s sunny and happy face. He sacrificed everything to save the Wen remnants but in the end, all that remained was one beloved child who became the only brightness left in the unrelieved gray of Lan Wangji's life, and a kind and gentle soul who was neither truly alive nor truly dead.
And then there were those three unaccounted-for months that Wei Ying has never spoken of.
Lan Wangji presses a kiss to the sleep-warm skin of Wei Ying’s temple and hopes that one day, Wei Ying will feel safe enough, secure enough, to tell him of those three months and Chenqing and the Stygian Tiger Seal.
Wei Ying stirs and makes a soft noise that sounds very smug as he snuggles closer. Lan Wangji feels inexpressibly fond as he looks down at that beloved face, still soft and blurred around the edges with sleep.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying breathes. A soft kiss is pressed to the brand over Lan Wangji’s heart. Wei Ying folds his arms over Lan Wangji’s chest and rests his chin on his forearm. There’s a dreamy look in his eyes as his gaze roves over Lan Wangji’s face.
Wei Ying’s mouth tips up at the corners. Unable to resist the temptation any longer now that Wei Ying is awake, Lan Wangji pulls him into a languid kiss. Wei Ying goes pliant in his arms and returns the kiss with a sweet moan.
Before the banked embers from the night before can burst into flame, Lan Wangji ends the kiss. He’s content for the moment to savour the feeling of Wei Ying curled up close by his side. He combs Wei Ying’s hair back from his face and basks in the warmth of the smile that blossoms at his touch.
“You know, Lan Zhan, I had so many plans ready for how I was going to court you.” Wei Ying looks up, lower lip pushed out into an adorable pout that tempts Lan Wangji to nip at it. “It was a proper campaign,” he adds, and gives a mock sigh. “I even made notes.”
“You may still court me.”
Wei Ying blinks at him for three long seconds, mouth hanging open. “Hanguang-Jun, how shameless! You’ve already bedded me and deflowered this innocent virgin.” Wei Ying waves a hand to indicate, presumably, his naked and deflowered body. “And still you want to be courted?”
Lan Wangji nods. “Being wasteful is prohibited.”
Wei Ying laughs, eyes turned into crescents that twinkle with love and adoration. Lan Wangji thought he was already thoroughly wrapped around Wei Ying’s little finger—seeing Wei Ying like this, he realises now that he was wrong.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying wags a finger at him. “You’d best prepare yourself. I’m shameless too, remember?”
Lan Wangji hums an assent. The coming months will certainly prove vastly more entertaining than his past year has been. As Wei Ying smiles up at him, he decides that perhaps, this time, it will be safe to ask. Raising Sizhui taught him that sometimes it’s necessary to overcome his natural reticence and make his intentions clear.
“Wei Ying. Come back to Cloud Recesses with me—to stay, or to visit a while.”
“Ahh…” Wei Ying demurs, and something cold curdles in the pit of Lan Wangji’s stomach. “No, Lan Zhan, don’t look like that.” Wei Ying cups a hand around Lan Wangji’s face, thumb stroking the arch of his cheekbone. “It’s not that I don’t want to. I do, of course I do, if there’s one thing I’ve learned these past months, it’s that wherever you are is where I’m happiest. But…”
Wei Ying sits up, taking all the warmth with him. The blanket pools around his lap. In the bright light of mid-morning, Lan Wangji can see the marks he left on Wei Ying’s skin and he wonders how he could have gotten it so wrong once again. He pushes himself upright and turns to face Wei Ying. “But?”
Eyes downcast, Wei Ying reaches out and strokes the hair that falls over Lan Wangji's shoulder in a gentle caress. “I thought to… redeem my reputation first. You are the Chief Cultivator and I’m the Yiling Patriarch. I would taint—”
“You are Wei Ying." Lan Wangji takes both of Wei Ying’s hands in his and grips them tight. "The cultivation world can either accept you by my side or find another Chief Cultivator. Come back to Cloud Recesses with me.”
There is a moment of complete silence as Wei Ying stares at him with lips parted in surprise. Then, a strange gurgling noise escapes him. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I can deny you nothing. Yes. Yes, I will come back to Cloud Recesses with you.” With a smile that is the brightest thing in Lan Wangji’s sky, Wei Ying lunges forward and proceeds to kiss him breathless.