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Chapter Text

Lan Wangji’s first impression of Yunmeng is that it is hot. He’s sweating in his robes already, only five minutes away from leaving the boat, and he misses the cool mists of the Cloud Recesses. His second impression is that the entire town is festooned with riotous colors. The common folk here dress themselves in bright jewel tones, and the Jiang clan all wear differing shades of amethyst and sapphire. It’s a far cry from the white palette of the Cloud Recesses. As the Jiang clansmen bring them towards Lotus Pier where the Jiang clan proper is awaiting their arrival, Lan Wangji, along with his brother, uncle and a handful of disciples are offered a warm welcome by the people of Yunmeng. Lotus pods and loquats are pressed into their hands, and Lan Wangji ends up holding a lotus flower in full bloom without knowing quite how in the hustle and bustle.

“The people of Yunmeng certainly are friendly, aren’t they?” his brother says, admiring the ripe lotus seed head he’s holding. “I feel more at ease leaving you here already.”

At that, Lan Wangji feels a premature pang of longing at the reminder that a week’s time, his brother and uncle will leave Lan Wangji and some Gusu Lan sect disciples behind in Yunmeng for a year. The stay is ostensibly to promote friendly relations between sects, but it’s common knowledge that the main goal is for Lan Wangji to get to know his betrothed, the Jiang clan’s adopted son Wei Wuxian. When the betrothal was first brought up, his brother had assured him that everything was on a provisional basis: if Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had incompatible personalities, Lan Qiren would gently break off the engagement with Madam Yu with no hard feelings between the two sects.

It's a comfort to him that his feelings will be taken into consideration, but in Lan Wangji’s view, he already knows that he will put aside any personal feelings for the sake of the Lan sect’s success. Even at the age of fourteen, he knew that the needs of the sect outweighed his own wants, and he had a responsibility to his sect.

The reasons for the betrothal were well thought-out: the Gusu Lan sect, while not lacking in connections, had not had a marriage linking themselves and the other clans for a generation. His father’s unconventional choice of a wife notwithstanding, his uncle had also taken no spouse. As the two blood heirs of the Lan sect, Lan Wangji and his brother were the best candidates for an arranged marriage. His brother was the heir presumptive, and so any potential candidates would have to be willing to join the Gusu Lan sect and reside in the Cloud Recesses.

As the second heir, Lan Wangji’s choices were wider: he could move elsewhere and join another sect in marriage. It was this reason that motivated his uncle in choosing Wei Wuxian as his betrothed: although he was not related to the Jiang clan by blood, he had been brought up in the Jiang family like a son. He was not expected to be the next head of the Jiang clan, but nonetheless was a valuable member of the family. If, for whatever reason, and Lan Wangji can read between the lines, and he knows that his uncle is hinting at a scenario where his brother is indisposed and can no longer lead the Lan sect, Lan Wangji has to reside in the Cloud Recesses, it would be no trouble for his spouse to travel with him and leave Yunmeng. Vice versa, as the second heir Lan Wangji could easily move to Yunmeng and join the Jiang clan. With neither of them bearing the responsibility to continue the bloodline of their clans, it was no problem that they were both men. It helped that rumors of Wei Wuxian’s exceptional cultivation level had reached the Cloud Recesses, and indirectly, the ears of Lan Qiren as well.

On Lan Wangji’s part, his uncle had not told him much about his betrothed at all, except some information regarding his parentage and status as an adopted son of the Jiang sect, in order to avoid missteps in conversation, especially around Madam Yu. Lan Wangji wonders what his betrothed will be like, a son of a rogue cultivator and her chosen love, raised in the colorful environs of Yunmeng.

 

 

“Welcome, Grand Master Lan. Yunmeng is honored by your presence,” Sect Leader Jiang says.

The image of the Jiang family arrayed around the Sword Hall is an impressive sight. The head of the family, Sect Leader Jiang, is at the head of the congregation, a welcoming smile on his face. Madam Yu, Zidian on her wrist, is flanked by two handmaidens while the younger members of the family are standing in a neat line, heads bowed respectfully towards their guests.

As the elders exchange pleasantries, Lan Wangji lets his eyes wander over the three figures. The girl dressed in pale lilac robes can only be Jiang Yanli, the only daughter of the Jiang family. Standing next to her is a boy whose straight brows and mouth resemble those of Madam Yu, undoubtably the young master Jiang Wanyin. Finally, at the end of the line, a boy with messy black hair, dressed in black and red robes that are a touch incongruous with the rest of the Jiang sect’s purple colors. That can only be Lan Wangji’s betrothed, Wei Wuxian.

“Come, let me introduce you to my children,” Sect Leader Jiang says, gesturing towards the subjects of Lan Wangji’s attention. “My daughter, Jiang Yanli, my son, Jiang Wanyin, and Wei Wuxian, our head disciple.”

They each bow in turn when their names are introduced, and Lan Wangji notices Wei Wuxian’s curious glances at the Lan sect. When Wei Wuxian’s eyes meet Lan Wangji’s, Lan Wangji holds the gaze until Wei Wuxian breaks off first, red brushed across his cheeks. The heat must be unbearable even for those who live in Yunmeng, Lan Wangji thinks.

After his brother introduces himself, Lan Wangji does the same, raising his hands and cupping one fist in a gesture of respect. “Lan Wangji of the Gusu Lan sect. Well met, Young Master Jiang, Miss Jiang and Young Master Wei.”

“Lan-ergongzi. There’s no need for formalities. Treat Yunmeng as your home during your stay,” Sect Leader Jiang says.

 

 

Later that night, there is to be a banquet held in honor of the Lan sect, but for now the weary travelers are all showed to their rooms. His uncle and brother are led to guest chambers in a different part of Lotus Pier, while Lan Wangji is guided to rooms located within the residential wing of Lotus Pier reserved for family, due in part to the length of his stay and his unique position as a potential future member of the Jiang clan. The three younger members of the Jiang clan shoo away the servant assigned to Lan Wangji, and take it upon themselves to show Lan Wangji to his rooms and around Lotus Pier.

“Second Young Master Lan, you must be tired from your travels. Why don’t we show you to your room?” Jiang Yanli opens, gesturing in the direction of the family quarters.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nods respectfully in Jiang Yanli’s direction.

The silence as they walk to his chambers is a little awkward, interspersed only by Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian elbowing each other and shooting meaningful looks in Lan Wangji’s direction. Jiang Yanli looks on with a knowing look that must be universal to all older siblings, because Lan Wangji has seen this exact expression on his brother’s face, and eventually takes pity on her younger siblings, engaging Lan Wangji in small talk that he replies monosyllabically.

When they reach his rooms, Jiang Yanli says, “Take your time to settle in, Second Young Master Lan. There’s a basin of water in your room already. I’ve prepared some tea and snacks in the central pavilion of the family wing. Please come out when you are ready, we will be waiting for you.”

As he washes his face and hands and freshens up, Lan Wangji can hear the three siblings jostling outside, the gently chiding voice of Jiang Yanli mixed with the complaints of Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian. The noise fades off gradually, and Lan Wangji assumes that they’ve moved away to the pavilion.

The chambers he has been allocated are quite beautiful. Lotus carvings adorn the light wood panels around the room, as well as the wooden frame of the bed. There are purple swathes of cloth tastefully hung as decoration along the rafters, and a small wooden tub and privacy screen set in one corner of the room. It’s different from the Jingshi, lacking the books and items he’s amassed over the fourteen years of his life, but for the next twelve months it will be perfectly serviceable as Lan Wangji’s refuge from the world.

 

 

“He’s your fiancé, talk to him! Why are you leaving all the heavy lifting to A-jie?”

“You’re the same too! Future Sect Leader of the Jiang clan, unable to open his mouth in front of the second Jade of Lan.”

“It’s not my fault he looks so unfriendly! Anyway, just talk to him, what’s the point of him staying here for a year if you two don’t even interact?”

“Fine, fine, I got it.”

The people of Lotus Pier talk loudly. Or rather, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian seem to have loud voices, because Lan Wangji can hear their argument from ten meters away where he’s stepping onto the walkway connecting the pavilion and the rest of the building which houses the residential chambers. The pavilion hovers over an idyllic pond, its surface rippling with the movement of orange and black koi fish and dappled by the shade of lotus leaves rising gracefully from the water. There’s a table set with dishes overfilling with food and a steaming pot of tea that Jiang Yanli is fussing over. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are on the farther side of the pavilion, their backs facing towards Lan Wangji, still unaware of his presence. Jiang Yanli is the first to notice him.

“Second Young Master Lan! Please, take a seat,” she says.

He does, and accepts the tea that Jiang Yanli pours for him. The four of them settle around the table.

“That’s lotus tea, it’s famous in Yunmeng. It goes well with these walnut cakes.” Wei Wuxian nudges the plate towards him.

“Mn. Thank you,” Lan Wangji replies.

He answers questions posed by Wei Wuxian (“How many days did you travel?” “Seven.”) and Jiang Wanyin (“How many disciples does the Lan sect have?” “One hundred and thirty-seven.”) as he eats his fill and empties three more cups of tea. The tea snacks are exquisite and entirely on-par with the food of the Cloud Recesses, if of a different style than Lan Wangji is used to, and he makes sure to tell Jiang Yanli.

“Of course it’s delicious! My shi-jie’s cooking is unparalleled!”

A-xian…” Jiang Yanli chides, punching his shoulder gently in an embarrassed manner.

It’s a fascinating sight for Lan Wangji, witnessing the three siblings interact in this manner. Behavior and conduct in the Cloud Recesses is always restrained, the numerous rules of the Lan sect having been inculcated in all the disciples from a young age. Even with his immediate family, Lan Wangji has only ever been respectful, and never this casual. The closest memory he can muster is one of his mother, nudging his nose with her curled index finger to cajole him into laughing when she thinks he’s being too serious, and Lan Wangji batting her hand away playfully.

Lan Wangji already feels like he sticks out in this family.

“Second Young Master Lan, our parents need our help setting up for the banquet later, so we’ll leave your tour of Lotus Pier up to A-xian,” Jiang Yanli says, standing up and tugging her brother away from where he’s eyeing another sesame cake.

“Wha- I thought we said we were going to do the tour together!” Wei Wuxian sputters.

Lan Wangji gets the distinct impression that the two of them are being set up, judging from the sly look on Jiang Wanyin’s face. Regrettably, over the next twelve months such situations will happen far too frequently for Lan Wangji’s liking.

“You’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. Have fun!” Jiang Wanyin says, popping a sesame cake into his mouth as he saunters off with his sister.

“Have a good time, A-xian, Second Young Master Lan!” Jiang Yanli adds.

 

 

“Well. I guess it’s just you and me,” Wei Wuxian says.

He scratches the back of his neck awkwardly, the pose emphasizing the toned muscle of his biceps through his robes, before bouncing out of his seat. There’s a bright smile on his face, shining with the megawatt force of the sun, and his eyes are crinkled in an attractive way, Lan Wangji notes absently.

“What do you want to see first?”

“Training field.” Lan Wangji rises from his seat.

“Alright, let’s go!” Wei Wuxian leads the way.

On their way towards the training fields at the back of the Jiang estate, Wei Wuxian points out other points of interest: “That’s my room over there, and Jiang Cheng’s room on the other side. Shi-jie’s room is in another part of the mansion, as is Uncle Jiang’s and Madam Yu’s.”

(At this, Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows. It’s common knowledge that Sect Leader Jiang’s relationship with his wife is tolerant at best and tempestuous at worst, but he had not known that they kept separate chambers. Then again, it is not as if Lan Wangji is in any position to judge, given the dysfunctional relationship his parents had.

Wei Wuxian misses his raised eyebrows, and continues to prattle on.)

Lotus Pier is a large estate, sprawling inland from the river bank. The grounds are dotted with buildings and carefully tended gardens, bustling with people. Lan Wangji passes through elegant moon gates (月亮门) and under the eaves of intricately carved roofs, always a few steps behind Wei Wuxian. Although Lotus Pier is a respectable size for the abode of a Sect Leader, it is dwarfed by the Cloud Recesses, which occupies a large part of the Jade Mountain. Besides the main building housing disciples, there is an annex housing the female disciples. Combined with the classrooms and libraries, that accounted for most of the mountaintop. The foothills were occupied by the residences of Lan family members.

As he leads a winding path from one spot to another in Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian talks incessantly about everything and anything: the wooden beam where he, Jiang Cheng and his shi-jie had marked their heights on for years, the best places to sneak in and out of the mansion without detection, and other minutiae that Lan Wangji absorbs silently and files away as information about his fiancé.

Lan Wangji is beginning to suspect that he never shuts up, when Wei Wuxian guides him to a pavilion for a rest and lapses into silence, staring at the far-off water shoreline.

When Lan Wangji looks up at the carved wooden signboard, it reads 'Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty (夕佳亭)'. The pavilion is located at a quieter part of the grounds, accessible by a single winding walkway that leads to a quiet bend of the river. The water flow is calm and gentle below Lan Wangji’s feet, and the setting sun paints the river surface a warm orange. It will soon be time for them to return to the banquet hall.

The lotus flowers here are in bloom as well, but of a different cultivar. The bobbing stalks bear many-petalled white blooms surrounding yellow centers, and the pure white color of the petals reminds Lan Wangji of the Cloud Recesses. One of the blossoms is within arm’s reach, and Lan Wangji bends down and stretches out, wanting to feel the softness of the petals for himself.

Before his fingers make contact, he’s interrupted by Wei Wuxian. “Are you always this quiet?”

When Lan Wangji turns around, Wei Wuxian is still staring off into the distance, elbows leaning on the railing of the pavilion. The honeyed light limns his features, emphasizing his long eyelashes and smooth skin.

“Do you only ever nod and say ‘Mn’? Isn’t there anything you’re interested in at all?” Wei Wuxian turns around, a frown marring his face.

“There is. Guqin. Cultivation.” You, Lan Wangji does not say.

“Ah, so he speaks. That’s the longest I’ve heard you speak since you introduced yourself in the afternoon.”

Wei Wuxian steps closer. His head only comes up to Lan Wangji’s nose, but Lan Wangji is tall for his age, and they are young yet. In time to come, Wei Wuxian might catch up to his height, or even exceed it.

“One should minimize unnecessary chatter.” It’s an admonishment Lan Wangji has issued countless times in the halls of the Cloud Recesses, but it doesn’t seem to have its usual effect, because all Wei Wuxian does is grin cheekily.

“You Lans and your rules. You’re all so uptight! What does it take to get a reaction out of you?”

If Wei Wuxian is trying to get a rise out of Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji will not grant him any response. He stares placidly at the water surface, and tries to reflect the calmness of the river in his mind.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t last for long before Wei Wuxian’s utter shamelessness gets the better of his temper.

“Lan Wangji. Look at me! Lan-ergongzi. Second Jade of Lan.” Wei Wuxian is poking at his shoulder. His tone turns wheedling. “Lan-ergege? Lan Zhan!”

“You–” Utterly shameless person, Lan Wangji wants to say, I can’t believe you’re the person I’m betrothed to!, but he gets cut off by Wei Wuxian’s cackles.

“I finally got you to look at me! Alright, I’ve got it now. I’ll call you Lan Zhan from now on!” His shoulder nudges Lan Wangji’s in an overly familiar manner. “If you wanted me to call you Lan Zhan you only had to ask, you know. Tell you what, I’ll let you call me Wei Ying too! Come on, we’re going to be late for the banquet, and you’re the guest of honor!”

Wei Wuxian skips off, and Lan Wangji carefully suppresses his desire to strangle him. It wouldn’t do to murder his fiancé, not when he still has a year to go at Lotus Pier.

 

 

The remaining week passes in a blur of sight-seeing boat rides and meetings with minor sect leaders. Wei Wuxian is an omnipresent figure, constantly pestering Lan Wangji and shouting his name far too loudly, attracting stares from everyone. Lan Wangji tries desperately to inch away and distance himself from Wei Wuxian, but somehow they end up on the same boat every single time due to some none-too-subtle nudging from Jiang Wanyin, and Lan Wangji has to put up with his exclamations and rowdiness and the too-familiar way he says Lan Zhan all the time.

Even on dry land, there is no avoiding him. Lan Wangji, ever the dutiful student, sits on the sidelines of sect meetings with his brother and listens attentively to how his uncle and Sect Leader Jiang mediate disputes between minor sects. Unavoidably, however, Wei Wuxian will emerge from somewhere like a wisp of smoke and sidle up to Lan Wangji’s side to mock-whisper insulting things about the visiting sect leaders until Sect Leader Jiang clears his throat and allows them to excuse themselves before Lan Qiren succumbs to his throbbing forehead vein and throws Wei Wuxian out himself.

When the time for parting comes at the end of seven days’ time, Lan Qiren only has a few exhortations for Lan Wangji.

“Uphold the tenets of the Lan sect. Don’t let our clan lose face (丢脸).” He breaks off, frowning. “That fiancé of yours looks a little too unruly, but there’s nothing that a year in the Cloud Recesses won’t fix. Try to get along, the marriage alliance would be beneficial for us.”

“Yes, uncle.”

Lan Qiren’s gaze softens. “Take care of yourself, Wangji. This will be the first time you spend such a long time away from home. It’s a good chance to learn different skills. But take care that you don’t pick up bad habits.”

On that note, he nods and joins the rest of the departing Lan sect members where they are lined up in the Sword Hall, ready to pay their respects to Sect Leader Jiang for his hospitality.

At his side, his brother starts to speak.

“Wangji.” His brother smiles. “Take care of your health. The environment here is very different from the Cloud Recesses, but I have no doubt that you will adapt to them. Remember to write to me. A year will pass in no time, and you’ll be home.”

He pulls Lan Wangji into an embrace, who returns it, stunned. His brother whispers into his ear, “Remember, this is just a trial period. If you wish for it, we can break the betrothal.” When he pulls away, he continues, “But I’m relieved. It looks like you and Young Master Wei are getting along just fine.”

“He is infuriating.”

“But he managed to get you to call him by his personal name within a day of meeting you,” Lan Xichen says, referring to the incident during the welcome banquet where Lan Wangji had hissed Wei Ying rather vehemently in a bid to stop him from nicking flasks of wine from a dozing elder’s table.

“This will be a good chance to make new friends. Keep an open mind, Wangji.” He pats Lan Wangji’s back avuncularly. “Ah, look at that. Sect Leader Jiang has arrived. I had better get in place. Keep in mind what I said, Wangji.”

The departing delegation pay their respects to Sect Leader Jiang and board boats that will wind their way upriver, depositing them at Caiyi Town in a few days’ time. Lan Wangji watches the white-clad figures on the boat fade into the distance like so many white cranes flying away, and squashes down any feelings of loneliness that arise.

Chapter Text

As the spring days wear on into summer, Lan Wangji learns the rhythms and patterns of Yunmeng.

The cuisine of Yunmeng is salted and spiced with a heavier hand than he is used to. Lan Wangji has been raised on a Gusu diet, heavy on wild vegetables foraged from the mountains that are simply prepared to allow their freshness and natural flavor to shine through, and it takes him a period of time to adapt to the food in Yunmeng. He eats, of course, because he has never been a picky eater, but he quickly learns to stick to the simpler steamed and stir-fried dishes, and steer clear of those that have a layer of red chili oil on the surface.

The tables in Yunmeng never lack for fish, due to their proximity to a productive river, and true to their name, the residents of Lotus Pier work lotuses into every meal. Lan Wangji had not realized that lotuses could be consumed in so many ways. At breakfast, there are bamboo steamers (蒸笼) filled with piping hot lotus paste buns (莲茸包), next to the jugs of soya milk and plates of crispy golden fried dough fritters (豆漿油條). During outings, the disciples bring along glutinous rice balls wrapped in lotus leaves, the insides filled with mushrooms, chicken and sausage (糯米鸡). Sliced lotus roots are stir-fried with vegetables or stewed to make soups, and fresh lotus seeds are a common snack in-between mealtimes. It’s a wonder they don’t get sick of it all.

It’s fresh and exciting to try new foods, but it makes Lan Wangji miss the food of the Cloud Recesses all the same: Simple congee with side dishes for breakfast. Fragrant rice paired with refreshing bamboo shoots or wild-harvested fern fiddleheads. The intoxicating scent of high mountain tea, shared during quiet afternoons with his brother. He supposes absence does make the heart fonder, after all.

 

 

True to her considerate nature, it is Jiang Yanli who first approaches him to ask about his dietary preferences. “Second Young Master Lan. Is the food not to your liking?”

They’ve just departed the dinner table, the two of them walking back to the residential wing together. Breakfasts and lunches at Lotus Pier are free-for-all events, disciples and family members alike dropping by the kitchens to eat at their leisure. Only dinners are family affairs, the five members of the Jiang family and Lan Wangji clustered around a hexagonal table, Sect Leader Jiang placing food in all of their bowls and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s knees jostling whenever Wei Wuxian adjusts his legs restlessly.

There’s always chatter around the table: Jiang Wanyin recounting training details to his parents, or Sect Leader Jiang bringing up recent developments in Yunmeng. As he is wont to do, Lan Wangji stays silent throughout the meal, quietly listening and only responding when spoken to.

Some days, like today, the atmosphere around the table is odd. Madam Yu has a tendency to compare her son with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, urging him to apply more effort to his cultivation to catch up. On these instances, Wei Wuxian seems to shrink into himself, trying to take up less space at the table, his ever-present smile fading into a thin-lipped expression as he stares into his rice bowl.

It disquiets Lan Wangji to see Wei Wuxian so subdued, so he simply replies, “Everyone has their own shortcomings and strengths (尺有所短,寸有所长). Young Master Jiang’s talents lie in his leadership skills. He will be a good leader for the Jiang sect in the future.”

Madam Yu looks oddly pleased that Lan Wangji praises Jiang Wanyin so effusively, and leaves off her nagging. Jiang Wanyin looks a little bewildered. Wei Wuxian nudges Lan Wangji’s knee under the table, and shoots him a grateful look. The meal proceeds normally afterwards.

After dinner concludes, Wei Wuxian tugs Jiang Wanyin into another corner of the residence, leaving Lan Wangji with Jiang Yanli, giving her the opportunity to pose her question.

Lying is forbidden, but so is impoliteness to your hosts, so Lan Wangji picks his words carefully. “The fare is different from what I am used to. I will grow accustomed with time.”

“Second Young Master Lan, could you tell me what you usually eat in Gusu? I’ll try and ask the cooks to make similar dishes,” Jiang Yanli says earnestly.

Lan Wangji has not interacted with her for long, but already he understands why Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are so protective of her. Jiang Yanli is kindhearted to a fault, and almost too good for this world. She reminds Lan Wangji of his brother, especially in the way she treats everyone fairly, a smile never far from her face. She is the sort of person whose kindness would get taken advantage of, if not for Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian.

“There is no need. I do not want to inconvenience you. I will learn to eat the same dishes as you do,” Lan Wangji demurs.

“Second Young Master Lan, I want to make you feel at ease in Lotus Pier. If you truly join the family, this place will be your home as well. Besides, we’ll just change a few of the dishes. There will still be plenty of dishes for the rest of us to eat.”

That’s how Lan Wangji ends up at the same pavilion where he shared tea with the younger members of the Jiang family on his first day at Lotus Pier. He shares a pot of tea with Jiang Yanli, and describes the cuisine of Gusu to her. There are certain ingredients that are near-impossible to find at Yunmeng; bamboo mushrooms and bamboo shoots are rarely found outside of Gusu, where the majority of bamboo groves grow. But others can be substituted. Vegetables are largely similar no matter where one roams, as is tofu. The cooking methods commonly used in Gusu are also easily adapted to the Yunmeng kitchens. It was a simple matter of spicing with a less liberal hand, and steaming dishes instead of stir-frying them. Jiang Yanli takes notes on a piece of paper with her neat penmanship, and her paper is nearly full when Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian return from wherever they had gone.

“Thank you so much, Second Young Master Lan. I’ll pass the word to the cooks. The other Lan disciples will probably be glad to eat food that they are accustomed to as well. If there are any other areas of improvement, just let me know.”

“Many thanks, Miss Jiang.”

“What are you guys doing?” Wei Wuxian hollers, an arm slung around Jiang Wanyin’s neck in a brotherly manner as they draw near to the pavilion.

Jiang Wanyin has a complicated expression on his face that morphs into curiosity when he sees Lan Wangji and his sister sitting together.

“Second Young Master Lan was just telling me about the food in Gusu.” Jiang Yanli folds up her paper neatly and tucks it into her robes.

“Really? I’m curious about that as well!” Wei Wuxian says, plopping into the seat nearest to Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan, what famous foods do you have in Gusu?”

As usual, Wei Wuxian is being too loud. It appeared that his mood had rebounded from dinner already, in the short period of time he had spent with Jiang Wanyin.

“Red bayberries (杨梅). Peaches. Cloud tea (云雾茶).” Lan Wangji answers concisely.

 “What about Emperor’s Smile? Senior Haolan has visited Gusu before, and she said it’s the best alcohol in the world!”

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

Aiya, I forgot about your three thousand rules. Do you guys even have any fun? All I see the Lan disciples doing is meditating and training, when they’re not eating or sleeping.”

“Diligence in training is of utmost importance when cultivating a golden core.”

“There’s more to life than a golden core, you know. There’s so much good food to enjoy, good drink to savor, and good scenery in the world to appreciate!”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji huffs.

Jiang Wanyin pipes in. “With an attitude like that, it’s a miracle you’re the head disciple. You’d best get your head straight before we head to the Cloud Recesses for lessons, or Grand Master Lan will tear you a new one. Don’t make us lose face in front of the other sects.”

A-Cheng, you’re being too harsh. A-xian has a sense of propriety (自有分寸). I’m sure he’ll behave himself during important occasions,” Jiang Yanli says, ever the peacekeeper.

All evidence Lan Wangji has points to the contrary, but he keeps mum.

The conversation continues, flowing around Lan Wangji’s silences comfortably, until he excuses himself at eight to prepare for bed.

 

 

A month into their acquaintance, Wei Wuxian needles Lan Wangji into telling him about the Lan sect forehead ribbons.

He hangs around Lan Wangji all the time, his fluttering scarlet hair ribbon never far from sight. Lan Wangji can barely catch a reprieve from his chatter. Several times a day, he is sorely tempted to use the silencing spell on Wei Wuxian, if only to get five minutes of peace and quiet. He resists, but only barely, mostly because he tells himself to serve as an example to the other Lan sect disciples. He repeats the Lan sect rules to himself: Do not act impulsively. Act virtuously.

Used to Lan Wangji’s pointed silences by now, Wei Wuxian takes to talking at Lan Wangji, instead of to him, prattling on about whatever has caught his attention, his words bouncing off Lan Wangji’s silent façade without response. Lan Wangji listens, of course (he can’t actually turn his ears off, unfortunately), but he rarely deigns to respond. Instead, he chooses to angle his body away from Wei Wuxian, or to walk away. Anything to stop the endless torrent of teasing. One time, memorably, he shuts the doors of his chambers right in Wei Wuxian’s face when he is midsentence, which actually succeeds in stunning him into silence.

This time however, Wei Wuxian has cornered Lan Wangji in his chambers, and there’s nowhere for Lan Wangji to escape to, so he resigns himself to his fate. It’s times like these that make Lan Wangji miss the quiet tranquility of the Jingshi. Back in the Cloud Recesses, no one would have dared to enter Lan Wangji’s private sanctum without his express invitation.

“Lan Zhan. Lan Zhaaaan. I’m so bored. Won’t you talk to me?” Wei Wuxian says, sprawled over half of Lan Wangji’s table as Lan Wangji tries to read his book.

Lan Wangji ignores him.

Wei Wuxian’s finger slowly inches towards Lan Wangji’s hair where it lies over his shoulder, trying to touch the ends of his forehead ribbon.

Sending a glare Wei Wuxian’s way, Lan Wangji flicks his hair behind his shoulder, where it will be out of his reach. “Do not touch.”

“Then tell me why I can’t touch it! Then I’ll stop.”

Boring, Lan Wangji’s brain supplies, and he tells Wei Wuxian as much.

Wei Wuxian pouts a moment, before perking up. “I know! How about this? A fair trade. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He starts tugging at the collar of his outer robes, sticking his right hand inside the collar.

Alarmed, Lan Wangji tosses down the book and his hand goes to Bichen. Wei Wuxian couldn’t be so shameless as to undress in Lan Wangji’s room, could he? “What are you doing?”

Locating whatever it is that he was looking for in his robes, Wei Wuxian pulls it out and pats down his collar. “Relax. I’m not about to give you a free show.” He holds up a tasseled silver bell. “This right here is a silver nine-petalled lotus bell that only disciples of the Yunmeng Jiang sect possess.”

Wei Wuxian holds it up to the light, letting Lan Wangji examine it. He has to admit that the workmanship is exquisite. Despite its small size, the silver bell is incredibly lifelike, having been etched in the likeness of the lotus blooms that can be seen in every corner of Yunmeng.

“Isn’t it beautiful? Your Gusu Lan sect may have forehead ribbons, but we of the Jiang sect also have our treasures. The sound of the bell helps to cleanse the mind of distractions, allowing one to become calm and focus better,” Wei Wuxian says. The last part sounds like it has been repeated to Wei Wuxian countless times by his teachers.

Pulling the bell back, Wei Wuxian gazes at it, looking a little wistful. “It’s such a pity that I can’t display it when it’s so beautiful.” His gaze darts to Lan Wangji’s face, and he must read the curiosity there, because he explains himself. “I decided not to flaunt it, and to just keep it near my heart inside my robes. If not, when Madam Yu sees it, she’ll just get into another fight with Uncle Jiang.”

Plastering a smile on his face, Wei Wuxian continues, “Although everyone’s bell is the same except for your name carved on it, you can pick whatever color you want for the tassel. Jiang Cheng has no creativity and he just went with purple, but I put lots of thought into it, and I picked such a lovely color. Don’t you think it’s a waste that no one gets to see it but myself?”

The fluffy tassel attached to the silver bell is a dark crimson, the shade a good match for red that can be found in Wei Wuxian’s clothes. Lan Wangji admits internally that it is a striking color. At the very least, no one could ever mistake it for belonging to anyone else. Come to think of it, he has seen the silver bells that the two Jiang children carry on their person: paired with a dark purple tassel for Jiang Wanyin, and a pale lilac one for Jiang Yanli.

Wei Wuxian’s mouth continues running. “In our sect, if you wish to marry someone and want to show them the surety of your commitment, you can petition the sect leader for a silver bell to made for them. When you propose, you present the bell to them, and ask them to join the Jiang sect. When Madam Yu came down from Meishan and married Uncle Jiang, he had a silver bell made for her as well. Oh, and! If the person you love is from the Jiang sect as well, sometimes lovers will exchange their silver bells, as a way to keep a piece of their partner with them always. Isn’t it romantic? I bet the fuddy-duddies in your sect don’t have any romantic traditions like this.”

In response to Wei Wuxian’s taunt, Lan Wangji’s impulsiveness gets the better of him.

“We do. It’s more romantic than yours. Our forehead ribbons symbolize restraint and discipline. It is sacred to Gusu Lan sect disciples, and we never allow anyone else to touch it except for our parents and fated person.” Here he falters, feeling like he is oversharing, but he finishes his words anyway. “Only with our significant other can we remove our forehead ribbons and let go of all inhibitions. One of the ceremonies in a traditional Gusu Lan sect marriage is the exchange of forehead ribbons between the married couple, which signifies that there is no need for self-regulation in each other’s presence.”

It’s possibly the longest that Lan Wangji has spoken, ever, and he feels a little breathless when he ends his spiel. A little regret creeps in. He shouldn’t have spilled so much information to Wei Wuxian, blabbermouth that he is, but what’s done is done.

Wei Wuxian’s mouth has been slowly falling open in surprise as Lan Wangji speaks, and when Lan Wangji concludes his speech, Wei Wuxian crows with satisfaction. “You’re finally talking to me! You know, It’s been so long since I heard your voice that I forgot lovely it sounds.”

“Shameless.” There’s really no other way for Lan Wangji to reply without losing more of his dignity.

Taking Lan Wangji’s brief outburst as permission to ask more questions, Wei Wuxian peppers him with other queries.

“Why is your forehead ribbon different from those of the other disciples?”

It’s as if some roadblock has been lifted in Lan Wangji’s mind after his impetuous outburst just now, and he finds himself answering Wei Wuxian’s questions, irritation just a brief flare now rather than all-encompassing like it was previously.

“Members of the Lan sect bloodline have clouds embroidered on their forehead ribbons to signify their status.”

“Then what’s the jade ornament you wear at your waist (腰佩)?”

“The jade token is an entry pass to the Cloud Recesses.”

From there, Wei Wuxian’s curiosity moves on to other topics, and he starts asking Lan Wangji about the distinctive objects that mark each of the great cultivation sects.

“Have you seen a sabre up close? Qinghe is so far from Yunmeng, so we rarely get Nie sect cultivators in the area. I’m so curious about the differences between swords and sabres!”

“Sect Leader Nie is friendly with my brother. He has visited the Cloud Recesses a few times. Although I have not seen Baxia up close, it cannot be denied that sabres are powerful weapons.”

“Hmm… I wonder what cultivating with a sabre instead of a sword feels like. Thanks to the stupid peacock I already know everything about the Lanling Jin sect and their vermillion forehead marks, so I have nothing to ask about them. Lan Zhan, have you met any Jin sect cultivators?”

“Only members of the cadet branches that come to the Cloud Recesses as guest disciples.”

“Let me tell you, all the Jin sect disciples are pretentious and stuck-up. The worst of them is Jin Zixuan!”

Wei Wuxian starts his tirade against Jin Zixuan, who, Lan Wangji eventually infers, is Jiang Yanli’s fiancé. He carries on with surprising vehemence and doesn’t stop until the dinner gong sounds.

As he lays down in bed that night, Lan Wangji makes a surprising realization: the afternoon he had spent with Wei Wuxian was… not entirely awful. Perhaps, just perhaps, Wei Wuxian’s company is not as unbearable as Lan Wangji had imagined.

Chapter Text

Yunmeng is an idyllic place, warm and friendly, and Lan Wangji understands a little, how his fiancé grew up into such a carefree and easygoing person. There is no regimented schedule here like there is in the Cloud Recesses, where all the disciples woke and slept at the same prescribed hour, and passed the hours in between diligently cultivating and studying under the watchful eye of his uncle.

In Yunmeng, besides training in the morning and lessons in the afternoon that each take up two hours, the disciples are free to spend their time however they wish, as long as they finish their chores and homework. They wake and sleep at their pleasure, stealing afternoon naps on drowsy summer afternoons and staying up late to play card games raucously, all with no consequences, no taskmaster coming along to check their progress and chide them for idling.

Compared to the Cloud Recesses, it’s as far as heaven from the abyss of the ocean (天渊之别).

As the highest ranking member of the Lan sect delegation, Lan Wangji has the responsibility of upholding the Lan sect rules, and so he continues following the tenets his uncle has instilled in him. He wakes at five in the morning dutifully, and leads the Lan sect disciples, along with whoever else wishes to join in, in practicing the Lan sect sword forms for an hour before they begin their cultivation training under the Jiang sect training master. In lessons, whenever he notices the Lan sect disciples becoming distracted and passing notes, he clears his throat and stares them into submission. (It’s never failed.) In all other areas, if it comes to his attention that the behavior of any of the disciples might besmirch the reputation of their sect, he takes them aside and cites the Lan sect rules they’ve violated until they look suitably penitent. In this aspect, at least, things don’t change. Lan Wangji has always been the bastion of Lan sect discipline, even in the Cloud Recesses.

 

 

Somehow, against all odds, he carves out a space for himself in Lotus Pier. Qingming (清明节) comes and goes, and Lan Wangji grows used to his life here, as the clement spring weather melts into sweltering summer. He joins the denizens of Lotus Pier as they flock to the cemetery, offering food and joss sticks to their ancestors. Accustomed to Wei Wuxian’s constant presence, Lan Wangji notices when he disappears from his side briefly and melts back into the crowd unobtrusively, eyes red-rimmed.

He grows used to seeing Wei Wuxian day in and day out. He trains, and meditates, and spends his free time either practicing the guqin or studying, on the rare occasions where he isn’t being dragged on another outing by Wei Wuxian. He and Jiang Cheng join the Lan disciples in practicing the Lan sect sword forms in the mornings. True to his reputation, Wei Wuxian’s performance far outstrips everyone else. In a matter of weeks, he is capable of moving from one position to another fluidly, his form and technique impeccable. If not for his red and black ensemble, one could have mistaken him for a Gusu Lan disciple.

Through this, and other incidents, Lan Wangji learns that Wei Wuxian is brilliant. He has a sharp mind, capable of making connections that others miss. His stamina is formidable, the strength of his golden core undeniable. His amiable nature allows him to connect with people easily, and he is well-liked everywhere, from the kitchens of Lotus Pier to the docks of Yunmeng Wharf. (The only one resistant to his charms is Madam Yu.)

He is also a mess of contradictions: capable of scarfing down a bowl of dandan noodles (担担面), piled high with chopped peanuts and preserved bean sprouts and glistening with a slick of chili oil, and surviving the ordeal without so much as a spot of intestinal distress the next day, but right the next breath he’ll tremble when he sees a puppy, tugging at Jiang Wanyin’s sleeves and hiding behind him like a child.

If he were more serious and focused his attention solely on cultivation instead of brainless pranks, Lan Wangji has no doubt that in time he would become one of the most accomplished cultivators of their generation, if not the most. Perhaps one day he could even take up the mantle of Chief Cultivator. He was certainly charming enough for the politicking the role required.

But Wei Wuxian’s nature being as mischievous as it is, Lan Wangji can only see his brilliance and seriousness in brief flashes.

His sitting posture, atrocious and improper by every metric, becomes unrebukable when Sect Leader Jiang sprains his wrist and enlists his help as a scribe. Wei Wuxian jots down missive after missive without complaint, his words neat and square. When all the disciples are enlisted to refresh the protective arrays scattered around Lotus Pier and Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian churns out more talismans than anyone else, and even finds time to correct the mistakes of the other disciples. For Jiang Yanli’s birthday, he hems and haws for a long while, whining to Lan Wangji about the difficulty of finding a perfect gift for his perfect shijie, until he lands on the idea of a family portrait. He skulks around suspiciously, staring at the subjects of his portrait intently for the better part of a week, before producing an incredibly realistic painting from memory. Jiang Yanli weeps tears of joy when she receives it. (Lan Wangji just gifts her a set of paintbrushes, which she receives gratefully.)

These moments, however brief they are, strengthen Lan Wangji’s belief that his betrothed is accomplished in the six arts, and the only thing holding him back is his penchant for trouble-making. He gains a newfound respect for Wei Wuxian, and resolves to instill at least some of the Lan sect rules into his betrothed before the year ends, if only to save his uncle’s hair from turning white.

 

 

When one’s heart is calm, one’s body will cool down (心静自然凉). It’s a saying that Lan Qiren is fond of repeating during the warm summer months at the Cloud Recesses. Unfortunately, its efficiency is somewhat lacking against the stifling heat of Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji and the other disciples shed a few of their layers, if only to avoid heatstroke. The morning practice gets moved up by half an hour to avoid the morning sun and its ever-present companion, heat.

During this period, Wei Wuxian gets it into his head that he wants to learn musical cultivation. He pesters the Lan disciples individually until they admit that Lan Wangji is the most experienced out of them all, having learnt from Lan Qiren personally.

Lan Wangji has half a mind to scold the disciples for not nipping Wei Wuxian’s interest in the bud. Wei Wuxian is bound to hound Lan Wangji about it endlessly, the same way he did when his interest about the Lan sect forehead ribbons had been aroused, and poke nonsensical holes in his arguments when Lan Wangji tells him that only Lan sect members can learn musical cultivation. He will have even less peace than usual. The thought of the trials to come almost give him a headache.

And then Lan Wangji has an ingenious idea.

He is, technically speaking, forbidden from teaching outsiders the art of musical cultivation. But the loaning of books that mention musical cultivation is allowed. And if those books happen to be treatises that mention other Lan sect teachings, and Lan Wangji has conveniently forgotten which pages specifically mention musical cultivation? Well. Wei Wuxian will just have to laboriously go through the texts page by page, and read them carefully to make sure he doesn’t miss out any information.

It’s the perfect solution. Wei Wuxian might actually absorb some of the Lan sect teachings by osmosis, and Lan Wangji might get some peace for once. At the very least, it’s not possible to talk while reading. (It isn’t. Is it? If there ever were a person to prove such a thing wrong, it’s Wei Wuxian.)

He hands the stack of books to Wei Wuxian, internally resigned to the possibility that some of them will return stained, and goes to relish his newfound tranquility in his room. Unfortunately, he underestimates Wei Wuxian’s clinginess. He dogs Lan Wangji’s steps, chin tucked on top of the books to keep them from dropping, and follows Lan Wangji into his room.

“I might have questions! What better time to ask them than when they arise? And who better to seek answers from than you?” Wei Wuxian says, placing the books down on the small table at the center of Lan Wangji’s chambers.

Lan Wangji glares at Wei Wuxian, his plans for blessed peace thwarted. “You will keep silent, and only speak to ask questions, nothing more.” He picks up his guqin, and settles on the floor to begin practicing.

“No problem, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian sniffs the air, and reaches a hand out to lift the lid of the incense burner on the table. “What incense is this? Your room smells incredible.”

Lan Wangji clicks his tongue in warning, and Wei Wuxian darts his hand away from the incense burner, chastened.

“Got it, got it. Serious questions only,” Wei Wuxian says cheekily, opening the top-most book in the pile.

 

 

After that, the cascade of questions begins.

“Lan Zhan, what’s the Chord Assassination Technique mentioned in this bit?” Wei Wuxian asks, his head dangling upside-down off the edge of the couch he’s commandeered in Lan Wangji’s room. “It sounds super cool. Teach it to me!”

“No.”

“Have you tried Inquiry before? What’s it like, talking to a spirit?” He asks another time, walking backwards in front of Lan Wangji as they make their way to the Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty.

Recently, Lan Wangji has taken to spending evenings there, watching the setting sun as it sinks below the water surface, painting the river orange. Wei Wuxian unfailingly tags along. It’s been three months since he first visited the pavilion, and in the intervening time he has never seen anyone else save themselves there.

Lan Wangji sometimes finds himself referring to it as their pavilion in the privacy of his mind, something that doesn’t bear thinking about. Lan Wangji wants to be alone. It’s Wei Wuxian that always follows him. (Lan Wangji carefully avoids thinking about the fact that he never comes out to the pavilion alone, and how he has grown to associate the sight of sunset with the sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter.)

“Difficult. The qin language is complicated and requires long periods of study to grasp.”

“Can you summon any spirit at all?”

“No. Geographical distance and recency of death affect the ability of a spirit to hear Inquiry. And there are some spirits that refuse to heed the call. Inquiry is generally used to placate spirits with lingering last wishes.”

“Ah, I see… So there are spirits that can’t be reached.” Wei Wuxian’s expression is subdued as he takes the last few steps to the pavilion.

As he observes Wei Wuxian’s gloomy expression, Lan Wangji realizes his misstep. Wei Wuxian had been asking about Inquiry not to annoy Lan Wangji as he usually does, but because he hoped that he could communicate with his deceased parents with its help. And Lan Wangji had answered so callously. Not for the first time, Lan Wangji wishes he had the emotional intelligence and ease with words his brother possessed.

“You never know. The spirits of some powerful cultivators are capable of lingering, especially if their motivations are strong.” Like speaking to their orphaned son, Lan Wangji thinks. He moves to stand beside Wei Wuxian at the railing. “If you wish to learn Inquiry, we can approach my uncle when we go to the Cloud Recesses next year.”

“Really? Thank you, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian bumps their shoulders together gently, a small smile coming onto his face.

Lan Wangji looks away towards the water, hoping that the orange light will make the heat in his cheeks less visible. “But first you have to learn to play an instrument.”

“Oh right! I’ve been putting the cart before the horse this entire time! Lan Zhan, let’s go into town tomorrow to find an instrument.” Wei Wuxian bounces on his heels, already excited at the prospect of a day at the market.

“Mn.”

It’s not that Lan Wangji wants to spend time with Wei Wuxian. He simply needs to send his latest letter to his brother anyway.

 

 

Wei Wuxian chooses the dizi.

He shrugs off Lan Wangji’s comments on how the traditional instruments of choice for musical cultivation are string instruments. (“But a guqin is so heavy and bulky! I like the dizi, it’s light and portable!”) When Lan Wangji points out that he can’t possibly learn the Chord Assassination Technique if his instrument has no strings, Wei Wuxian brushes off his concerns. (“Then I’ll just make a technique of my own then. Hmm… How does Bamboo Assassination Technique sound?” Wei Wuxian says, whipping his white bamboo dizi through the air like a sword. Lan Wangji levels him a flat look. As if it is that simple to create a new technique from scratch. Lan Yi had spent the better part of her life developing and refining the Chord Assassination Technique. “You’re right. It’s too derivative. Maybe something like Bamboo Cyclone would work better… I’ll think of something better when I have the time.”)

Chapter Text

The days slow to a snail’s pace when the heat of summer descends upon Lotus Pier like an over-warm towel, moist and sticky in the most uncomfortable ways. The heat is especially unbearable for the Lan disciples, most of whom, Lan Wangji included, grew up in the cool misty mountains of Gusu. The training master and teacher cancel their lessons, and the disciples spend their days splashing around the river to cool themselves down.

In the midst of all this indolence, Wei Wuxian pulls Lan Wangji along by the wrist one day, promising to show him somewhere wonderful. He’s done this numerous times by now, whether to bring Lan Wangji to shoot kites or race on their swords around the river with the other disciples, so Lan Wangji just follows.

This time however, Wei Wuxian tugs him along a path he hasn’t seen before, his palm sweaty against Lan Wangji’s skin, until they reach a small pier within the estate. There is a small two-man skiff docked there, complete with oars and outfitted with an oilcloth to keep off the sun and rain, supported by four poles in the corners. Wei Wuxian ushers him onto the boat and casts them off with a practiced hand, rowing towards the river.

“Lan Zhan, you have to promise to tell absolutely no one about the place I’m bringing you to,” Wei Wuxian says, expression cheerful if a little more serious than usual.

Lan Wangji nods.

“Good. I know you’ll keep your word, since it’s one of the Lan sect rules. I guess they do come in handy sometimes after all.” Wei Wuxian grins. “I’m bringing you to my secret spot that I go to sometimes. No one else knows about it, so keep it between the two of us. It’s quite cool in the summer, so I head there a lot to avoid the heat.”

In five minutes’ time, Wei Wuxian has steered them downriver and into one of the smaller tributaries of the river that runs along Yunmeng. Flocks of cranes, their slender legs elegant, swivel their long necks to watch them pass. The boat floats along shaded courses, until Wei Wuxian stops it near a small grove of willow trees. He scrambles out of the boat, splashing in the shallow riverbank to pull it more securely onto dry land. When he finishes, he holds a hand out for Lan Wangji to steady himself with as he disembarks from the boat, a bright smile on his face. This way, Lan Wangji doesn’t have to get his white robes wet or dirty. Lan Wangji may constantly find himself having to stifle his irritation at Wei Wuxian’s everything, but on occasions such as these, he can be rather considerate.

Lan Wangji looks around. Here under the shade of the willow tree, it is shady and there is even a little wind to be had, making the area under the tree cooling. There is enough space between the base of the tree trunks and the river bank to stretch out, and the grass looks soft. The tips of the willow branches trail lazily just above the water surface slowly and hypnotizingly. When he walks around the area, he finds that there is a cluster of lotus plants a short distance from willow trees.

“This is a good spot. How did you find it?” Lan Wangji asks.

Wei Wuxian is taking something out from the boat, and when he turns around, he replies. “Just by chance I suppose. I took a boat out because I wanted to be alone, and I happened upon this spot when I was a kid. I’ve come here ever since.”

Lan Wangji hums to acknowledge that he heard what Wei Wuxian said, and continues exploring the area. When he returns, Wei Wuxian is already lying down in the grass, hands behind his head and pants legs rolled up, bare feet dipping in the water. He’s laid down a cloth so his clothes won’t get dirty, and there is space for one more person beside him. He doesn’t shift when Lan Wangji moves close and sits next to him. In the dappled shadows cast by the willow tree, his handsome face and full lips seem to glow. Lan Wangji wastes a few moments looking at Wei Wuxian, before he catches himself doing so and clears his throat.

“There’s water in the bag if you want. If you get hungry we can get lotus seeds from nearby too,” Wei Wuxian says, adjusting his posture to get more comfortable.

Lan Wangji meditates. Then he runs through some sword forms, Bichen’s silver blade catching sunspots and reflecting them all around. After that, there’s nothing else to do, so he runs through the Lan sect teachings to test his memory, before succumbing to the temptation to join Wei Wuxian when he’s barely ten minutes in. He rolls up his pants legs carefully, and situates himself so his feet are submerged in the cool moving water. Sitting up feels silly after long, so he lowers himself down alongside Wei Wuxian, their elbows bumping into each other. Wei Wuxian good-naturedly shifts over to make space for him.

Lan Wangji spends a long time doing nothing but watching the calming movement of the clouds through the cerulean sky until he slips into sleep. When he wakes an undeterminable amount of time later, Wei Wuxian is stretching languidly into wakefulness, his eyes squinting as he yawns. They each partake in some water from the waterskin Wei Wuxian brought along, and Wei Wuxian proposes foraging some lotus seed pods for their seeds. Hovering carefully on their swords above the water surface, they glide alongside the small patch of lotus plants. Wei Wuxian shows Lan Wangji how to spot the seed pods that are ripe and how to peel them neatly, and they snap a few off and bring them under the shade to eat. Wei Wuxian chatters throughout, energy replenished by his nap, and Lan Wangji listens attentively. When they are done with their snack, they return to Lotus Pier, silence comfortable.

That summer, they return a few times to the willow grove. They nap and cool themselves in the shade, disturbed only by the occasional sound of shorebirds. Once, Wei Wuxian packs food from the kitchens, and they share a picnic. When the mood strikes them, they bring their instruments along and improvise meandering duets that lead nowhere, the sound of the dizi and guqin weaving in and out of the melody. No matter what they end up doing, the time spent together is companionable.

 

 

Keeping his robes spotless is much harder in Yunmeng compared to the Cloud Recesses. It is not only that the environment is different, although that is also a contributing factor. The soil at the high altitudes of the Cloud Recesses is moist and crumbly, easy to brush off robes when one inadvertently gets some on oneself. The gardens are comprised of white stone, and the wooden pavilions and paths leave little opportunity to dirty one’s robes. But it is not only that. Now, Lan Wangji has to contend with chili oil stains that dot his sleeve when Wei Wuxian speaks overzealously during lunch, and ink drops flicked on his cuffs when Wei Wuxian gets bored of lessons, and horrible mud stains that his robes sustain when Wei Wuxian drags him into the squelchy mud amongst the lotus flowers to dig for lotus roots or to compete and see who can catch more frogs, both of which he proudly presents to the cooks to prepare for dinner.

Eventually, Lan Wangji gives in to the situation, and starts wearing an outer robe of light purple on which dirt stains will show up less visibly. The first day he wears his new robes, he is marveling at the lightness of the material and smoothing down the fabric along his body neatly when Wei Wuxian comes barreling down the corridor, kite in hand with its tail trailing behind him.

“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, do you want to go shoot kites with-” He skids to a stop when he sees Lan Wangji outside his chambers.

“Good morning, Wei Ying. Don’t run recklessly.”

“You- You’re not wearing white today,” Wei Wuxian says, looking a little dumbstruck.

“You’re always getting my white robes dirty. I decided to reduce the launderers’ work,” Lan Wangji says, noticing that Wei Wuxian is taking an inordinately long time staring at his clothes. “Do they not fit me?”

“No, no!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, almost crumpling the paper kite in his hand. “They suit you really well. Purple is a good color on you.”

There’s a faint flush in his cheeks despite the early morning air, and Lan Wangji surmises that Wei Wuxian has probably been running for quite a distance. “Mn. Let me get my bow.”

He misses the way Wei Wuxian’s eyes drink in the sight of Lan Wangji in Yunmeng Jiang colors for the rest of the day.

 

 

Aside from Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin is the person that Lan Wangji sees with the highest frequency.

The future heir of the Yunmeng Jiang clan is always present at morning practices. He works assiduously in both training and lessons. He speaks to Lan Wangji mostly in passing; the two of them don’t have much in common, but they neither were they at odds. In general, Lan Wangji would say that they got along. He gets just at irritated at Wei Wuxian as Lan Wangji does, but shows it in a different way: shoving, dissing, his behavior more fitting for a boy than the young man he is. He, somehow inevitably, always gets into trouble with Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Wanyin is brash but well-meaning, and usually listens to reason. Wei Wuxian typically reins his temper in, but more often than not they enable each other in their antics, and land themselves a scolding from Madam Yu. Lan Wangji stands on the sidelines and watches them get into trouble more times than he can count. He wonders why they can’t seem to learn from their repeated punishments. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin complain about aching arms and burning eyes from their myriad punishments: chopping garlic and onions in the kitchens, holding a pail of water over their heads for one shichen (two hours, 时辰). (Madam Yu has had to get creative over the years.) And yet, they persist. They sneak bottles of alcohol into the disciple quarters, get everyone tipsy and tear four paper folding screens (屏风). They bring the younger disciples on a frog-hunting trip, when they were explicitly ordered to teach them how to write water talismans.

One day, when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are stuck carrying out another punishment that takes all day (helping the physician chop basket upon basket of herbs into small pieces suitable for prescriptions), Lan Wangji realizes that his days are too quiet without Wei Wuxian dogging his heels and poking his nose into Lan Wangji’s business. Just like the day last week when Wei Wuxian had spent the day sleeping off a mild fever in the infirmary, Lan Wangji’s surroundings are a little too silent, and there’s an empty space at his side.

The next time Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng plot a prank, Lan Wangji joins in. The shopkeeper deserves it, really. Lan Wangji has seen him kick away the stray cats that hang around his store. The Lan Sect rules do say to be just and protect the weak. Besides, their prank is harmless: hair grows back. During a slow afternoon, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin sneak up onto the dozing shopkeeper and snip off the curling ends of his moustache while Lan Wangji keeps a close watch for witnesses nearby. Unfortunately, the shopkeeper wakes up and catches them before they can leave the scene of the crime, and drags them to Lotus Pier.

The look of surprise on Madam Yu’s face when she sees Lan Wangji kneeling beside her son and her ward is truly priceless. She commands them to weed out the entire kitchen garden as penance, too mollified by Lan Wangji’s presence to give her usual tongue-lashing, besides adding in a clause about Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian leading Lan Wangji astray.

When the three of them carry out the punishment together, splitting the plot into three sections and working alongside one another, Lan Wangji thinks he understands why friends get into trouble together. It had always mystified him, how some Lan disciples were willing to own up to trouble alongside their friends, copying rules and doing handstands together. Here, alongside Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, who turn weeding the fields into a competition, and who wave each other over when they spot particularly cool insects, a punishment doesn’t feel much like a punishment at all.

He supposes his brother was right after all. He does end up making friends in Lotus Pier.

 

 

(Half-way through their punishment, the cook-on-duty takes pity on them and sneaks them dessert before dinner, seeing their sweaty visages and Wei Wuxian’s puppy eyes.

The three of them sit in a row along the side of the kitchen building where they won’t be seen, each cradling a bowl of tortoise jelly (龟苓膏). The cold dessert is refreshing after an afternoon spent under the afternoon sun, and the slight bitterness of it is more than offset by the sweet honey drizzled atop the black jelly.

Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji occupy themselves with eating the tortoise jelly silently, grateful for the cooling dessert. Sandwiched between them, Wei Wuxian complains after every bite of how bitter the jelly is, and runs back into the kitchen to ask for more honey twice, until his bowl has more honey than tortoise jelly in it.

“Lan Zhan, how can you stand it? It tastes far too bitter and medicinal!”

“It tastes quite similar to Gusu’s cuisine. I’m used to this taste. This is nice.”

“What!? All the food in Gusu tastes like this? I’ll starve if I ever go there!” Wei Wuxian wails, the honey in his bowl sloshing out in his dramatics.

“Shh, you idiot. Are you trying to get us caught?” Jiang Wanyin pretends to smack the back of Wei Wuxian’s head. “Mother will skin us if she knows we’re eating instead of finishing our punishment.”

Aiya, Jiang Cheng, don’t hit me! Save your strength to pluck out weeds.”

Internally, Lan Wangji takes enjoyment in watching their good-natured bickering, and he hides his smile in his bowl of tortoise jelly, as he raises the bowl to his lips to swallow the dregs of honey.

When he finishes, he moves to return the bowl to the kitchen and beckons the other two to follow him. “Let’s go, we still have a third of the garden left.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, wait up for us! Hurry up, Jiang Cheng!”

“I’m already done, you idiot. I was waiting for you!”

Lan Wangji can only huff in amusement as he rolls his sleeves back up in preparation for the second round of weeding.)

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen is a faithful correspondent. He replies each of Lan Wangji’s letters promptly, filling pages with Gusu Lan sect minutiae: the night hunts the disciples embark on, the wall bordering the archery field that breaks, the retirement of the resident stonemason. He asks after Lan Wangji’s health, and sends money when he thinks Lan Wangji might have run out.

In turn, Lan Wangji writes back about Lotus Pier: new techniques he picks up under the tutelage of the Jiang sect training master that would complement the Gusu Lan sect style well, the new foods he tries (almost all at Wei Wuxian’s recommendation, and almost all too spicy. Only the lotus paste buns pass muster, and are recommended to Lan Xichen.). Lan Wangji can almost hear his brother’s laughter through the words on his reply when Lan Xichen learns of the prank that Lan Wangji had participated in and the resulting punishment.

Dear Wangji, I shall be sure to inform our uncle that there are such creative options for punishments. Of course, I will omit the fact that you were the one receiving such a punishment. It shall be our secret between brothers.

It is from his brother that Lan Wangji learns about the upcoming discussion conference at Koi Tower.

Dear Wangji, will I see you next month at the discussion conference? It has been nearly three months since we parted, and although our letters are plenty, I would dearly love the chance to see you in person.

Lan Wangji brings the topic up to Sect Leader Jiang right after dinner the next day.

“Sect Leader Jiang, Wangji humbly requests to join you at the next discussion conference,” Lan Wangji says as he bows.

“There’s no need to be so formal, Second Young Master Lan. If you wish to follow, of course you may.” Sect Leader Jiang hurriedly eases Lan Wangji out of his bow.

“Discussion conference? I want to come along too, A-die!” Jiang Wanyin says.

“Me too!” Wei Wuxian adds eagerly.

When Lan Wangji looks over, Jiang Yanli is also looking at her father with hope in her eyes.

“You should bring them. It’s time for Jiang Cheng to learn about what goes on in discussion conferences. Yanli can see her fiancé since it’s held at Koi Tower as well. I’ll stay at Lotus Pier to take care of things,” Madam Yu says coolly. She doesn’t bring up Wei Wuxian.

“Alright then. Looks like the four of you are coming to Koi Tower along with me,” Sect Leader Jiang says, a smile in his voice.

 

 

The first day of the discussion conference dawns quickly. Between packing, other preparations and the actual travel to Lanling, Lan Wangji is kept busy.

Their convey gets delayed due to a path blocked by a landslide. Lan Wangji volunteers to stay behind and escort Jiang Yanli’s carriage while Sect Leader Jiang goes ahead on horseback to make it for the opening ceremony of the discussion conference. Jiang Wanyin clamors to join his father, already mounting his horse. Lan Wangji can see Wei Wuxian’s indecision in the way his gaze darts between Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji decides to spare him. To stay with Miss Jiang’s carriage would mean missing the opening ceremony, something Wei Wuxian had been looking forward to witnessing all month.

“Wei Ying, I will stay with Miss Jiang. You should go ahead.” Lan Wangji nods.

Wei Wuxian shoots Lan Wangji a grateful smile, eagerness bleeding through as he swings himself up onto his steed. “I’ll see you in a bit, Lan Zhan, shi-jie!”

Wei Wuxian waves as he head off, a gesture returned by Jiang Yanli and many of the small crew of disciples left to accompany her. Lan Wangji simply looks at the cloud of dust stirred up by the pounding hooves of their horses as they fade into the distance.

As a result, when Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli reach Koi Tower it is late afternoon the first day of the conference. The sect leaders will have retreated to discuss the agenda for the following week, and Lan Wangji does not expect a large reception; the main delegation of the Jiang sect will have been received the earlier in the day already. At most, a few servants will show him and Jiang Yanli to their rooms. There would be time to pay their respects to the hosts at the feast later tonight.

To his surprise, there is a figure, gold-robed, waiting at the bottom of the grandiose steps leading up to Koi Tower. When the carriage draws up in front of the steps, Lan Wangji swiftly dismounts to offer his hand for Jiang Yanli to hold as she alights from the carriage. She smiles as she grasps his hand, amiable disposition unaffected by the discomforts of travel.

“Thank you, Second Young Master Lan,” Jiang Yanli says.

They turn to the figure waiting at the stairs. Dressed in richly embroidered gold robes emblazoned with the Jin sect symbol, the sparks-amidst-snow white peony, he bows to Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli. When he straightens, Lan Wangji can see that he bears the vermilion forehead mark characteristic to Jin sect members. “Second Young Master Lan, Miss Jiang. Jin Zixuan welcomes you to Koi Tower.”

Ah. So this was the fiancé of Jiang Yanli’s that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t stop badmouthing in front of Lan Wangji.

“Well met, Young Master Jin,” Lan Wangji says.

Jiang Yanli echoes his sentiments, rather more timidly than he would have expected from a betrothed couple.

“If you will come this way, let me lead you to your-” Jin Zixuan says before he is cut off by another voice.

“Lan Zhan! Shi-jie!” Wei Wuxian shouts joyously, entirely too loud for the front steps of a sect residence. Lan Qiren would have been overcome with apoplexy if this were the Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian, along with Jiang Cheng, scramble down the numerous gilded steps until they join their party.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan nods.

Wei Wuxian smiles widely at him, before going to hug Jiang Yanli. “Shi-jie, how was the trip? I bet it was boring with only Lan Zhan for company.”

A-xian, Second Young Master Lan was great company. Not everyone is as talkative as you,” Jiang Yanli says, tapping Wei Wuxian on his nose.

“I’m just joking! You know I don’t mind your silences, right Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian bumps his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s.

“Mn.”

Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes. “Thank God you’re finally here. He’s been going on non-stop about you the whole day, Lan Wangji.”

All this while, Jin Zixuan looks on with a look of surprise, eyes widening every time he hears Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian call each other by their personal names. Lan Wangji supposes that to those on the outside, it appears that he and Wei Wuxian are incredibly close, just by virtue of the way they address each other. Not even Lan Wangji’s brother calls him by his personal name. He doubts that news of his and Wei Wuxian’s potential betrothal would have reached the other sects, especially since the arrangement was still nascent and unconfirmed.

Jin Zixuan clears his throat awkwardly, waving over a few servants standing nearby. “Well, it seems like I am not needed here. Show them to their rooms. Well met, Second Young Master Lan.”

His gaze skims over Jiang Yanli, before he leaves without acknowledging either her nor Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian scowls at Jin Zixuan’s retreating back. “Hmph. That stupid peacock. He doesn’t deserve shi-jie.”

A-xian,” Jiang Yanli chides, gaze darting towards the Jin sect servants that surround them.

“You know I’m right,” Wei Wuxian continues. “I bet he only came to greet Lan Zhan, and now he’s running away with his tail between his legs.”

Lan Wangji searches his memory for any missteps during his brief conversation with the heir of the Jin sect, and comes up short. Wei Wuxian must be able to read the confusion on his face, because he elaborates.

“Who wouldn’t get intimidated by talking to you? The peerless second Jade of Lan. Everyone knows about your sterling reputation. All anyone ever talks about is how you and your brother are the best pupils your uncle has ever produced in his career as a teacher. Your appearance is so beautiful, and your cultivation among the best in our generation too. That peacock can’t even compare to you!”

Jiang Wanyin pretends to retch.

Wei Wuxian continues. “To be honest, I was afraid to talk to you at first too. Of course, that’s changed now!”

Lan Wangji frowns. He knows that he is taciturn, his manner cold and unapproachable to many. Even in the Cloud Recesses, although he is well-respected, he is not well-liked, not the same way his sociable elder brother is. Had he inadvertently offended or scared away those around him before? He would have to take measures to avoid that in the future. Slights, either perceived or actual, could be detrimental to inter-sect relations.

“Don’t worry about anything, Lan Zhan! Let me bring you to your room, it’s right next to mine and Jiang Cheng’s. Let me tell you this: even the chamber pots are gold,” Wei Wuxian says gleefully.

 

 

Although he is informed immediately when Lan Wangji arrives at Koi Tower, it is only after the feast that evening that Lan Xichen meets his brother, and the two of them find the privacy and time to sit down in one of the well-tended gardens that dot Koi Tower.

“Wangji, look at you. Just three short months and you’ve already grown so much taller. You’ll catch up to me in no time!” Lan Xichen says.

Xiongzhang. How have you and uncle been?” Lan Wangji had already paid his respects to his uncle and brother at the feast earlier, but there had been no time to exchange more than pleasantries in the public setting.

“We are both well.” Lan Xichen smiles.

Lan Wangji had missed his brother’s gentle smiles. He hopes that Lan Xichen understands how deeply he misses him. From the way his brother’s gaze softens as he gazes at Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen does.

“Good. I am well too. The Jiangs have been welcoming to me and the disciples.”

“Come, tell me about what you have been doing. There must have been things you left out of your letters,” Lan Xichen encourages.

As Lan Wangji speaks to his brother, he feels a sense of comfort settle deep within him. His brother has always had this effect on him. Lan Xichen was always ever an unjudgmental listener, accepting Lan Wangji’s silences and words alike with an understanding smile.

However, in what feels like no time at all, the moon’s position and Lan Wangji’s growing sleepiness alert them to the late hour.

“Before I forget, I have something for you, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, pulling out a qiankun pouch. “I managed to find some late-season red bayberries for you. I know they are your favorite. Go and share them with Young Master Wei and the others.”

“Thank you, Xiongzhang.”

As always, Lan Xichen is solicitous about Lan Wangji’s needs and wants. How many times in their youth had Lan Xichen predicted and provided whatever it was that Lan Wangji desired, often before Lan Wangji himself was cognizant? Lan Wangji would be sure to treasure this gift, as he did all gifts that his brother bestowed upon him.

He cradles the qiankun pouch carefully. Bayberries bruised easily.

“They should still be pristine. I hope I didn’t jostle them too much on the trip here. We came to Koi Tower by sword. You know as well as I do how much our uncle hates travel. He would rather fly to Koi Tower than spend the time descending the mountain and taking a boat.”

Lan Wangji nods. The two of them, along with the rest of the Lan sect, had long ago grown used to their uncle’s disposition for travel by sword. It was one of the reasons why virtually all members of the Lan sect had such great stamina for travel by sword, compared to the other sects.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s because he’s afraid the disciples will get themselves in trouble in his absence. In any case, get some sleep. Show me what you’ve learnt during the competitions over the next few days. Your poor brother shall be trapped in meetings all day long, but I’ll try and make time to watch you,” Lan Xichen teases as they part.

 

 

Before he returns to his room, Lan Wangji stops by Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin’s rooms to see if they are in. The bayberries were best consumed as soon as possible, and it would be selfish for Lan Wangji to hoard them for himself. There is no response when he raps on the doorframe of Wei Wuxian’s room, and the room is dark within. The same thing at Jiang Wanyin’s room. From his past experience at Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji knows that they do not sleep as early as he does, and so he goes off in search of them. They were undoubtably doing something Madam Yu would disapprove of.

After walking through a good number of gardens and buildings, and asking servants for directions, Lan Wangji finds them gathered at the side of a decorative pond, skipping stones. Jiang Yanli is there as well, and the three of them appear to be engaged in a competition to see who can skip a stone the furthest.

Jiang Wanyin tosses a flat pebble, counting the number of skips it made. “Three. Four. Fi- Damn!”

Jiang Yanli giggles at her brother’s annoyance. “Looks like I’m the champion. Neither of you can get more than six skips.”

“Teach us how you got seven skips, shi-jie!” Wei Wuxian says.

“Well first, you have to find the perfect rock…”

As they sift through the pebbles bordering the pond, Lan Wangji approaches them. Wei Wuxian is the first to notice his presence.

“Lan Zhan? What are you doing here? Aren’t you usually sleeping by this time?” Wei Wuxian says as he straightens up and bounces towards Lan Wangji.

Xiongzhang gave me some bayberries. I thought I would share.” Lan Wangji held up the qiankun pouch.

Amidst Wei Wuxian’s sounds of excitement, the four of them settle around a table, ever-so-helpfully located next to the pond. Lan Wangji removes the bayberries carefully and piles them in the middle of the table. The deep-red color of the fruit spoke of its ripeness and sweetness as it glistened under the moonlight.

“Please help yourselves,” Lan Wangji says, waiting until everyone else held a bayberry before taking one for himself.

“I’ve never seen a fruit like this before,” marvels Jiang Yanli, carefully observing the fruit’s bumpy surface. “How unusual!”

Jiang Wanyin has already popped one into his mouth, and Lan Wangji hastily warns, “Ah, there is a seed-“

But he is too late, and he watches as Jiang Wanyin swallows the fruit, seed and all.

Wei Wuxian bursts into laughter, his howls of joy echoing across the empty garden. At this rate, someone will be sent to check on them, Lan Wangji notes.

“You idiot! I can’t believe you did that!” Wei Wuxian ridicules. “Which fool doesn’t check if there’s a seed before swallowing?”

Jiang Yanli cannot stave off her giggles as well. “A-Cheng! You really ought to chew your food more thoroughly!”

An embarrassed flush creeps its way up Jiang Wanyin’s neck, and he shoves Wei Wuxian roughly. “Stop making fun of me! It’s a mistake anyone else could have made!”

Lan Wangji can feel a smile trying to curl the edges of his lips, and he suppresses it, only releasing a soft huff of laughter. His eyes meet those of Wei Wuxian’s across the table, as he continues ribbing Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji swears that they grow brighter. Wei Wuxian’s eyes really are quite beautiful when they sparkle with laughter.

They polish off the rest of the bayberries with no further incidents, Jiang Wanyin taking extra care not to repeat his blunder, and Lan Wangji marvels at how much sweeter the bayberries are when shared with friends, instead of consumed alone in the Jingshi.

 

 

The remaining days of the discussion conference pass quickly. Jiang Wanyin is pulled into certain meetings to accompany his father, as is Lan Wangji for his uncle and brother. But for the most part, they are left free to participate in the numerous competitions held throughout the week.

Lan Wangji places first for the archery competition. He has to admit that despite the unconventional training methods for bowmanship in Yunmeng (read: shooting kites), his archery has improved. The other participants are left in the dust early on, and his and Wei Wuxian’s scores are neck-to-neck right until the last round, when something distracts Wei Wuxian and his aim wavers, earning Lan Wangji first place. (Lan Wangji is getting a drink of water, and accidentally spills some down his neck at that time, so he doesn’t see what exactly had distracted Wei Wuxian.)

Other competitions occupy their time as well: Lan Wangji crosses swords with many opponents, most of whom he defeats easily. Wei Wuxian somehow gets himself involved in a painting competition, and produces a lovely landscape of Yunmeng. Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin place second and fourth respectively in the go (围棋) competition.

Their party of four rarely crosses paths with Jin Zixuan, and even when they do, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian run interference so Jiang Yanli never has an opportunity to speak with her fiancé. Lan Wangji can’t help but feel that Jin Zixuan’s coldness towards Jiang Yanli is undeserved; anybody who spends more than an hour in Jiang Yanli’s company would agree that she is a wonderful woman. He begins to understand Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin’s distaste for the Jin sect heir, although he restrains himself from further judgement.

All too soon, the end of the discussion conference draws near. The sect leaders wrap up their meetings and prepare to return to their respective homes. Lan Wangji meets his brother one last time before his party departs for Yunmeng.

The two of them have spoken multiple times over the course of the discussion conference, and all that are left are their goodbyes.

“Another eight months until I see you again. I know I keep repeating myself, but take care of yourself and write to me often, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, lightly clasping Lan Wangji’s hands.

Lan Wangji nods. “Until we meet again in the spring, Xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen’s smile gains a playful edge. “I’m glad your relationship with Young Master Wei is progressing well. The two of you are closer than I imagined from your letters. I didn’t expect for Young Master Wei to worm his way past your defenses so quickly. Looks like uncle and I will be expecting good news when you make your decision on the betrothal in the spring.”

Lan Wangji instinctively opens his mouth to object, but then he realizes: from the perspective of his brother, such a view is completely justified. Lan Wangji has grown used to Wei Wuxian’s presence and his ever-present chatter, and his brother has surely witnessed Lan Wangji’s easy acceptance of Wei Wuxian at his side during the week-long discussion conference. Lan Wangji rarely scolds Wei Wuxian anymore, and Wei Wuxian has long since learnt how to tell when Lan Wangji is only pretending to be irritated, and what level of physical contact is permitted: a shoulder bump, or a hand on the wrist to bring him places.

Most damning of all, Lan Wangji realizes that all the stories he has told his brother over their meetings involve Wei Wuxian: Wei Wuxian and I wrapped rice dumplings (粽子) together for the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节), we found an enormous ginkgo tree during one of our walks. How could Lan Wangji have been so blind?

When he first met Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji had thought that he charmed and irritated in equal measure, but somewhere along the way, without Lan Wangji quite realizing, the irritation has melted away, and the fondness he has for Wei Wuxian outweighs any irritation he might have held. When had that happened?

Wei Wuxian has, through some ungodly combination of persistence and shamelessness, done the impossible: broken past Lan Wangji’s defenses, learnt to read his microexpressions and his tone to deduce what he actually thought and felt.

Lan Wangji blinks and closes his mouth, too embarrassed to concoct a response to his brother.

His brother laughs at what must surely be a dumbstruck expression on Lan Wangji’s face, and says, “Looks like you’ve got some thinking to do.”

He hugs Lan Wangji, who returns the embrace readily this time, and leaves his brother with the following words of advice: “I know you’re not experienced in matters of the heart, but try to be less oblivious, you might give off the wrong message by accident.”

Lan Wangji ponders his brother’s words the entire ride back to Yunmeng. His eyes are drawn almost naturally to Wei Wuxian, his horsing around and his charming laughter, and Lan Wangji thinks to himself: Could it really be that he was beginning to like his fiancé?

Chapter Text

When they return to Lotus Pier, things are unchanged. Lan Wangji spends all his free time in Wei Wuxian’s company. The days remain sweltering, and thunderstorms come rolling into the valley frequently enough that Lan Wangji learns to read the signs of a coming storm from the pattern of the clouds.

One particular day, Lan Wangji wants to read, and Wei Wuxian wants to be outside, and so as a compromise they relocate from Lan Wangji’s room to the Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty. The pavilion is both quiet enough for Lan Wangji to focus on his reading, and diverting enough to occupy Wei Wuxian, so both of them are satisfied.

Time passes in comfortable silence as Lan Wangji concentrates on a treatise of Lan sect history. He has long since given up on teaching the Lan sect rules to Wei Wuxian; it seems that the only reason he remembers any of them is just so he can provide well-reasoned rebuttals to Lan Wangji whenever he cites a rule. Lan Wangji has given Wei Wuxian up as a lost cause. Wei Wuxian is simply a free spirit who gets rankled by too many rules, even if he could do with a stronger sense of self-restraint and caution. His uncle will simply have his work cut out for him when Wei Wuxian arrives at the Cloud Recesses next spring.

While Lan Wangji studies, Wei Wuxian tries to catch dragonflies. He crouches in waiting along the walkway, net poised at the ready to catch the jewel-colored and gossamer-winged insects hovering amongst the lotus leaves. He fails more often than not: the dragonflies fly too erratically and swiftly for him to predict their next move, and Lan Wangji suspects that Wei Wuxian’s net is too small for the wide wingspan of the dragonflies. Wei Wuxian succeeds only once, cupping his hands around a golden-yellow dragonfly and running over breathlessly to show Lan Wangji. The dragonfly remains still for a breath, long enough for Wei Wuxian to gasp at the brilliant luster of its aureate wings and for Lan Wangji to admire the intricate venation of its wings, before it takes off in a flurry, accompanied by the sound of its frantically rustling wings.

After that, Wei Wuxian tires of entomology, and sprawls himself across the pavilion table, losing himself in reveries until he drifts into sleep. When Lan Wangji eventually lowers his book, it is because the daylight has faded and he can no longer read without strain. Without his knowing, a storm has crept up on them, and Lan Wangji can see the stormfront as it approaches, the raindrops striking the water surface moving closer and closer, until with a rush of sound it envelops the pavilion as well.

The rain is all-encompassing, thick curtains of water streaming down from the sky, so dense that Lan Wangji sees only the merest shadow in the distance where the main building lies. Like this, surrounded on all sides by the sound and water of the storm, it feels as if he and Wei Wuxian have been cast-away on their own private island, like no one else exists beyond this small pavilion.

Wei Wuxian is still sleeping, the white noise of the storm in all likelihood contributing to the soundness of his sleep, and Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to let his eyes roam the figure lounging before him, unhindered by the possibility of being caught staring. Wei Wuxian’s lashes are dark and straight, laying on his cheek and fluttering occasionally in sleep. His hair is an inky curtain splashed across the surface of the table, and Lan Wangji has to clench his fingers to control the urge to run his fingers through it, and see whether it really is as silky as he imagines. Wei Wuxian’s lips, slightly parted in his sleep, are a temptation that Lan Wangji has to wrench his eyes away from.

There is no denying it. Lan Wangji truly is attracted to his fiancé, if he has to fight off such thoughts when all Wei Wuxian is doing is taking a nap in front of him. In six short months, Wei Wuxian has left an indelible mark in Lan Wangji’s consciousness. Lan Wangji cannot imagine returning to the Cloud Recesses without him. It would be too quiet, too boring, too lacking. Wei Wuxian has breathed life into Lan Wangji’s orderly and staid existence.

Lan Wangji likes Wei Wuxian, and he likes him in all his iterations: likes him when he indolently trails his fingers through the water on the rowboat, eyes half-closed; likes him with his tongue poking his cheek, concentrating as he paints something tricky; likes him effervescent with joy, scaling up a tree and waving down at Lan Wangji; likes him when he stands up for the weak, fierce determination burning in his eyes and fists tight with indignation. He just… likes him. The word feels too inadequate for the enormity of his emotion.

But Lan Wangji has no idea how to convey this to Wei Wuxian, no idea what words will accurately represent the depth of his feelings. For the first time in his life, he has all these tender feelings for someone other than his family, and he has no idea what to do with them. He thinks, I am not ready to tell him. Not ready for the possibility of rejection.

He thinks, I don’t have to tell him. I can show him through my actions.

But for now, there is nothing to do, besides sit next to Wei Wuxian’s slumbering figure. Lan Wangji lets the sound of pouring rain fill his ears, and his resolution settle in his heart.

 

 

Lan Wangji makes good on his promise.

He buys things for Wei Wuxian. Probably far too many things, certainly far more than propriety or Lan Qiren would approve of. At this rate, he looks more like someone from the Lanling Jin sect, with his exorbitant spending habits. Lan Wangji would be embarrassed at the way he’s throwing money around, if not for the way Wei Wuxian’s eyes light up every time Lan Wangji brings him a gift.

The three Jiang children all get an allowance, but Wei Wuxian has a tendency to blow his on frivolous purchases well before he gets his next one. He fritters his money away on sweets for the younger disciples, and more kites (always more kites, because how could one ever have enough kites, when one made a hobby of shooting them down?). By the end of the month, he’s always left making longing looks at objects of desire (a glistening stick of candied hawthorn (糖葫芦, tanghulu), or snowy skeins of dragon’s beard candy (龙须糖)) during their marketplace trips. The shopkeepers offer him things for free, or to let him come back with money afterwards, but Wei Wuxian turns all of them down, saying that he will return when he has the money.

So whenever Lan Wangji sees Wei Wuxian eyeing something he can’t afford, he makes a habit of buying it for him. Lan Wangji has money enough in his qiankun pouch. His brother seems to have highly overestimated the cost of living in Yunmeng, and always sends him more money than he can spend, and now Lan Wangji finally has something worthwhile to splurge on.

The first time it happens, Wei Wuxian accepts the stick of candied hawthorn Lan Wangji hands him with an air of confused delight.

“You bought it for me?” Wei Wuxian asks, as if Lan Wangji hasn’t been staring at Wei Wuxian standing in front of the hawthorn store with longing eyes for a full five minutes.

Lan Wangji nods.

“Thank you, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, bouncing with joy. “I’ll pay you back when I get my allowance next week!”

“No need. A gift.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “No way, a gentleman always pays his debts.”

“It’s a gift for you,” Lan Wangji insists.

“Well then, at least take a bite!” Wei Wuxian allows, shoving the stick of candied hawthorn in Lan Wangji’s direction.

The thought of sharing food with Wei Wuxian sends Lan Wangji’s heart racing. Lan Wangji reluctantly takes the stick, biting off the top-most fruit and returning the rest to Wei Wuxian. He crunches through the hard sugar crust, letting the sweet and tart flavors of the hawthorn melt together on his tongue.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian says, his cheeks bulging.

Lan Wangji just nods in response, hoping desperately that his cheeks aren’t as red as the hawthorns he’s eating.

After he starts, Lan Wangji finds it hard to stop. If Wei Wuxian’s eyes show so much as a glimmer of interest, Lan Wangji whips his money pouch out, and, if he’s being honest, he overdoes it. Wei Wuxian’s room accumulates more trinkets than he has space to display, and even Wei Wuxian tires of having sweets every single day. Eventually, Wei Wuxian catches on to the fact that Lan Wangji is amenable to buying anything and everything for him, and starts requesting for ridiculous things.

“Lan Zhan, will you get me a rabbit if I asked?” Wei Wuxian asks hypothetically, as he lazily kicks his calves in the cool water of an ornamental pond, lying down with his robes crumpled.

It’s another warm day, and Wei Wuxian is trying futilely to cool himself down with his favorite trick: hanging out by a body of water and sticking body parts in it. In Lan Wangji’s opinion, if Wei Wuxian really is serious about avoiding the summer heat, the first step would be to shed his black robes and change into a lighter color, perhaps white. Then, of course, the thought of Wei Wuxian in Lan sect colors makes Lan Wangji’s heart feel a bit funny, so he returns to the matter at hand.

“Of course. How many? What color?” Lan Wangji replies, earnest.

“Hmm… What about a jade dizi?” Wei Wuxian continues, idly.

“I’m not sure where to get one. I could write to brother,” Lan Wangji says, half-seriously, catching on.

Wei Wuxian cracks one eye open to look at Lan Wangji where he is seated properly to the left of himself. “What if I wanted a house?”

“How big?”

Wei Wuxian grins. “And if I wanted a mountain?”

“Which one?”

Wei Wuxian’s smile softens, and he gets up and faces Lan Wangji, clasping his hand.

“Lan Zhan. I’m not really sure why you’ve been buying all these things for me, but there’s really no need. I’m just a little greedy sometimes, I don’t truly need all these things. I don’t want you to feel like you need to spend money to keep our friendship. Just your company when we go shopping together at the marketplace is more than enough.”

Lan Wangji looks down at their clasped hands. “The gifts make you happy.” I want to make you happy, goes unsaid, but Wei Wuxian seems to get the hidden message anyway.

“They do. But your company makes me happier than any gift will,” Wei Wuxian says, a shy smile on his face. “Promise me you won’t keep spending money on me.”

Lan Wangji considers for a second, before countering, “Occasionally. You deserve nice things.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Oh, alright. I’ll allow that. Only very infrequently, and only on little things! After all, we wouldn’t want the Lan sect to go into bankruptcy.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, happy.

Wei Wuxian squeezes Lan Wangji’s hands and lets go. Lan Wangji’s hands feel too empty already.

Topic concluded, Wei Wuxian lies back down on the stone pathway. Lan Wangji returns his attention to his reading material for the day, a medical text on mountainous herbs common in Gusu. However, he finds his attention constantly derailed by Wei Wuxian, who fidgets and keeps refolding his hands beneath his head, trying to find a comfortable position.

Finally, he taps Wei Wuxian on the shoulder. “Sit up.”

Wei Wuxian obeys without question, and Lan Wangji stands up and sits down again, this time positioned right behind Wei Wuxian, instead of next of him. “Lie down.”

When Wei Wuxian reclines this time, his head is positioned just-so, such that Lan Wangji’s lap cushions it from the hard stone beneath. He blinks a little, surprised at the new position, and beams. Even upside-down, his smile is blinding.

“Are you volunteering to be my pillow, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji trains his gaze on his book, faux-casual.

“My head is really heavy, your legs might go numb!” Wei Wuxian warns.

“That’s fine.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you… If your legs get numb just wake me up,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes already slipping shut again.

Wei Wuxian’s head is a warm weight in Lan Wangji’s lap. Lan Wangji becomes over-conscious of his bodily movements: the rise and fall of his breaths, the minute adjustments his arms make as he holds his book up. His legs do go numb, as Wei Wuxian predicted, but Lan Wangji does not wake him. He finishes his book, wastes a fruitless five minutes staring into the rippling water trying to meditate, then spends the rest of the time staring at Wei Wuxian’s face.

His face relaxed in sleep is handsome and carefree, something in his bone structure suggesting that he ought to always be smiling. A face made to smile, as Jiang Yanli had once put it. It’s an endearing face too, Lan Wangji finds, when Wei Wuxian starts drooling in his sleep. Lan Wangji has to suppress his instinctual laughter, and restrict himself to a huffed breath and nothing more, for fear of disturbing Wei Wuxian’s sleep.

As the sun traces its path across the sky, the shadows cast by the eaves shift. When the sunlight threatens to wake Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji holds up his book so that its shade covers Wei Wuxian’s eyes. He endures the pins and needles in his legs and the ache in his arm all the way until the dinner bell rings, and Lan Wangji cannot put off waking Wei Wuxian any longer.

He clears his throat. “Wei Ying, wake up. Wei Ying.”

Stirring, Wei Wuxian wipes his drool drowsily, before startling awake and scrambling out of Lan Wangji’s lap. In his haste, he nearly hits Lan Wangji’s book, still hovering in the air above him. “How long did I sleep for?”

“A while,” Lan Wangji says. The sky had begun darkening as dusk approached, and the two of them had settled in their current spot somewhere in the late afternoon.

“Ah, I hogged your lap for hours. And I even drooled, how embarrassing.” Wei Wuxian ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, red-faced.

The dinner bell rings again in the distance. The Jiangs will be expecting them for dinner.

“Ah, it’s dinnertime. We should go,” Wei Wuxian says, glad for the change of topic. He fumbles his boots on hastily.

Lan Wangji nods and moves to stand up, but stumbles. Wei Wuxian’s arms dart out to support him, so their bodies are pressed close. Now it’s Lan Wangji’s turn to blush.

“Lan Zhan, don’t tell me… your legs are numb?”

Lan Wangji nods mutely. He can feel the flush creep up his neck to his cheeks already, probably staining his ears red. Like this, with their bodies pressed close, there’s no way Wei Wuxian can’t see it.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, biting his lip. “You’re too cute. Here, let me help you. Just walk slowly and your blood should circulate enough for the pins and needles to stop.”

Wei Wuxian slings Lan Wangji’s arm around his neck, and they walk (or limp, in Lan Wangji’s case) in the direction of the main hall. “By the way, Lan Zhan. Why were you holding your book up just now?”

Lan Wangji keeps mum. One embarrassment is quite enough for the day.

 

 

That night, Lan Wangji writes to his brother for advice. Uncharacteristically, Lan Xichen takes two weeks, instead of his usual one, to send his reply. The air of amusement in his letter is obvious to Lan Wangji, who knows his brother like he knows his own mind.

Dear Wangji,

I apologize for the tardiness of my reply. Being unexperienced in romance myself, I decided to ask a friend for advice on this matter. This is what he has to say:

Some people are not receptive to over-generous gift-giving, and it appears Young Master Wei is one of them. Try and restrain yourself to meaningful gifts only. On that note, it bodes well that Young Master Wei doesn’t seem to be the materialistic sort that can be bought over by objects, and that he asked you to stop.

Instead of gifts, consider other avenues for expressing your affection. Each person differs in what they prefer, and some experimentation will be needed to see which gestures Young Master Wei appreciates the most. Show that you care for him by spending time with him, and doing small things for him. If he likes being praised, or he is a tactile person, cater to such traits.

Wangji, I wish you luck in your courtship. Inform me of any breakthroughs as soon as possible. Your poor brother is perishing of boredom in the Cloud Recesses.

I remain,

Your brother Lan Xichen

Lan Wangji scans the letter for the umpteenth time, and takes his brother’s advice to heart.

The next time Wei Wuxian stumbles over a rock on one of their walks and whines loudly that his ankle is sprained, all the while walking perfectly well, Lan Wangji huffs under his breath, “Ridiculous”, but sweeps Wei Wuxian off his feet nonetheless in a piggyback carry. He carries Wei Wuxian, stunned and pleased, all the way back to their small rowboat, before dropping him inside gently.

During their morning sword practices, Lan Wangji takes to stepping close to Wei Wuxian, making unnecessary adjustments to his posture just for an excuse to touch him, and complimenting his form, the strength of his grip, or the force of his blows. Wei Wuxian always flushes pink at Lan Wangji’s praise, adorable and flustered. When the weather takes a turn for the colder, Lan Wangji brings a change of dry clothes down to the river for Wei Wuxian, and reminds him not to catch cold while playing. The other disciples wolf-whistle and punch Wei Wuxian in the shoulder playfully, and just like all the other times, Wei Wuxian goes a little wide-eyed and tongue-tied, and can only thank Lan Wangji bashfully.

It’s the cutest thing Lan Wangji has ever seen. He really owes his brother a gift of some sort for his advice.

 

 

The Qixi festival (七夕) falls right on the brink of summer tipping into autumn that year, and the weather is brisk as the girls in Yunmeng congregate for the celebration. Being male, Lan Wangji has never had the occasion to celebrate Qixi himself, or to witness its celebration, especially since male and female disciples are segregated in the Cloud Recesses. He watches with quiet fascination as those of the feminine persuasion around him occupy themselves with embroidery and sewing, all so they can win the needle-threading contest on the night of the Qixi festival, and be blessed with marital bliss in the future.

The male disciples are mostly supremely disinterested in all the goings-on their female counterparts are engrossed in, and organize a star-gazing session at Yunmeng Wharf. When they invite Lan Wangji, which he presumes is more out of politeness than anything else, Lan Wangji considers turning them down before remembering his brother’s advice. Wei Wuxian will surely be amongst those star-gazing, and Lan Xichen had said that Lan Wangji should spend more time with his fiancé. No harm would come from relaxing the curfew for one night, especially if the disciples were under Lan Wangji’s direct supervision.

He tells the disciples, and faces no opposition. “We are only staying out past curfew today because of the Jiang disciples’ invitation. This will not be repeated.” (今夜夜游,是因为江氏子弟的邀请。下不为例。) He hesitates a moment, before going on. “When we return to the Cloud Recesses, there will be no need to mention this to uncle. Do you understand?” (回了云深不知处,不必与叔父提起。明不明白?) The disciples chorus their agreement. A curt nod, and he and the other Lan disciples troop out of Lotus Pier at ten in the evening, already somewhat drooping with sleepiness, to join the Yunmeng disciples at the wooden pier of Yunmeng Wharf. By the time they arrive, the pier has been filled with groups of friends lying side by side, chatting as they star-gaze. Lan Wangji spots Wei Wuxian at the end of the pier waving to him, and he leaves the disciples with a stern reminder to comport themselves well, before picking his way through reclining figures to reach Wei Wuxian’s side.

“I didn’t think you would come,” Wei Wuxian says, smiling sweetly as Lan Wangji draws near. His expression grows a touch wicked. “Isn’t it past the Lan sect curfew?”

Lan Wangji hands Wei Wuxian the blanket he brought from his room especially for him, and sits down beside him. “In the interests of cultural exchange between our sects, I decided to relax the curfew for one night.”

Wei Wuxian snickers, as he unfolds the blanket and buries his hands in it. He’s always complaining of the cold, whenever the weather is rainy or windy in Yunmeng, and Lan Wangji wonders how Wei Wuxian will cope with the real cold of the Cloud Recesses, the type of cold where snow falls for days on end and you ran a real risk of frostbite if you didn’t attire yourself properly. Perhaps Lan Wangji will buy a cloak for him. A white one, hooded and trimmed with fur. One embroidered with clouds, so others could never mistake Wei Wuxian as belonging to someone else. For now though, Lan Wangji’s blanket is protection enough against the chill of the autumn night, and Wei Wuxian says, wagging his finger at Lan Wangji, “What would your uncle think of you bending the rules? I’m proud of you already.”

After he locates a good spot next to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji lies down. The night sky is breath-taking, stretched out in all its glory above. All he sees is sky for forever. Lan Wangji has never had the opportunity to star-gaze, thanks to the Lan sect curfew, and he can’t believe that it took fourteen years for him to realize the beauty of the night sky. The deep blue canvas of the sky stretches as far as he can see in every direction, its surface studded with sparkling stars, each blinking according to their own rhythm. Set in its own corner, the moon, just shy of a half-moon, glows regally. The Milky Way envelops half the sky, gauzy and ethereal. He feels so small. Unconsciously, his hand reaches out to grab Wei Wuxian’s, and Lan Wangji drags his gaze from the marvel of the night sky to stare at the beautiful boy next to him, and the stars sparkling in his eyes.

One of the Yunmeng disciples with a flair for storytelling, a boy called Yiren, starts narrating the tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女), the story that underpins the Qixi celebration, and Lan Wangji loses himself in the tale, as do the others listening. He forgets the sun-worn wooden boards of the pier beneath his head, immersed in the star-crossed romance of the two lovers: their first meeting under a moonlit lake, their blissful marriage, their eventual cruel separation by the gods. It is as if a magic spell has been cast over the pier just for the duration of the story. The audience sighs when the cowherd and the weaver girl fall in love, and gasp in dismay when they are torn apart because their love is forbidden. By the end of the tale, many are crying when Yiren narrates the outcome of the celestial lovers: granted only one day out of the year to meet, they cross a bridge formed by magpies and reunite on the day of Qixi, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

After the tale ends, many of the disciples still linger at the pier star-gazing, no one wanting to disturb the spell cast over them. Lan Wangji falls asleep on the pier, under a blanket of stars, curled close to Wei Wuxian and holding his hand.

Chapter Text

Autumn comes, and the days grow cooler and drier. Lan Wangji redons the layers he abandoned in summer, and writes a letter to his brother wishing him a happy birthday in early October. Invitations for Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian arrive from the Cloud Recesses, and Sect Leader Jiang writes back to confirm their presence as guest disciples in the halls of the Cloud Recesses when spring comes.

Half a year has already passed since he arrived in Yunmeng, and only short six months remain before he returns to the Cloud Recesses. Spring and summer have been lovely in Yunmeng, and Lan Wangji wonders what the rest of the year will bring.

 

 

As is usually the case around the time of the Ghost Festival, some unruly spirits linger even after the paying of respects is concluded. The burnt offerings and elaborately arranged meals, meant to appease spirits, only make the spirits want to cling to the living world even more, and trouble starts brewing. Lan Wangji has seen the same thing happen at Caiyi Town in Gusu, and it appears that this much is same in Yunmeng.

The inhabitants of Liaojing City, a small city a day’s travel from Lotus Pier, send a letter requesting the assistance of cultivators to lay some ancestral spirits to rest. As head disciple, Wei Wuxian jumps on the chance to bring the Yunmeng disciples on a training exercise, and immediately starts gathering people and making preparations to set off as soon as possible. Lan Wangji, keen to both see Wei Wuxian in action and to participate in a night hunt, requests to join.

The next morning, their small party of Gusu Lan sect and Yunmeng Jiang sect cultivators is ready for the night-hunt. Sect Leader Jiang leaves Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin with reminders to be cautious and to take good care of the junior disciples during breakfast, and by the time the morning sunlight spills over the threshold of Lotus Pier, their party has set off northwards for the city of Liaojing.

As head disciple and the future Sect Leader of the Jiang sect respectively, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are spearheading the night hunt. From the ranks of the Yunmeng disciples, they have picked a mixture of people: a small number of juniors, wet behind the ears and eager for their first night hunt, and some senior disciples to guide and protect them. As a courtesy, they have extended an invitation for Lan Wangji to lead the night hunt alongside them, and Lan Wangji accepts. He himself has brought along the Lan sect disciples he feels would benefit best from the experience: Lan Chu, who has expressed interest in joining the division responsible for handling night hunts in the Lan sect, and Gao Xiaochun, one of the disciples who could use more exposure to spirit cleansings, as well as others that excel in musical cultivation.

The town of Liaojing is not far from Lotus Pier, only one days’ journey away on foot. Their pack of purple and white-clad disciples trail behind Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, who lead the way. The weather is fair, the sun shining brightly but the air cool enough that walking only warms them up and doesn’t tire them. The changing seasons make for an interesting landscape, and the time goes by quickly. All the trees are caught in the midst of changing their colors, and the forest around them is a bright mixture of verdant green and amber leaves. Lan Wangji has his guqin strapped to his back, his sword at his hip, and Wei Wuxian at his side, and all is right in the world.

The mood is light as they travel; no one expects the spirit cleansing itself to be much trouble. The spirits have mostly confined themselves to harmless mischief, and not enough time has passed for them to have gathered enough power to do real harm. The villagers had done well in seeking help early, before the spirits had a chance to taste blood and gain power and malicious intent. In all likelihood, the night hunt will be an opportunity to expose the junior disciples to the real work of cultivating, without much risk at all. They have cleansing talismans aplenty, and Lan Wangji has instructed the Lan sect disciples to bring their instruments along, so that they may play Rest if the situation calls for it.

The mood is amiable amongst the disciples; after half a year, many of the Jiang and Lan sect disciples have become friends, and conversation flows easily as they walk. Wei Wuxian bounces around from group to group, assuaging the fears of nervous junior disciples and checking in with others that they are prepared for the night hunt. He cracks jokes and leads the disciples in singing silly songs to occupy their attention during particularly tedious stretches of road, and even finds the time to help Jiang Wanyin in navigating. From time to time, he pops up beside Lan Wangji to check in with him, and Lan Wangji assures Wei Wuxian that he is fine each time; watching Wei Wuxian jump from task to task is entertainment enough. After all, when Wei Wuxian is around, Lan Wangji can look at little else.

To pass the time, Lan Wangji asks various questions related to night hunts of Jiang Wanyin as they travel, and by the time their party break for lunch, he has deepened his understanding of night hunts in Yunmeng by leaps and bounds. Wei Wuxian has also been doing work of his own, and as they eat their packed lunches, he confers with Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji regarding how to pair up the disciples for the night hunt. The discussion doesn’t take long; and the assignations fall largely along the lines that Lan Wangji had predicted: the experienced will guide the neophytes, and whenever possible, the Jiang sect and Lan sect disciples are paired up together to better facilitate mutual learning between the two sects.

They make good time, and reach Liaojing City with plenty of time to find their lodgings for the night. The letter had detailed that the spirits tended to make trouble in the pre-dawn hours, and so they plan to take an early rest, and embark on the night hunt in the early hours of the morning. The first inn they find only has enough rooms for half of their party, and Jiang Wanyin offers it to the Lan disciples, since they are, after all, guests of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. The innkeeper kindly points the Yunmeng Jiang disciples towards an inn on the other side of town, and Wei Wuxian leaves with a wave, his expression slightly disappointed. Lan Wangji returns it, feeling the same way. But there is no alternative: he cannot leave the Lan sect disciples unsupervised, and Wei Wuxian has his own role as head disciple to play.

As is their custom, the Lan sect disciples partake in a silent dinner, interspersed only by the sound of chopsticks clicking against bowls. It’s the quietest meal Lan Wangji has had in longer than he can remember, and afterwards he goes through his ablutions in a subdued manner, undressing and bathing in his room, which he has to himself.

He is in the middle of folding his clothes and doublechecking that he has laid out the items he will need for the night hunt the next dawn, when there is a knock at the door. When he opens the door, it reveals Wei Wuxian, carrying a comically large bundle of bedding in his arms, the rest of his belongings in a small bag slung on his shoulder. Lan Wangji’s heart skips a beat with the instinctive joy of laying eyes on Wei Wuxian, when he had resigned himself to a quiet and lonely night.

“Hi, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian waves cheerily, expression fond. “I hate to ask you this, but could you share your room with me tonight?”

He explains the rest of the circumstances, as Lan Wangji lets him in and sends for a late dinner for him. When the Jiang disciples had reached the other inn, there had only been a few rooms left. Even after dividing the rooms amongst the disciples, they’d had to share two or three to a room, and there simply hadn’t been enough space for everyone. That was why Wei Wuxian had volunteered to trek back to the first inn where the Lan disciples were staying to find a room to share, while Jiang Wanyin stayed at the second inn to supervise the disciples.

“That’s the way things turned out. You won’t kick me out, right?” Wei Wuxian says, palms pressed flat against each other and held up in a begging position. “It’s so dark and late now, you won’t make me walk all the way across town, will you? You’ll take poor old me in?”

“There was no need to ask. You’re always welcome to stay. You can take the bed,” Lan Wangji says, moving to remove the folded clothes that he had placed on the bed.

“No, I can’t do that! You can take the bed, I asked for a set of bedding so I can sleep on the floor,” Wei Wuxian says, throwing himself across the bedding. “I couldn’t possibly inconvenience you like that.”

Seeing his vehemence, Lan Wangji reluctantly agrees. Wei Wuxian could be as stubborn as the best of them, and Lan Wangji’s objections would only lead nowhere.

“Say, Lan Zhan. How come you got a room to yourself? It looks like a pretty good room too,” Wei Wuxian says, gesturing at the bathtub and accompanying changing screen, the wide windows and thick mattress that the room contained. “Does the Lan sect have the custom of ceding the best room to you?”

“Usually. Even if I were to share rooms, I would only share with my brother.”

“That must be nice… Do you have a rule for that too? Thou shalt leave the best inn room for the young masters?

“It’s not as you think it is. Rooming with me would simply make the other disciples… uneasy. Even in the Cloud Recesses, I am accustomed to being alone.”

It was simply the truth, and Lan Wangji had come to peace with the situation long ago. There would always be a barrier between him and the other disciples, simply by virtue of his position as the second heir of the Lan sect. Even if he reads the same books and writes the same assignments as the other disciples of his age group, there is a line they cannot cross, because in all matters they must cede to his authority. Even with his uncle, with whom he is supposed to be close to, by virtue of being raised by him, things are imperfect. Ever since his childhood, Lan Wangji has been cognizant that his uncle was so strict with him and his brother, so that they would avoid making the same mistakes their father had. His uncle had high expectations of the both of them, and he and Lan Xichen had ever strove not to disappoint him. Only around his brother could Lan Wangji relax, until he met Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian, who, touchingly, looks very concerned by Lan Wangji’s admission.

“They ostracize you?” Wei Wuxian asks, his brows furrowed with concern.

“No. I choose not to associate myself too closely with them. The other disciples can’t relax around me. They think I’ll report any broken rules to my uncle. I am the discipline master, after all.”

Wei Wuxian snickers. “Ah, so you were the teacher’s pet?”

Wei Wuxian always has a way of diffusing the tension, and Lan Wangji shrugs a shoulder. “I suppose.”

Wei Wuxian smiles wistfully, his chin settled on his knee. “It would be interesting to see the Cloud Recesses, I think. A whole mountain full of Lan Zhans. I wonder what that would be like.”

“Quiet and cold. Peaceful. Don’t forget that we have three thousand rules,” Lan Wangji says baldly.

Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out. “Ah, I’m going to be in so much trouble when I get there. I’d best enjoy my youth before I wither under the harsh tutelage of Grand Master Lan Qiren.”

Draping himself across his bedding, he strikes a pose and lays a hand against his temple, as if to say, woe betide me.

“Ridiculous,” huffs Lan Wangji, secretly amused at his theatrics, before pulling Wei Wuxian up. “At least take a bath first, before lying down.”

Chuckling, Wei Wuxian acquiesces, and it is a simple matter for the innkeeper to refill the bath tub with fresh water for Wei Wuxian’s bath. Before Wei Wuxian begins undressing, Lan Wangji makes his excuses and leaves the room, lest any temptation to peek overtakes him. He dons his outer robe, and takes the chance to patrol outside the rooms of the Lan sect disciples, ears pricked up for any violations of the curfew. He finds nothing, and only returns when he judges that enough time has passed.

When he returns, Wei Wuxian is sprawled across his bedding, idly polishing Suibian. His eyes dart up when Lan Wangji opens the door. “Lan Zhan, you’re finally back! Where did you go?”

“To check on the disciples,” Lan Wangji says, not looking Wei Wuxian in the eye. The collar of his sleeping robes is loose and gaping, and the way Wei Wuxian is lying on his front propped up by his elbows only serves to highlight the few drops of water he neglected to dry off his neck, and how luscious they look sliding down his pale neck.

“As responsible as ever, I see.” Wei Wuxian sheathes Suibian, setting it aside. “In any case, let’s sleep. I’m already dreading the early wake-up tomorrow.”

Lan Wangji agrees, and proceeds to extinguish the candles lit around the room, while Wei Wuxian lies down properly in his bedding. When Lan Wangji wants to lay on his bed, he has to tiptoe on a thin strip of unoccupied floor, because Wei Wuxian has laid his bedding very close to Lan Wangji’s bed.

“There was another thing I wanted to ask you, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian’s voice breaks the silence of the darkened room.

“Mn?” Lan Wangji hums.

“There’s this fragrance on your robes. I smell the same smell in your room in Lotus Pier as well. What’s the name of the incense you use?”

That was what he wanted to ask? Lan Wangji feels a wave of fondness for his ridiculous fiancé. It was characteristic of Wei Wuxian, to have his mind be occupied by quotidian curiosities when he would be embarking on a night hunt the next morning.

Lan Wangji replies, “Sandalwood.”

Wei Wuxian hums meditatively in response “Hmm, so that’s what it’s called…”

Lan Wangji falls asleep almost immediately, the late hour and their full day of travel catching up to him, and the last thing he hears is the soft and steady breathing of Wei Wuxian, laid on the floor not far from him.

Chapter Text

Things go wrong not immediately, but gradually.

Their party spends hours wandering around the forest where the villagers had reported sightings fruitlessly. There is not one single spirit to be found, and the resentful energy they can sense is somehow scattered everywhere around the forest, directionless and unhelpful. Jiang Wanyin gets progressively grumpier as they go round in circles, and even the disciplined Lan sect disciples grow restless at the oddness of the situation, and the prospect of returning from the night hunt unsuccessful when it was meant to be a milk run.

The only bright spot is Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji observes, and finds that he is a good head disciple. He encourages the timid disciples to speak their mind, and reins in those that are more boisterous who have a tendency to steamroll others. He pairs those with complementary skills together, or seniors with juniors of matching learning styles to facilitate better communication, all the while cracking jokes and keeping the mood light. It’s quite remarkable, how effortless Wei Wuxian makes everything look, and Lan Wangji is almost struck with the need to take notes for future reference.

Finally, after a dispirited lunch, they pick up on a trail that seems promising. Extreme concentration on the part of Lan Wangji directed towards finding the source of resentful energy eventually points them in a concrete direction, deeper into the forest. Two disciples armed with their swords slash through vines and lianas at Lan Wangji’s direction, carving them a narrow path towards the spirits.

But when Lan Wangji finally reaches the source of the resentful energy, there is nothing to be found. There are no spirits, not even any disturbance in the forest that would hint towards someone’s tampering or deliberate rousing of spirits. Lan Wangji scans around the small clearing in confusion, eyes peeled for anything that could be the source of the resentful energy that he had detected, that he still feels, incredibly nearby but weak. Eventually one of the Jiang disciples points out a strange object on the ground: a brown mass of matter with white peeking through in some spots. It looks like an animal dropping, except much larger than usual. When Lan Wangji peers more closely, using a stick to break up the mysterious object, he recoils; mixed in with dried grasses, he can see shards of bone and worse, what looks like human teeth. Judging from the size of the pellet, the animal must be quite large. Lan Wangji ransacks his memory for the beast that could be responsible. It is only as he lays eyes on a pitch-black feather, hidden under a bush, and a screech sounds, that he puts the clues together, a step too late.

“It’s a Zhen (鸩鸟)! Don’t let it touch you, it’s poisonous!” Lan Wangji warns the rest.

There is a flurry of movement and sound all around: the Zhen swoops from up above, screeching something awful, and the disciples all scramble to draw their swords to fight it off, wary of its claws and watchful of its path in the sky above. With its sharp blood-red eyes, the Zhen finds a weak spot: one of the Jiang sect disciples, a junior barely twelve years old, has succumbed to the panic that overcomes almost everyone when they embark on their first night hunt. He is standing near the tail end of their group, far from the others, and his attention is focused on his scabbard and drawing his stuck sword, ignorant of the flying threat above that has zoned in on him.

With a tilt of its wings, the Zhen dives towards its prey, glistening claws outstretched to grab. The junior finally realizes his predicament, and cries out in fear, holding his hands cradled around his head as if that will protect him. It almost looks as if there is no hope, that they will have to return to Lotus Pier with one less head, until Wei Wuxian does something incredibly stupid and brave. He rushes over in front of the disciple, balanced on Suibian, and lets the Zhen take him instead. The poisonous claws of the Zhen close around Wei Wuxian’s arm, and Suibian plummets to the ground below, as the bird wheels around, ascending into the sky.

A series of cries ring out across the clearing, frenzied and fearful.

“Senior Wei!” “Wei Wuxian!” “Wei Ying!”

The Zhen is already soaring, moving further with every second. Lan Wangji, along with a few other disciples and Jiang Wanyin, mount their swords and race in the direction of the Zhen. With a swift, practiced movement, Lan Wangji unstraps his guqin from his back and strums, sending a wave of force towards the Zhen, intending to stun it. The blow glances off its strong wings, knocking it off-balance for a second before it rights itself and continues to flee with Wei Wuxian in its grasp. Lan Wangji can see Wei Wuxian, limp and dangling in the Zhen’s claws. Every second was crucial now: every moment they dawdled, the Zhen’s poison would be seeping through Wei Wuxian’s veins. With his cultivation, he could neutralize the poison, but only to a certain extent. Lan Wangji had to wrest Wei Wuxian from the Zhen’s grasp as quickly as possible, before the poison killed him.

“Turn back!” Wei Wuxian yells. “It’s too dangerous, turn back!”

No. That is unacceptable. Lan Wangji will never abandon Wei Wuxian. Desperation tinging his movements, he raises the guqin for a second blow, instilling as much spiritual energy as he can, before strumming the strings and releasing the attack. This time, it hits the Zhen squarely, stunning it into releasing Wei Wuxian. He plummets like a stone in water, crashing into the canopy below with a pained yell. The Zhen itself hangs on for a few more moments, great wings struggling through the air as if it is flying through water, before it succumbs as well, and crashes into the ground a short distance away.

“Jiang Wanyin, can you handle the Zhen?” Lan Wangji asks tersely, anxious to recover Wei Wuxian from where he has fallen.

“I’ve got it, go!” Jiang Wanyin says, worry evident in his voice as he stares towards the hole in the canopy Wei Wuxian had made in his descent.

When Lan Wangji, trailed by a few Lan sect disciples, descends on his sword towards the forest, they find Wei Wuxian tangled up in a snarl of vines. His left arm, the one the Zhen had grabbed, is sluggishly dripping blood, and he has his other arm curled protectively around his middle. His face is pale as he looks up at Lan Wangji, and he looks frail, like all his vital force has been drained from him. Lan Wangji and the Lan sect disciples carefully cut him free, and set him on the forest floor.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, concern evident in his voice.

“I’m alright,” Wei Wuxian manages, voice weak. “I managed to neutralize most of the poison with my golden core, I think.”

“Where does it hurt?” Lan Wangji’s fingers hover over Wei Wuxian’s injured arm, unsure.

“Mostly just my arm. The claws dug in pretty deep,” Wei Wuxian groans in pain as he tries to move his shoulder.

“Don’t move,” Lan Wangji instructs, drawing Wei Wuxian’s ripped robes aside to look at his wound. The Zhen’s talons have torn into the flesh of Wei Wuxian’s upper arm, but thankfully, besides a few remnant traces, the poison doesn’t seem to have entered Wei Wuxian’s system. Lan Wangji holds his hand above the wound, and begins channeling spiritual energy into Wei Wuxian, helping to burn the last traces of poison away. It aids in closing the flesh wound as well, and Lan Wangji watches as it shrinks before his eyes, until all that remains is a few long thin lacerations.

“Water,” he demands. One of the Lan sect disciples, Lan Chu, hastily pulls out a waterskin and hands it to Lan Wangji.

“Try to bear the pain,” Lan Wangji says, before pouring the water over Wei Wuxian’s wound.

Wei Wuxian yelps in pain. “Ow!”

Following cleaning the wound with water, Lan Wangji dabs it dry gently with a clean cloth he procures from another of the disciples. He proceeds to apply a thin salve over the cuts, before dressing the wound with another clean cloth. Wei Wuxian remains silent throughout, only hissing in pain when Lan Wangji tightens the bandage.

“What did you apply on my wound?” He asks, finally regaining his voice.

“Mountain honey. It’s so precious we reserve it for wounds instead of consuming it. It will do, until we can return to town and let a doctor take a look at your injuries.”

“Honey? Makes me think of a bunch of stoic Lan disciples fending off a swarm of bees while they try to collect honey,” Wei Wuxian laughs, before wincing and biting his lip, a hand coming up to hold the right side of his abdomen.

“What’s wrong?” Lan Wangji asks, alarmed. What other injuries had Wei Wuxian sustained?

Wei Wuxian grimaces, and admits, “I… think I might have bruised my ribs in the fall.”

Lan Wangji levels a look of disapproval at Wei Wuxian for trying to hide his injuries. When he checks, the skin on Wei Wuxian’s abdomen is already beginning to discolor, red marking out the most tender spots. His brow is creased with pain as Lan Wangji carefully assesses his ribs, determining that none of them are broken.

By the time Lan Wangji finishes his rudimentary first aid on Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin returns.

“Wei Wuxian, are you alright?”

He waves the concern off, faux-casually, and tries to get up. “Nothing major. It takes more than that to knock me off my feet.”

Lan Wangji sends a quelling glare Wei Wuxian’s way, who sits back down and holds a placating arm out, chastised. “The Zhen’s poison has been neutralized, but there are still a few cuts on his arm, and his ribs are bruised.”

Jiang Wanyin nods, then leans over and flicks Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “You idiot, why did you do something so reckless?”

“Ow, no hitting the patient, Jiang Cheng! Lan Zhan, look at how he’s treating me!” Wei Wuxian whines.

“Jiang Wanyin is right. You were unduly reckless.” Despite the content of his words, Lan Wangji reaches a hand over to rub soothingly over the red mark left by Jiang Wanyin’s flick. Wei Wuxian leans into his touch a little, pouting.

“What else was I supposed to do? Let it grab fifth shidi? I knew that I could neutralize the poison and I stood a better chance against the Zhen.”

Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji both frown, unable to find a rebuttal to refute Wei Wuxian’s logic. Wei Wuxian lets his attention be directed elsewhere, and asks about the Zhen’s fate.

While Lan Wangji has been busying himself with Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin and the other disciples have been handling the Zhen. Stunned by Lan Wangji’s blow, it had been an easy job to dispatch the beast, although removing its carcass would have to wait until they had a way of moving it without getting into contact with its potent poison.

“It makes sense that it was a Zhen,” Wei Wuxian pipes up, thoughtful. “They typically hunt under the cover of night and have vast hunting ranges, so it’s not implausible that the villagers didn’t notice its presence. The resentful energy was so scattered around the forest because the Zhen has been regurgitating its pellets everywhere, so the remains of its victims were effectively spread all around the area. Perhaps it was the Ghost Festival that gave the Zhen’s victims enough energy to manifest themselves and harass the villagers, to try and get proper burial for themselves.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji concurs. It made sense.

“Were any of the others injured?” Wei Wuxian asks, switching topics. As usual, his brain operated at the speed of a hundred miles an hour, even when his body was hindered by injuries.

“None as badly as you,” Jiang Wanyin replies. “Fifth shidi sprained his ankle, and a few others have various scrapes, but nothing major.”

“What a relief,” Wei Wuxian says, reassurance evident in his body language.

“It’s all thanks to you and Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin admits begrudgingly. “If it weren’t for you taking the blow for fifth shidi and Lan Wangji’s musical cultivation, the outcome could have been much worse. Come on, let’s get you back to town so a physician can look at your wounds.”

They set up a system so that a few disciples remain behind to guard the carcass of the Zhen, making sure no villagers accidentally happen upon it and harm themselves. The rest of them make their weary way back into town, stopping frequently for Wei Wuxian to rest and catch his breath through the labored movement of his chest.

Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian return to their shared room close to dinnertime, Wei Wuxian’s wound having been checked and dressed by a physician in the interim. As a concession to the late hour, their party decides to stay in Liaojing City for one more night, before returning to Lotus Pier the following day. After designating a Lan sect disciple as the in-charge, Lan Wangji retreats to their chambers to take care of Wei Wuxian, bearing a tray of food for their dinner.

They share a quiet meal. Wei Wuxian eats slowly, pausing ever-so-often between bites to close his eyes and breathe deeply with a wince. He looks drawn, usual cheerful demeanor gone, his voice silent for once. The physician had assured them that Wei Wuxian’s wounds were not terribly serious, simply painful for the time being. The lacerations on his arm would heal in a few weeks, perhaps even quicker, if Wei Wuxian expended his spiritual energy to hasten the recovery process. The bruised ribs would take longer, a month or more. There was nothing much the physician could do, except leave Wei Wuxian’s bruised ribs to heal by themselves. Until they did, Wei Wuxian would have to put up with pain while moving and when he took deep breaths: an uncomfortable situation, but nothing life-threatening.

Concerned at Wei Wuxian’s uncharacteristic quietness, Lan Wangji probes gently. “Are you feeling alright, Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian smiles wanly at Lan Wangji. “It’s just a little more painful than I expected. I’m too lazy to even draw breath to speak right now. I’m sure you’re enjoying the peace and quiet, aren’t you Lan Zhan?”

The joke falls flat. Lan Wangji replies, “No, I like the sound of Wei Ying’s voice.”

Wei Wuxian grimaces. “There’s no need to coddle the patient, Lan Zhan. I really don’t know why it hurts so much, I’ve broken my ribs before in the past and it wasn’t this bad.”

“Perhaps because in addition to your wounds, you’ve also depleted your spiritual energy. Shall I pass some of mine to you?” Lan Wangji moves to get up, intending to go to the other side of the table to be closer to Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian shakes his head minutely. “There’s no need, Lan Zhan. You already passed some to me just now, that’s more than enough.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Lan Wangji sits back down. His reserves of spiritual energy were still mostly untapped, and if it could relieve Wei Wuxian’s suffering, he would gladly transfer as much as Wei Wuxian needed. If only Wei Wuxian were less stubborn…

The subject of his thoughts pushes his tray of food away, seemingly done with his food. “Lan Zhan, do you think you could help me ask for a basin of water and a towel? I don’t think I’m up for a bath today, especially with my wounds.”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji replies, and does so, asking for a bath for himself at the same time.

When the water for both of their ablutions arrive, Lan Wangji arranges them like so: Wei Wuxian’s basin of warm soapy water and towel placed on the same table they had dined on, so that he doesn’t have to move unnecessarily and cause himself more discomfort, while his own tub of water goes into the corner, with a privacy screen blocking him from Wei Wuxian’s view. This way, they can both bathe at the same time. Lan Wangji takes a short time in the bath, perfunctorily cleaning himself and unintentionally eavesdropping on the soft sounds of Wei Wuxian cleaning himself just a short distance away: the rustling of fabric, the quiet friction of fabric against skin, the occasional soft hisses of pain Wei Wuxian lets out, and the sound of the washcloth dropping back into water. Wei Wuxian finishes first, and he yells it out to Lan Wangji. By the time Lan Wangji has redressed himself in fresh inner robes, Wei Wuxian is decent himself, garbed in his own scarlet inner robes and finger-combing his hair. Even like this, pale and a little drawn, he looks beautiful, the line of his nose elegant, his downcast eyes limned with candlelight.

After his bath, Lan Wangji finds himself inspecting his robes and frowning in displeasure at their dirtiness: there are a few stray drops of blood, most likely from when he had been treating Wei Wuxian’s wounds, as well as a plethora of dirt stains near his knees and ankles from where he had brushed against it throughout the day. The launderer would have a hard time getting these stains out of his white robes.

Wei Wuxian huffs a subdued laugh when he sees Lan Wangji’s crossness with the state of his robes.

“That’s why I wear black, you know. You can hardly see the bloodstains on my clothes.” Wei Wuxian gestures at his robes, messily piled up on the table. “Imagine if I wore all-white like you did. It would be such a chore to clean, and every time I got so much as a scrape, I’d get dragged to the infirmary by shijie.”

The thought of Wei Wuxian getting hurt and ignoring his wounds disquiets Lan Wangji. Has Wei Wuxian been treating his health so cavalierly, brushing off minor wounds if no one notices he has them? As a matter of fact, had Wei Wuxian been intending to keep his bruised ribs from the rest of them if Lan Wangji had not noticed his discomfort? Lan Wangji’s brow furrows in displeasure and concern. He would have to keep a closer eye on Wei Wuxian, since he evidently had a different standard for what sort of injuries required medical attention.

“When we get to the Cloud Recesses, you’re only permitted to wear white,” Lan Wangji says. Let Wei Wuxian try to hide his injuries then. Lan Wangji would make sure he got the medical treatment he needed if he was hurt, even if he had to tie him down for it.

Wei Wuxian just groans, put off by the idea.

Lan Wangji deposits his soiled robes somewhere out-of-the-way, and sits down next to Wei Wuxian. To say that he is a person of few words is an understatement, but he feels compelled to communicate to Wei Wuxian exactly how important his wellbeing is to Lan Wangji.

He waits until Wei Wuxian meets his eyes to speak, infusing his tone with the sincerity and concern he feels for his fiancé. “Wei Ying. Don’t get hurt in the future. And if you do get injured, don’t hide your wounds. Don’t be stubborn. Let others help you.” Let Lan Wangji help him, if he would allow no one else.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes glance down after Lan Wangji finishes speaking, and he hesitates a moment before lacing his fingers through Lan Wangji’s. He squeezes Lan Wangji’s hand, and looks up and smiles, touched. “I promise you. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

Lan Wangji can only nod back, engrossed in the sensation of their interlaced fingers. Wei Wuxian’s hands are slightly calloused, the hands of a swordsperson. He has scars aplenty from his misadventures with the Jiang sect disciples, but the skin of his palms are soft and cool.

“Lan Zhan, I’ve thought of something you can help me with,” Wei Wuxian says. “Will you help me brush my hair? With all my injuries, I can’t do it myself. Will you help me?”

Lan Wangji nods his agreement, and Wei Wuxian directs him towards his pack, where Lan Wangji retrieves a rosewood comb. It is carved prettily with flowers, if a little worn. Lan Wangji’s first thought upon laying eyes on it is that it is unsuited for Wei Wuxian: it’s too feminine, more suited for a young lady than Wei Wuxian, and too old, for the matter. The surface is lightly pitted with dents from the everyday scars of usage, and one of the comb’s teeth has been broken, leaving a gap. Lan Wangji suppresses his curiosity, and returns to Wei Wuxian’s side. If Wei Wuxian wishes to share the provenance of his comb, he will do so of his own accord, and not because Lan Wangji pushed him.

As Lan Wangji settles himself behind Wei Wuxian and slowly begins running the comb through his tangled hair, he can feel Wei Wuxian start to relax under the repetitive motions. Fingers running through the silky dark strands, Lan Wangji untangles Wei Wuxian’s hair gently, working his way from the bottom of the strands towards the crown of his head. Gradually, Wei Wuxian’s breathing sounds a little less labored and painful, and the tension in his body eases with Lan Wangji’s ministrations. By the time Wei Wuxian’s hair is fully combed, smooth and straight as a veil, Wei Wuxian’s breathing is calm and deep, and he looks on the verge of falling asleep, eyes unfocussed and blinking slowly.

Lan Wangji lays the comb on the table, and his hand on Wei Wuxian’s back gently. “Wei Ying. You can take the bed tonight, since you’re injured. I’ll take the floor.”

Wei Wuxian is sleep-pliant as he is led to the bed by Lan Wangji, his head tilting towards Lan Wangji’s voice sweetly as he instructs him to lie down. He slips into sleep soundlessly and effortlessly, like a fallen leaf sinking into a stream, and Lan Wangji spends a long moment watching over Wei Wuxian, confirming that his breathing is easy and unhindered, before he extinguishes the candles and goes to bed himself.

 

 

Morning dawns, and Lan Wangji wakes at his usual five o’clock but leaves Wei Wuxian to slumber on. He wakes Wei Wuxian only when the time for meeting Jiang Wanyin at the Liaojing city gates approaches, preferring to let him rest as much as possible, and he recombs and ties Wei Wuxian’s hair for him as he scarfs down a quick breakfast. Lan Wangji is relieved to note that Wei Wuxian has regained some of the color in his cheeks after a full night’s rest, and he even jokes with Lan Wangji over breakfast, which is a sure sign that his spirits have been revitalized. Lan Wangji makes quick work of packing both his and Wei Wuxian’s things that have been scattered around the room, and they meet the rest of the Lan disciples downstairs and proceed to meet with Jiang Wanyin, who had brought the Jiang sect disciples with him.

“Good morning, Second Young Master Lan,” Jiang Wanyin says, a little stilted, before turning to Wei Wuxian. “Wei Wuxian, are you feeling better?”

Wei Wuxian chuckles cheerfully, and pats Jiang Wanyin’s head once. “Aww, my shidi is worried about me. Don’t get any wrinkles on my account, a good night’s sleep did me wonders!”

Jiang Wanyin looks annoyed at the indignity of being petted on the head by Wei Wuxian in front of everyone, and his hand strikes out to slap Wei Wuxian, but Wei Wuxian hops behind Lan Wangji as if he had anticipated the blow.

“Uh-uh, Jiang Cheng! I’m a patient, you can’t hit me. Right, Lan Zhan?”

Glancing at Wei Wuxian’s mischievous face, Lan Wangji agrees, silent and fond.

“Just wait and see how I’ll pay you back after you recover. To imagine that I was still considering ferrying you back to Lotus Pier on my sword so that you won’t have to walk all the way home,” Jiang Wanyin fumes.

Interest piqued, Lan Wangji directs an inquiring gaze towards Jiang Wanyin. He accurately deciphers Lan Wangji’s look, and elaborates.

“Look at the clouds. It’s bound to rain sometime this afternoon, and we’ll probably be caught in it.” Jiang Wanyin gestures at the cloudy sky, foreboding a storm in the near future. “It’s probably not a good idea for Wei Wuxian to get wet in his state, it could worsen his condition. I want to keep fifth shidi off his feet as well, to let his sprained ankle heal more quickly. I was thinking some of us could head back to Lotus Pier on our swords first, to beat the rain and let the injured people rest.”

Lan Wangji assents, seeing the wisdom in Jiang Wanyin’s suggestion. “Why not let me bring Wei Ying back to Lotus Pier? A few Lan sect disciples can go with me, along with the disciple who sprained his ankle. You can bring the rest on foot.”

Jiang Wanyin shoots a look at Wei Wuxian, and whatever he sees on Wei Wuxian’s face makes him agree to Lan Wangji’s suggestion. “Alright. Remember to inform my father about the Zhen when you reach Lotus Pier, so he can send someone with the right equipment to dispose of its body safely.”

They make quick work of sorting out who will go on foot and who will travel by sword, and in no time, Lan Wangji unsheathes Bichen and prepares to set off. He steps onto his floating sword first, then holds out a hand for Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying. Hold on tight to me.”

When Wei Wuxian steps onto the sword alongside Lan Wangji, their bodies are pressed tight together. Wei Wuxian has his hands locked around Lan Wangji’s waist, and his feet alternate with Lan Wangji’s on Bichen’s blade. Normally, Lan Wangji shies away from physical contact, but Wei Wuxian has proven himself the exception to Lan Wangji’s rule. For some reason, Wei Wuxian’s touches never feel unwelcome to Lan Wangji, be they friendly pats on the back or eager hands grasping for Lan Wangji’s.

Their faces are terribly close when Lan Wangji looks straight, especially since Wei Wuxian has hit his growth spurt over the summer and thus caught up to Lan Wangji’s height. At this proximity, Lan Wangji can see the smoothness of Wei Wuxian’s alabaster skin, and the bayberry-red of his inner lips. If his face remains this close to Wei Wuxian’s the entire journey, Lan Wangji will surely be tempted to do something he really isn’t supposed to be doing, so Lan Wangji turns his head to face forward instead, and places a hand in the small of Wei Wuxian’s back, to hold him steady against Lan Wangji’s body. They say their goodbyes to the party that will be travelling on foot, and leave as a contingent, flying towards Lotus Pier.

Flying on sword-back is relatively easy for Lan Wangji, even with one added person; any Lan sect disciple worth their salt is well-practiced in sword flight, thanks in no small part to Lan Qiren’s preference for the mode of transport. Despite that, he keeps his concentration focused on the flight, ever mindful not to drop his precious cargo, or to squeeze Wei Wuxian too tightly for fear of hurting his ribs. On his part, Wei Wuxian is the ideal passenger, gripping Lan Wangji securely and holding still so Lan Wangji doesn’t have to fret for his stability with Wei Wuxian’s added weight. He tucks his nose into Lan Wangji’s shoulder ten minutes into the flight, hiding his face from the cold air of the higher atmosphere they are travelling through, and Lan Wangji shifts his body so that he can shield Wei Wuxian from the worst of the wind. Depleted of spiritual energy as he was, Wei Wuxian would have a difficult time warming himself up if he felt cold.

Only once does Lan Wangji get distracted, when he remembers that in all the commotion of the night hunt, Wei Wuxian had been taken out of commission too quickly for Lan Wangji to see him in action. He lets out an involuntary ah, and Wei Wuxian untucks his face from the crook of Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asks, craning his head to look ahead, scanning for obstructions and finding none.

Embarrassed that he’s been caught by Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji shakes his head, and tries to brush the matter off. “Nothing.”

“What is it? You’ve got me curious.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are wide and guileless when Lan Wangji turns to meet his gaze, and his resolve to avoid embarrassment for himself crumbles like sand. He tells the truth. “I had anticipated seeing your swordplay on the night hunt, but in the end I didn’t get the chance.”

“Wow, you’re so sneaky, Lan Zhan. Who would have thought that your motive for coming along on the night hunt was to assess my sword fighting? You could have just asked. We can spar when we get back to Lotus Pier!”

Sparing a thought for Wei Wuxian’s bruised ribs since Wei Wuxian apparently wouldn’t, Lan Wangji replies, “Only after you heal.”

“Fine, fine, whatever you say. You’re such a mother hen, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, burying his nose back into Lan Wangji’s shoulder so his words are muffled, more felt than heard by Lan Wangji. Despite the grumpy tone of his words, his hands tighten around Lan Wangji’s waist, and stay locked until they touch down in Lotus Pier a few hours later.

 

 

Their chance for a spar only comes nearly a month later, when the Mid-Autumn Festival is just around the corner. Wei Wuxian suffers through a lengthy convalescence, during which he is fussed over by Jiang Yanli and watched over with the acuity of a hawk by Lan Wangji. During this period, quite frankly, he gets coddled and pampered. Jiang Yanli cooks lotus root and pork rib soup for him nearly weekly, and Lan Wangji capitulates to the puppy eyes that Wei Wuxian puts to devastating effect, and ends up fetching diversions and snacks to Wei Wuxian’s sickroom daily. When the family physician declares Wei Wuxian’s ribs fully recovered, he immediately drags Lan Wangji to do all the things he had been barred from doing during his recovery. First on his list is a spar between the two of them.

The weather is mild the day of their spar, the early morning light spilling gently across the dirt floor of the training ground that they’ve chosen as their sparring ground. Silver light reflects off Bichen’s blade and Suibian glints as Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian draw their swords and strike a stance in preparation for the spar. They’ve attracted quite an audience, although neither of them had advertised their spar. Various disciples and servants crowd around the passages surrounding the training ground, trying to be inconspicuous. Lan Wangji can spot his fair share of Lan sect disciples, as well as the purple-clad figures of Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli. He can’t be sure, but he thinks he sees Madam Yu amongst the crowd, gaze sharp and shadowed by her ever-present handmaidens.

If their audience makes Wei Wuxian nervous, he doesn’t show it in the least. He yells out across the training field, his tone a little taunting. “Lan Zhan, don’t go easy on me. Show me what the second Twin Jade of Lan is capable of!”

Lan Wangji nods seriously. He brandishes Bichen, and the fight begins.

Wei Wuxian is an exceptional swordsman, dodging Lan Wangji’s precise strikes with ease. He somersaults and bends out of the way of blows that should be unavoidable, moving with a dancer-like grace. He is agile on his feet, avoiding Lan Wangji’s attacks with ease. His slender form belies the strength that lies behind his offensive blows. When their swords clash, the resulting impact zings down Lan Wangji’s arms. Wei Wuxian absorbs the force of Lan Wangji’s blows effortlessly, redirecting the momentum of the strikes elsewhere with a flick of his wrist so he never has to give up ground. The style of his swordplay is unpredictable; Wei Wuxian twists in mid-air with a terpsichorean grace more suited to the stage, and Lan Wangji is constantly kept on his toes, parrying blows that come out of left field.

Wei Wuxian’s instincts are sharp, and his reflexes even sharper. He picks up on the fact that Lan Wangji tends to end his offensives with a flurry of rapid blows intended to look for chinks in his opponent’s defense, and matches each blow, before responding in kind so rapidly that Lan Wangji is nearly caught off-guard. In this way, their spar moves from one area of the training ground to another, each of them gaining and losing ground in equal measure.

Lan Wangji is vaguely aware that there are people cheering for each of them whenever they do a good job of parrying or attacking, but he tunes out the distraction for what is infinitely more fascinating: the sight of Wei Wuxian, energized by the sound of their swords clashing, competitiveness burning in his eyes. He is mesmerizing on the battlefield, sword moving like an extension of his own body, lethal and deadly. Lan Wangji has never fought an opponent like Wei Wuxian, so unpredictable in his moves that even the most advanced Lan sect sword forms are unable to subdue him. Never before has anyone been such a challenge, been so well-matched against Lan Wangji’s skill, that he cannot seem to gain an inch or tire his opponent out.

It makes the blood rush through Lan Wangji’s veins with exhilaration, and he falls a little in love with Wei Wuxian right there on that training ground, sweat dripping into his eyes and muscles trembling with exertion.

Their fight ends only when both of them are exhausted, with no clear winner because they are too evenly-matched. The audience that they’ve gather clap raucously, shouting good show and that was amazing.

Lan Wangji’s eyes meet those of Wei Wuxian’s across the dusty ground that separates them. In them, he can read the exact same fierce excitement that is singing through his veins.

 

 

For the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), the people of Yunmeng decorate their abodes and streets with brightly-colored lanterns, stringing them up along walkways and across streets. The Jiang family, including Lan Wangji, gather after dinner to share mooncakes (月饼) as dessert, pairing the sweet lotus paste pastries with fragrant tea. Sect Leader Jiang divides one mooncake, imprinted with the character for harmony, into six pieces and gives them out to each of them. The mood around the table is peaceful; Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin tiffing over a salted duck egg yolk while the rest of them sip their tea and view the full moon. When the adults retire, the four of them move to the main hall to join the other disciples to release sky lanterns (放天灯). Amicable chatter fills the main hall, as they all get to work.

Both he and Wei Wuxian are experienced at crafting sky lanterns, and they make quick work of their shared one, twisting thin wooden strips and gluing wax paper into their proper shapes to form a sky lantern. That leaves them free to spend the rest of their time decorating it, and Lan Wangji is happy to take a backseat as Wei Wuxian sprawls on his stomach to paint on it, brandishing a paintbrush as he goes to work on the wax paper surface. He contents himself with watching Wei Wuxian, trying not to be too obvious in his staring, although if Jiang Yanli’s tittering and Jiang Wanyin’s vaguely nauseated expression are anything to judge by, he doesn’t do a very good job. When Wei Wuxian finishes, he holds the wax paper up for Lan Wangji’s inspection.

“Look, Lan Zhan! I’ve drawn the lotus flowers at our pavilion!”

Indeed he has. The inked lotus flowers on the sky lantern are a good reproduction of the white-and-yellow blooms floating above the water surface around the Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty, and Lan Wangji praises Wei Wuxian, who beams in response. “They’re beautiful.”

It’s almost a pity to send the sky lantern up into the sky when it bears such a lovely painting, but Lan Wangji lights the small candle underneath it when the time comes anyway. Wei Wuxian’s eyes reflect the warm candlelight as he smiles at Lan Wangji, their fingers brushing against each other’s as they hold the sky lantern steady as warm air fills it. The disciples release their sky lanterns at the same time, their small fleet of lights sailing together into the night sky and getting smaller and smaller as they drift further. By some wordless agreement, one by one they begin clasping their hands together and closing their eyes to make wishes, but Lan Wangji keep his gaze fixed on Wei Wuxian.

The smile on Wei Wuxian’s face, which had been filled with wonder when he saw the sky lantern rise into the air, softens and he closes his eyes and clasps his hands together, just like the others, to make a wish.

“I, Wei Wuxian, wish I can eliminate evil and protect the weak, with a clear conscience.” Then Wei Wuxian pauses, and adds something onto the end of his wish, muttered too softly for Lan Wangji to hear.

Nothing about riches, or status, or even that Madam Yu will stop reprimanding him. Just an earnest wish to carry out justice. Lan Wangji is already half-convinced that he loves Wei Wuxian, but little things like this only serve to make his feelings more sure.

Chapter Text

One clement day near the end of October, Jiang Yanli recruits Lan Wangji’s assistance in distracting Wei Wuxian from his birthday celebration preparations. Wei Wuxian’s fourteenth birthday falls on a Saturday, and Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin and the rest of the disciples plan to decorate the main hall for his birthday. Lan Wangji’s responsibility will be to occupy Wei Wuxian and keep him away from Lotus Pier until dinnertime.

Lan Wangji seriously doubts that Wei Wuxian would forget his own birthday, and he expresses this sentiment to Jiang Yanli.

She only smiles and says, “Our Xianxian may have a glib tongue and excellent cultivation, but the one thing he lacks is a good memory, especially when it comes to things about himself. If you keep him from the house proper, I guarantee he’ll be surprised!”

Lan Wangji isn’t able to shake off all his doubt, but he nods nonetheless, trusting Jiang Yanli.

She moves to another corner of the main hall, beckoning a few disciples over to decorate it as she continues. “Thank you for agreeing to help us, Second Young Master Lan. Last year we had to pretend that I lost an earring in the market. It was a whole production, and A-Cheng nearly blew the entire surprise.”

Lan Wangji can imagine the scene all-too-easily: Wei Wuxian whole-heartedly scouring the marketplace for Jiang Yanli’s nonexistent earring, complete in his devotion, the way he was whenever anything involved Jiang Yanli. The way he would have blown up at Jiang Wanyin’s half-hearted attempts at playing along, and how Jiang Wanyin’s short temper might have resulted in a spoilt surprise.

Jiang Yanli ushers Lan Wangji out of the main hall and points him in the direction of Wei Wuxian’s room. “Remember, get him back here by dinnertime!”

 

 

The time is still early: only seven in the morning, far too early for Wei Wuxian to be awake on a weekend. If Lan Wangji wakes him up now, he will undoubtable be cranky.

As he paces outside Wei Wuxian’s room, Lan Wangji considers his options. He had, unfortunately, not been privy to the information that Wei Wuxian’s birthday was today up until thirty minutes ago, when Jiang Wanyin had ambushed him after he had completed his morning training. As such, he is woefully unprepared: he has no gift, and no time to acquire one, since he will be accompanying Wei Wuxian the entire day. He has no idea what Wei Wuxian might like as a birthday gift, for that matter. Lan Wangji has taken to buying Wei Wuxian all the things that catch his fancy in the marketplace, and by now, there is surely nothing left.

In his panic, all he can remember are Wei Wuxian’s favorite foods: the spicy mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) at the inn across from the florist, Jiang Yanli’s lotus root and pork rib soup, and the steamed soup dumplings (小笼包) from a store tucked inside one of the alleyways lining the main street of Yunmeng.

What else is there… Lan Wangji wracks his brain, steps slow and measured as he paces outside the threshold of Wei Wuxian’s room. He attracts curious stares from the few servants who pass by, but none of them pay him any heed, bustling away to carry out their tasks.

He stops in his tracks. Of course. Scallion pancakes (葱油饼).

It was a favorite topic of Wei Wuxian’s: he waxed rhapsodic about the scallion pancakes that were only sold on weekends at the market, about how perfectly crisp and salty the exterior was, and how the inside was fluffy and filled with chopped scallion, fragrant and succulent. Then, of course, he would continue to whine about how they were always sold out by the time he made his way to the marketplace stall.

If Lan Wangji procures a scallion pancake for Wei Wuxian, he will surely be happy. It would be a good start to his birthday. Before he hurries off towards the market, Lan Wangji affixes a charm of sealing on Wei Wuxian’s door, one that will alert Lan Wangji if Wei Wuxian wakes up and tries to leave his room. It wouldn’t do to let Wei Wuxian sneak off by himself.

 

 

There is, unsurprisingly, a queue snaking around the block for the scallion pancakes. Lan Wangji takes the time spent queuing coming up with a plan for the day, and by the time he returns to Wei Wuxian’s room bearing two scallion pancakes, he has refined it to perfection. It will allow Lan Wangji to neatly distract Wei Wuxian and learn what he would like as a present. As a bonus, as long as he phrases his sentences correctly, he won’t even need to lie. He removes the charm, untriggered and untouched, from Wei Wuxian’s door, and knocks firmly.

It takes a few minutes for Wei Wuxian to answer, and when he does, he is rubbing his eyes blearily, hair tangled and sleeping robes loose around his shoulders. “Who is it? Lan Zhan? What are you doing here? What time is it?”

“It is nine.”

Lan Wangji shoves the scallion pancakes into Wei Wuxian’s hands. They’re still piping-hot; Lan Wangji had used warming talismans to keep them from getting cold. Keeping scallion pancakes warm for one’s beloved had definitely not been one of the suggested usages of warming talismans provided by his tutors at the Cloud Recesses, but they had served the purpose anyway.

“What’s this?” Wei Wuxian asks, opening the paper bag before gasping. “Are these for me? I know this smell! Are these from the marketplace?”

“Mn.”

“Thank you, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji finds it difficult to tear his eyes from the small patch of pale unblemished décolletage left revealed by Wei Wuxian’s loose sleeping robes, so he forces himself to keep his gaze on Wei Wuxian’s eyes, which are glowing with happiness instead. “Do you have any plans for today?”

“Hm? Nope.” Wei Wuxian hums contently as he inhales the smell of the scallion pancakes. “Why do you ask?”

“I need your help with something. Come to the market with me today,” Lan Wangji requests.

“Sure,” Wei Wuxian agrees, waving Lan Wangji into his room. “What kind of help do you need?”

As Wei Wuxian moves around the room, washing his face and dressing himself, Lan Wangji takes a deep breath. This is a critical moment. Lan Wangji has to phrase his sentences exactly, so that the rest of the plan goes smoothly and Wei Wuxian’s suspicions remain unaroused.

Xiongzhang’s birthday is in October. I do not have a gift for him.”

Both sentences are, technically, completely true. Lan Xichen’s birthday is in October, and Lan Wangji doesn’t have a present for him. But Wei Wuxian doesn’t need to know that Lan Xichen’s birthday has already passed, and that the two of them don’t have the practice of exchanging gifts on birthdays.

“Ahh, I see. You want help choosing a gift for your brother?” Wei Wuxian says as he disappears behind a folding screen to don his clothes. Perfect. Wei Wuxian has assumed exactly what Lan Wangji thought he would, and he feels no need to correct Wei Wuxian’s erroneous belief.

“I would appreciate your help.” In choosing your own birthday present, he completes in his mind. (That still technically wasn’t a lie. Right? If only Lan Qiren could see him now…)

“Of course I’ll help you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, entirely too earnestly, smiling that smile of his that he seems to reserve only for Lan Wangji. “I’m decent. Let’s go!”

 

 

Lan Wangji steers Wei Wuxian carefully through the side paths so that he doesn’t pass through the main hall, and they make their way out of Lotus Pier smoothly with no mishaps. Wei Wuxian chatters along the way, asking for details about Lan Xichen when his mouth isn’t occupied with food that Lan Wangji supplies. Lan Wangji ends up taking the other scallion pancake, and he has to admit that it really is quite good; perhaps he will make it a habit to frequent that store in the future, and buy some extra for Wei Wuxian as well.

They reach the marketplace without incident. Wei Wuxian turns around to face Lan Wangji, as he walks backwards. “Hmm… So far we know that your brother likes the color blue, painting, and archery.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji uses a hand to guide Wei Wuxian’s shoulder so he doesn’t bump into other pedestrians on the path.

“Let’s start working our way through this side of the market, and if we don’t find anything we’ll go to the main street!”

They browse through countless makeshift roadside stalls hawking trinkets. The storekeepers beckon them closer, extolling the virtues of their wares, all of which Lan Wangji listens to with only one ear. His attention is focused on reading Wei Wuxian’s body language. Most of Wei Wuxian’s mind seems to be focused on the task, occasionally holding up trinkets for Lan Wangji’s approval, but sometimes his gaze will linger on items that he seems to want for himself: a carved rabbit, or a set of orange paints perfect for capturing the splendor of autumn foliage. Lan Wangji purchases those under the guise of getting them for his brother, and spirits them away into a qiankun pouch.

The sun is starting to beat down more strongly by the time they finish winding their way through the trinket stalls. Lan Wangji sees the steamed soup dumpling store out of the corner of his eye, and takes the opportunity to steer Wei Wuxian in that direction.

“What’s up, Lan Zhan? Are you hungry?” Wei Wuxian says as Lan Wangji presses him onto a stool.

Lan Wangji gestures at the sunshine streaming outside the awning of the restaurant. “Hot.”

“That’s true. It wouldn’t do to get your pretty skin tanned, would it?” Wei Wuxian teases.

“Ridiculous.”

In response, Wei Wuxian only makes a fond expression, scrunching his eyes and nose adorably. He has long since grown inured to Lan Wangji’s responses to his teasing.

They order one bamboo steamer of soup dumplings to share. Wei Wuxian ends up being too hasty and burning his tongue on the hot soup inside the dumplings, as he always does, while Lan Wangji takes his time to blow on his dumplings before eating them. The skin of the dumplings are thin and translucent, the minced pork inside tender and flavorful. Lan Wangji is as sorely tempted as Wei Wuxian to order another bamboo steamer, but he quashes down the desire. If they overeat now, he won’t be able to bring Wei Wuxian for mapo tofu.

Wei Wuxian reaches for his money pouch to pay, and Lan Wangji stops him, handing over his own money to the storekeeper. “My treat.”

“Lan Zhan, you’re being too nice to me today! You know, I’ll help you regardless whether you bribe me with food.”

Lan Wangji nods. “Not a bribe.” A present.

Having combed through the section of the market dedicated to trinkets, the two of them decide on their next plan of action: browsing through the main street. Composed of two long rows of shophouses on either side, the main street housed larger specialty shops: furniture-makers, medicinal shops, textile stores. They wind their way slowly through the shops, nothing catching either Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji’s eyes until they reach the instrument shop.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, beckoning Lan Wangji towards the shelves of musical paraphernalia. “Doesn’t your brother play the xiao and guqin? Why not gift him something that he can use to maintain his instruments?”

Lan Wangji nods, feigning interest in the selection of silk guqin strings available until he sees that Wei Wuxian has been distracted. When Wei Wuxian is fully engrossed in an ocarina demonstration provided by one of the shop assistants, Lan Wangji beckons over the shopkeeper, placing a finger on his lips to signal his desire for secrecy. He points at a small package of dimo (笛膜, membrane used in playing the dizi), pulls out his money pouch, and succeeds in carrying out the transaction in silence. By the time Wei Wuxian returns to Lan Wangji’s side, thinking out loud about whether musical cultivation is possible with all instruments, including the ocarina, the gift has been spirited away into the qiankun pouch Lan Wangji has designated for carrying Wei Wuxian’s birthday gifts, and Wei Wuxian remains none the wiser.

When he wants to make his next purchase, Lan Wangji relies on another method to distract Wei Wuxian. He gazes for a long while at the combs displayed outside the woodworker’s shop, mulling over which one would suit Wei Wuxian the best. The worn comb he had used to comb Wei Wuxian’s hair during the night hunt still remains in his thoughts, and Lan Wangji thinks that Wei Wuxian is well overdue for a new comb.

He ponders his decision carefully, running his fingers over beautifully carved handles and woods of different colors, but ultimately it is his sense of smell that helps him decide. One of the combs, adorned with carvings of lotus blooms, carries the faint fragrance of sandalwood, and that, combined with its design, is enough to make up Lan Wangji’s mind. He dispatches Wei Wuxian to buy a stick of candied hawthorn, and makes the purchase quickly and discreetly, just as before. Wei Wuxian returns whistling, nary a suspicion on his mind, and Lan Wangji thinks internally that he might have a talent for subterfuge. Either that or Wei Wuxian really is terribly clueless and unobservant.

Continuing on their way, they stop at the pet shop for Wei Wuxian to ooh and ahh over adorable songbirds (Lan Wangji dismisses those as gifts: too much responsibility. Pets were not an undertaking taken on lightly), and Lan Wangji steers Wei Wuxian towards the inn when lunchtime approaches.

“Good pick, Lan Zhan! The food here is delicious,” Wei Wuxian says as the staff show them to a table.

As expected, Wei Wuxian orders the mapo tofu as well as other spicy dishes, and Lan Wangji adds on a few blander dishes, so that he will have something to eat as well. The rest of the meal goes by enjoyably. Wei Wuxian continues bouncing ideas off Lan Wangji as they eat, while Lan Wangji half-heartedly chides Wei Wuxian for speaking during meals. After his acquaintance with Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has come to realize that some of the rules carved on the wall at the Cloud Recesses are not, strictly speaking, reasonable or meant to be followed all the time. He lets Wei Wuxian’s cheerful chatter enliven the meal, staring at his lovely face, flushed from the heat of the spices, and he only has to avert his eyes a few times, when they get entranced by the sight of Wei Wuxian’s lips, glossy from chili oil and unfairly luscious and tempting.

After lunch, they resume their desultory shopping. At this point, Lan Wangji is more of dawdling than anything. He already has a few gifts for his fiancé, and he had realized over lunch that there didn’t remain much more of the market for him to divert Wei Wuxian’s attention with. If he wasn’t careful, they would end up returning to Lotus Pier before Jiang Yanli’s appointed time in the evening. He resolves to delay Wei Wuxian as much as possible, so as to not spoil his birthday surprise.

They wind up at the textile shop, one of the last stores along the main street that they haven’t browsed yet, and thankfully, Lan Wangji finds an opportunity to spend a few hours there. The shopkeeper, seeing the heft of Lan Wangji’s money pouch and the quality of his clothing, quickly realizes that she has the chance to make a big sale, and sets them up with a pot of tea, as she enlists her shop assistants to parade an endless array of cloth before Lan Wangji for his approval. He takes far too much time pondering the merits of each bolt of cloth, so much so that Wei Wuxian starts to wilt from boredom.

Finally, after much consideration, he settles on a dark blue patterned brocade that would suit his brother well. For Wei Wuxian, he selects a bolt each of lightly embroidered black and red cloth, that can be fashioned into a new set of robes. They are sturdy and well-made, more than sufficient to weather the scrapes that Wei Wuxian gets into. That, and the fact that they’re in Wei Wuxian’s favorite colors and stitched with subtle designs is a bonus. The thought of Wei Wuxian wearing something that Lan Wangji had commissioned for him makes his stomach feel warm, as does the notion that he could comb Wei Wuxian’s hair with the comb he had bought for him. Was this what it feels like to purchase something for someone he loves romantically? Lan Wangji understands the protagonists of the classics he reads now, the way they grow warm and flustered just from selecting a gift for their beloved. He spares a fond glance for Wei Wuxian, lightly dozing in his chair, and moves over to the counter to pay for his purchases.

As he takes out his money pouch, his gaze catches on a pair of gloves displayed behind the glass of a display counter. Made of pale white silk and trimmed with fur, they look perfect for someone who complains of cold hands constantly, like Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji cannot stop himself from purchasing the gloves as well, thinking of the bitter cold Gusu winters that Wei Wuxian would have to weather when he became a guest disciple next year.

When he returns to Wei Wuxian’s side, the presents have been hidden and his money pouch is considerably lighter. Wei Wuxian greets him with a sleepy smile, a little apologetic. “Sorry, Lan Zhan. I’m supposed to be helping you pick a present, but I fell asleep. It’s nice how seriously you’re taking this. You must care for your brother a lot. What did you pick in the end?”

“Blue brocade.” Lan Wangji omits the other purchases that are meant for Wei Wuxian.

“Ah, the one with scale-pattern? Good choice,” Wei Wuxian says, standing up and stretching. “Well, shall we head back to Lotus Pier? We’ve been out all day-”

“No!”

Wei Wuxian blinks in confusion. Seeing that he has surprised Wei Wuxian with his vehemence, Lan Wangji immediately tones down his voice. He darts a quick look at the sky outside; it’s still too early, and they have a few more hours before dinnertime, when it will be safe for Wei Wuxian to return to Lotus Pier. Grasping desperately for anything that will occupy Wei Wuxian for a little longer, Lan Wangji blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “I want to eat lotus seeds. Fresh ones, from the willow grove.”

Wei Wuxian tilts his head, looking slightly perplexed by Lan Wangji’s sudden demand to visit their secret spot and he smiles. “Well, sure. Why the sudden craving? I thought I was the one who likes lotus seeds.”

Good-natured as ever, Wei Wuxian leads the way to Yunmeng Wharf, where he charms one of the fishermen into lending them his boat for the afternoon. As they make their way downriver, Lan Wangji breathes a sigh of relief internally. Going to the willow grove would take some time, and Lan Wangji could easily convince Wei Wuxian to take a meandering walk through the surrounding forests that would swallow up even more. Lan Wangji lets his eyes trace over Wei Wuxian’s figure, imagining him garbed in new black and red robes, wearing the white silk gloves sitting in Lan Wangji’s qiankun pouch, and wonders how pleased he will be to receive his gifts later.

In no time at all, they reach the willow grove. It is impossible to miss, the elongated leaves of the trees having turned an autumnal shade of pale yellow. The leaves brush their heads as Wei Wuxian runs aground their boat and they disembark. It’s a lovely sight, like a maiden with golden hair washing her hair in the river, and one that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian have not had the pleasure of witnessing yet. The commotion of the night hunt and Wei Wuxian’s enforced convalescence to ensure his ribs healed well had conspired to keep them from sneaking away to this secret spot. The chilly autumn winter had been a deterrent as well. What made the willow grove an ideal place to cool off in the summer made it an unappealing prospect in the cool autumn weather, after all. The willow trees are not the only ones to have changed color; all around them, verdant evergreens are mixed with deciduous trees that have begun donning their fall vestments. As Lan Wangji admires the natural scenery, Wei Wuxian does the same, his expression reflecting his wonder.

“Lan Zhan, it’s so pretty! Shall we take a walk and see else we can find in the forest?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Wonderful. Without Lan Wangji even planting the idea, Wei Wuxian had already proposed a walk. Hitting Jiang Yanli’s deadline would be a simple matter now. Wei Wuxian always found things to amuse himself with on their promenades through the forest. Lan Wangji nods his agreement, and follows Wei Wuxian deeper into the forest.

The scenery is breathtaking. Late afternoon light, syrupy-gold, drips through the orange leaves above head as they stroll. The ground is covered with fallen leaves, crunching underfoot with their every step. Wei Wuxian makes a game of jumping from one pile of crunchy leaves directly into another, and his laughter rings through the forest when he manages to convince Lan Wangji to join him. The earthy smell of decomposing leaves and the fragrance of flowers mix and meld together, lingering in the air around them.

The best surprise comes when they chance upon the clearing where they had found a ginkgo tree earlier in the summer. It had been the perfect refuge from the heat: the bilobed leaves of the ginkgo had stretched out like a canopy all the way across the clearing, shading it from the worst of the sun’s rays. Now in autumn, those same leaves have all fallen, carpeting the area clear with golden-yellow leaves, like it has been paved with gold while they were gone. The contrast is made more distinct as the trees surrounding the ginkgo are all evergreens, such that a circle of emerald perfectly surrounds the single dot of gold that is the clearing.

Wei Wuxian gasps in delight when he sees the sight, spinning around to face Lan Wangji. “It’s so beautiful, Lan Zhan! Ah, I wish I could imprint this scene in my memory so I never forget it.”

Lan Wangji thinks of the set of paints he has purchased for Wei Wuxian, perfectly suited for depicting such an occasion, and smiles privately. He had not made the wrong choice. “I’ll help you to remember. And if you forget, we can just come here again next autumn.”

Wei Wuxian smiles, mirthful. “What are you saying, Lan Zhan? This time next year we’ll be in the Cloud Recesses.”

“Then the year after that,” Lan Wangji amends, warm with the thought of spending another two years in the company of Wei Wuxian.

“I’ll hold you to it, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian waggles his finger mock-sternly at Lan Wangji. “Two years later you have to promise to come visit me in Yunmeng. After all, we’re best friends now!”

He smiles radiantly, a miniature sun, and enlists Lan Wangji’s help in piling the golden ginkgo leaves into piles so that he can jump into them. Pink-cheeked with exertion, Wei Wuxian hurls himself into the leaf piles, which explode with little poofs, sending drifts of leaves spiraling everywhere. Once nestled amongst the leaves, Wei Wuxian starts moving his arms and legs like he is making a snow-angel, and he gets leaves positively everywhere on his body. Lan Wangji untangles a ginkgo leaf from where it is caught in Wei Wuxian’s hair, and holds it up to the light for inspection, twirling it by the stalk. Thin veins stretch out across the leaf, lit up from behind by the sun, and Lan Wangji marvels at its pure golden hue. They must have caught the tree right after its leaves had dropped; the leaves are all a uniform yellow color, unmarred by the brown edges or dark veins that days-old leaves bear. He tucks it into his robes, hoping that it will stay flat until they return to Lotus Pier and he can press it in one of his books.

They play until the sky begins to darken, leaving the magical clearing behind longingly and walking back to the boat. There is just enough time to cut down a few lotus seed pods to take with them before they start rowing the boat back to Lotus Wharf, where they return the boat to its rightful owner with effusive thanks (from Wei Wuxian) and a nod of gratitude (from Lan Wangji). Lan Wangji peels the seeds out from their pods slowly as they make the journey back to Lotus Pier, cupping them in his hand and passing them to Wei Wuxian when he asks for some. Lan Wangji indulges himself in a little fantasy, and imagines what it would be like to row a boat out into the river and hand-feed Wei Wuxian freshly-picked lotus seeds, pressing his fingers to soft lips the way he has seen senior disciples do, their body language obscured by lotus leaves but unmistakably flirtatious, even from a distance.

Walking at their current pace, it takes them only ten minutes to reach the front gates of Lotus Pier. There is one disciple loitering outside the gate, rather obviously sent to watch for Wei Wuxian’s arrival and provide fair warning to the others inside. When he (the third shidi? Lan Wangji can’t be sure) sees Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian approaching the gates, he announces in a loud voice, “Senior Wei! Where have you been all day? We went kite-shooting without you today!”

Wei Wuxian, friendly as ever, swings an arm around the disciple’s shoulder and ruffles his hair fondly. “I had a bit of a shopping trip today. Tell me what you did today! Who won?”

The disciple winks at Lan Wangji discretely, and casually leads Wei Wuxian deeper into Lotus Pier, in the direction of the main hall. Lan Wangji follows behind.

When they reach the main hall, which has been positively festooned with bright ribbons, Wei Wuxian has half a second to look about with curiosity, before Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin and a motley crew of disciples jump out and surprise him, shouting “Happy birthday!”

To his surprise, Lan Wangji can spot a few white-robed Lan sect disciples among the purple-clad Jiang sect disciples. As Wei Wuxian is surrounded by people wishing him a happy birthday on all sides, Lan Wangji retreats from the crush of people, and observes the main hall. It has been exquisitely decorated under the tasteful eye of Jiang Yanli, and a scrumptious spread of food is laid out across two tables. Not only the disciples were here, some of the elders had shown up as well. Lan Wangji could see Sect Leader Jiang and his wife, standing a courteous three feet apart, watching the celebrations unfold from the corner they occupy. Some of the staff, such as the middle-aged ladies who work in the kitchens, have shown up as well.

Wei Wuxian is all smiles, thanking everyone profusely for the unexpected surprise. He suits being the center of attention, laughter bright and ringing across the room as he accepts birthday wishes and gifts until he has no more space in his hands to hold them. The Jiang sect disciples have banded together to present Wei Wuxian with oil to upkeep Suibian with, while Jiang Yanli ladles a bowl brimming with lotus root and pork rib soup for Wei Wuxian to savor. Even Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu give Wei Wuxian red packets for his birthday, Sect Leader Jiang with kind reminders and well wishes, and Madam Yu with a mostly stern, slightly fond order for Wei Wuxian to act his age and be a good example to the other disciples. The celebration goes on for some hours, filled with games and food (Wei Wuxian slurps down his bowl of longevity noodles (长寿面) with surprising alacrity in record-breaking time), and it is only later in the evening that Lan Wangji is able to catch Wei Wuxian alone.

Sated and tired out from the commotion of his surprise birthday party, Wei Wuxian is walking back to his room, Lan Wangji at his side, when he suddenly spins to face Lan Wangji. “Hold on, Lan Zhan. Our outing today to find a present for your brother… was it just a way to distract me so I wouldn’t catch onto the surprise?”

Lan Wangji spares a silent prayer for Wei Wuxian’s obliviousness. For all that he could be brilliant, Wei Wuxian was also terribly slow on the uptake sometimes. Any other person would have realized the moment he had been surprised, but not Wei Wuxian.

Lan Wangji nods, “It was a ruse.”

“Then, did you really need my help to find a present for your brother?”

“No. It was to find out what you would like as your present,” Lan Wangji replies, shaking his head and pulling out the qiankun pouch containing his gifts, and holding it out to Wei Wuxian. “Orange paints. Carved wooden rabbit. Comb. Dimo. Two bolts of cloth. Gloves.”

Wei Wuxian is wide-eyed as he accepts the proffered pouch. “You bought so much? And you even treated me to my favorite foods, and brought me out to the willow grove to play…”

Wei Wuxian bites his lip, his eyes shining with emotion, and throws himself towards Lan Wangji, enveloping him in a tight hug. “Thank you, Lan Zhan! This has been the best birthday ever!”

Lan Wangji’s hands come up to embrace Wei Wuxian automatically. The sensation of Wei Wuxian’s body so close to his brings back memories of the sword flight from Liaojing City back to Lotus Pier, except now Lan Wangji can squeeze Wei Wuxian back without fear of hurting him. They hold each other for a long moment, and when they part Wei Wuxian keeps hold of Lan Wangji’s hand and leads him to Wei Wuxian’s room, insisting that Lan Wangji push off his bedtime just a little so that Wei Wuxian can admire the gifts he has received from him.

Lan Wangji looks on, pleased, as Wei Wuxian pulls out his gifts one by one and appreciates each in turn. When he takes out the carved wooden rabbit, he makes his charmed face, the one where he scrunches his face adorably, and bumps noses with it. He tries on the gloves, pronouncing them a perfect fit, and runs admiring fingers along the weave of the fabric Lan Wangji had purchased, already planning to make a visit to the tailor’s to commission a set of new robes. The comb is the last gift that Wei Wuxian turns his attention towards, and he holds it up to his nose, inhaling its scent before a beatific smile overtakes his face.

“I love the sandalwood scent, it’s just like the fragrance you carry on your robes. In the future, my hair will smell just like you,” Wei Wuxian says shyly. He moves away, and pulls his old comb out of a drawer. “The comb I’ve been using actually belongs to my mother. It’s the only thing I have left from her, so I treasure it greatly. But I’ve been thinking recently that I should get another comb for daily use, so that I don’t wear it out. It’s like we have telepathy (心灵相通). Thank you for the thoughtful gift, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji carries the warmth that those words generate to bed, and falls asleep dreaming of himself combing Wei Wuxian’s hair with the sandalwood comb.

 

 

(Later on, when Jiang Yanli casually asks Lan Wangji what he had given to Wei Wuxian for his birthday, it is not the number of gifts or the amount of money he spent that surprises her, but the fact that he chose a comb.

“Second Young Master Lan, I wouldn’t have expected you to be so forward. Did A-xian accept it?” Jiang Yanli says, covering her mouth.

Lan Wangji hesitates a moment, not entirely sure of Jiang Yanli’s meaning. “Yes.”

Beaming, Jiang Yanli touches a hand to Lan Wangji’s forearm, and says, “I’m so happy for the two of you!”

It is only later, in the privacy of his own room that Lan Wangji realizes the reason for Jiang Yanli’s shocked response. In his frantic rush to procure suitable gifts for Wei Wuxian, something very important had slipped Lan Wangji’s mind. To gift someone else with a comb was to express a desire to spend the rest of your life with them, until their hair turned white with age (白头偕老).

Lan Wangji resists the urge to slap his forehead with frustration. To think that he had handed such a meaningful gift to Wei Wuxian without fully realizing the implication behind it… If he could turn back time, he would have prefaced his gift with some meaningful declaration of his feelings, rather than simply handing it over.

He ponders for a moment whether Wei Wuxian had realized the meaning of the comb Lan Wangji had gifted him, before remembering his incredibly obtuseness and the hours that he had needed to realize Lan Wangji’s ruse the day of his birthday. Better to assume the worst, and act as if nothing had happened.

But still… it had to be good news, that Wei Wuxian had reacted so happily to the gift, right? A small voice in Lan Wangji’s mind says.)

 

 

The end of autumn is ushered in by Jiang Wanyin’s birthday celebration, coming barely a week after Wei Wuxian’s. The disciples plan to hold a celebration that is equally as raucous as the one they held for Wei Wuxian, although this time there is no need for subterfuge; Jiang Wanyin isn’t the sort to forgot when his birthday is, and the close proximity of Wei Wuxian’s birthday serves as a reminder anyway.

A few days before Jiang Wanyin’s birthday, Lan Wangji accompanies Wei Wuxian to the marketplace to pick out a gift.

“Hmm… Jiang Cheng is a difficult person to buy a gift for. He doesn’t really have hobbies besides cultivation or training to be the next sect leader. He hasn’t mentioned anything that needs replacing either…” Wei Wuxian muses as they walk from Lotus Pier to the marketplace.

“I’m sure you’ll find something, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replies.

The two of them wander along the same trinket stalls they visited scant days ago without much success, until they land on a stall selling hair accessories. Hair ribbons of every color are displayed, as are exquisitely carved hair sticks (笄). Combs and other more fanciful flowers made of cloth (簪花) that maidens use to ornament their hair are also arranged artfully on the table, and the storekeeper cheerfully markets his products to Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji waits patiently as Wei Wuxian considers the selection before him, running his fingers over wooden hair sticks and along silk ribbons, until he lands on two choices: a purple silk ribbon and a wooden hair stick, both decorated with the lotus symbol of Yunmeng.

Wei Wuxian holds the two up. “Which one is better, Lan Zhan? I like them both, but I only have enough money for one.”

Lan Wangji’s hand moves to the money pouch at his waist almost automatically; paying for Wei Wuxian is something that he is used to by now. He’s ready to offer to pay for both items, before he remembers Wei Wuxian’s admonishment not to spend too much money on him. Lan Wangji changes tack instead.

“You can get the ribbon, and I’ll get the hair stick. This way Jiang Wanyin will receive both.”

“Ah, good idea, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, handing both items to the storekeeper. “Laoban (老板), I’ll take them both.”

As the storekeeper wraps their gifts up, Wei Wuxian bumps his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s, and Lan Wangji allows it with no small degree of fondness. “Lan Zhan, aren’t you a crafty one? Admit it, you leeched off my present because you couldn’t think of what to get Jiang Cheng, right?”

“Mn.”

It would have been rude not to give Jiang Wanyin something for his birthday, especially since Lan Wangji had done so for Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian. To be honest, Lan Wangji had not the slightest idea what might interest Jiang Wanyin. If Wei Wuxian hadn’t been here, he would have resorted to something utterly generic, like some oil for sword upkeep, or a new calligraphy brush.

“Aren’t you glad you have me around?” Wei Wuxian asks, before turning back to the shopkeeper to take the wrapped gifts. He misses the nod Lan Wangji makes in response, and the two of them start walking back towards Lotus Pier. “Anyway, I think Jiang Cheng will really like what we’ve gotten! He doesn’t look it, but he’s vain about his hair. ”

True to Wei Wuxian’s prediction, Jiang Wanyin adores it. Of course, he doesn’t show it in any conventional way like another person might, such as saying thank you, but he accepts the gift with a minimum of bluster, scolding Wei Wuxian for spending money on frivolous things in a way that really means he’s very touched by the gift. Then, right the next morning, he turns up for morning practice with both the hair stick and ribbon worked into his usual hairstyle, and when Wei Wuxian notices it and swings his arm around Jiang Wanyin’s neck in a side-hug, he allows Wei Wuxian to hang on for a few minutes before shrugging him off, which for Jiang Wanyin is equivalent to an act of effusive thanks.

When Lan Wangji sees the heartwarming sight, he can’t help but think of his own relationship with his brother, and how glad he is that Wei Wuxian has a brother as well, if not by blood, then by choice.

Chapter Text

Winter in Yunmeng is unbelievably mild to Lan Wangji, who was brought up in the Cloud Recesses. He is used to sheets of snow covering the surroundings overnight until they’re unrecognizable, to cloaks and gloves, warming charms and braziers alight in every classroom. It doesn’t even snow in Yunmeng, and there is no need to wear a cloak, even in the thick of winter. The only thing that happens is rain, cold and drenching, but far preferable to freezing snow. He’s perfectly comfortable just in his five layers, as are the other Lan sect disciples, while Wei Wuxian complains of cold all the time. Even though he has the gloves Lan Wangji gave him for his birthday, and a new set of robes fashioned from the cloth Lan Wangji gifted him, he still takes every excuse to snuggle close to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji can’t find any reason to discourage Wei Wuxian.

 

 

The Lan sect is renowned throughout the cultivation world for being romantics, and it is not without good reason. No matter how dry the elders try to make the origin story of their sect, it’s undeniably romantic: Lan An finding his fated person, the two of them becoming cultivation partners and starting a new cultivation sect together.

But love is not always kind, and Lan An’s story illustrates that as well: the founder of the Lan sect, heartbroken after the death of his fated person, chose to withdrew from the cultivation world, retreating to the monastery from whence he came to live out the rest of his life in seclusion. Other times, love ends in tragedy, without even a happy middle to soften the blow. The story of Lan Wangji’s parents are proof of that fact. His mother, who had been sentenced to lifelong imprisonment within the very sect whose elder she had murdered. His father, who, torn between his beloved and his duty to his sect, chose to turn his back on both and live out the rest of his life in seclusion. Love can be cruel. It can turn previously valiant cultivators craven, and the fact that Lan Wangji and his brother were born at all is testament enough.

Lans fall in love only once in their lives, foolhardy in their choice of person and unwavering in their devotion. Lan Wangji has always thought that he would be the exception to the rule, much in the same way his uncle is. In his few idle hours, he entertains ideas of taking over his uncle’s role in the future: teaching batch after batch of Lan sect cultivators and guest disciples, inculcating centuries of wisdom into the younger generation. Acting as his brother’s right-hand man when he becomes the sect leader; the previous generation redux, done right this time: two brothers, working side-by-side to bring the Lan sect to greater heights. No guilt-stricken older brothers who fall in love with the wrong person, no wives locked away in gentian cottages, no nephews brought up by their uncle in the absence of their father. Just two brothers, collaborating to better their clan, the way things were always meant to be.

But even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and never in a million years had Lan Wangji imagined that he would be where he is right now in Lotus Pier, twisted around his fiancé’s little finger, hopelessly devoted to him. Never could he have conjured Wei Wuxian out of his imagination, even if he had been asked to picture a person who would make him abandon his rationality and fall in love.

His love is foolhardy. A little bit of a show-off. Impulsive. He runs down the stairs two at a time, and jumps into the fray without thinking. He’s too reckless for Lan Wangji’s liking, so Lan Wangji has little choice but to follow behind and make sure he is alright. He is selfless to a fault. Kindhearted, and just. He doesn’t bow to rules that he thinks are unreasonable, and he never goes along with something just because everyone else is doing it for propriety’s sake.

In much the same way that he cannot pinpoint the instant when his irritation for Wei Wuxian melted into something gentler, more welcoming, Lan Wangji does not know the exact moment when liking Wei Wuxian tipped into loving him. It could have been any of the myriad moments that they had shared. Perhaps it was when Wei Wuxian had recklessly thrown himself in harm’s way during the night hunt, the way Lan Wangji became utterly convinced, almost instantaneously, when the Zhen’s talons closed around Wei Wuxian, that if he died, some part of Lan Wangji would die along with him, and his mind was filled with a litany of get him back recover him save him heal him that had only eased at the sight of Wei Wuxian, whole and in one piece, if slightly battered, in their shared inn room. Or perhaps it was something more mundane, like the simple straightforward joy of spending a day in Wei Wuxian’s company, doing nothing of import and watching the day slip by easily, drinking tea and playing music in their pavilion and watching the sunset. No matter what it is, it doesn’t matter anymore, because Lan Wangji is too far gone, has already fallen head over heels for Wei Wuxian.

He wants to bring Wei Wuxian somewhere secret, hide him away and cover him with silks and other soft things so that no harm can ever come to him. It frightens him sometimes, the intensity of the emotions he feels for Wei Wuxian. He has always prided himself on being even-keeled, steady even in times of stress, but now it feels like just a smile from Wei Wuxian is enough to tip him off balance and leave him delirious with joy for hours. Whenever Wei Wuxian enters a room, Lan Wangji finds himself turning towards him the same way a flower turns towards the sun. If this was the way his father felt about his mother, Lan Wangji thinks he understands now, why his father did what he did. If Wei Wuxian did something unforgivable, Lan Wangji would pardon him anyway, and spirit him away from the censure of others forever.

Lan Wangji finds himself overcome with the silliest impulses sometimes, just because of Wei Wuxian. He wants to shower kisses all over his face, until he has no doubt that Lan Wangji loves him. He understands now, the sentiments of lovers which he had always dismissed as folly. He wants to pledge his undying love for Wei Wuxian with the seas and the mountains as his witnesses (海誓山盟).  He wants to vow to Wei Wuxian that his heart will never change, that his devotion will last until earth and heaven grow old, until stones wear away into nothing and the seas dry up (海枯石烂,天荒地老).

 

 

The day of the memorial of his mother’s passing, things happen so coincidentally that Lan Wangji has to wonder whether the fates had played a hand in setting them up.

It starts simply enough: The cook runs out of water chestnuts while she is making wuxiang (五香), and seeing that Wei Wuxian is unengaged, asks him to run an errand at the market. As he is wont to do, Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji to come along, and he agrees, always happy to spend time with Wei Wuxian. The task is straightforward enough, and they’re in full swing of water chestnut season, so there are baskets of them to be found at nearly every store at the market. While Wei Wuxian is haggling with a storekeeper over the water chestnuts, Lan Wangji’s gaze wanders over to the florist’s storefront, and then he sees them.

Dark bluish-purple five-petalled blooms, shaped like trumpets. Gentians.

It’s entirely the wrong season for them, but this year’s autumn had been unusually mild, and it’s not difficult for Lan Wangji to imagine the florist coming by a patch of late-blooming gentians in some shaded alcove in the mountains, and picking them to sell. He can’t tear his eyes away, some unnamable complicated emotion arising in his chest, and it’s only when Wei Wuxian calls his name for the fourth time that he snaps out of it.

“Lan Zhan, what are you looking at?” Wei Wuxian asks, propping two large baskets of water chestnuts, one against each hip.

Lan Wangji brushes off his concern, and busies himself with taking over one of the heavy baskets. “Nothing. Let’s go back.”

The busy work of making wuxiang occupies Lan Wangji’s attention for the rest of the afternoon, for which he is grateful. The repetitive motions of scooping out the filling of finely minced and seasoned meat-and-prawn paste onto a thin bean curd skin, rolling it into little sausages and carefully sealing the edges requires more concentration than he would have imagined. It’s oddly calming, and a little like meditation. In the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had never seen the need to venture into the kitchens, and so had never been exposed to cooking. Perhaps Lan Wangji will take it up as a hobby in the future.

When the wuxiang have all been rolled and he and Wei Wuxian have sampled some of the freshly steamed specimens for themselves, they retire to their rooms to rest for a short while. Lan Wangji starts up the Song of Clarity on his guqin, in hopes that it will dispel the strange mood that has overtaken him ever since he spotted the gentians in the marketplace. His chest feels suffocated, and there’s a strange sinking feeling in his stomach that he’s unfamiliar with. He knows that the song is geared more towards cleansing hostile energy, but nonetheless, perhaps the complicated melody will keep his mind from going down unwanted paths anyway.

Partway through his first rendition of the Song of Clarity, there is a knock at his door. When he answers it, Wei Wuxian is there, smile bubbly and hands clasped behind his back.

“Lan Zhan, sorry to disturb your playing. I’ve got a present for you! I saw you staring at the florist’s while we were in the market, so I went back and bought those flowers you liked so much.”

Then he pulls out a bundle of gentians from behind his back with a flourish, proffering them to Lan Wangji. And oh, the Song of Clarity had not helped at all. Lan Wangji is not a person who cries frequently, by any means, but even he realizes that the hitch in his breath, and the sobs trying to crawl up his throat are indicative of an impending crying jag. A few tears blur his vision.

“What’s wrong, Lan Zhan? Did I do something wrong? Do you hate the flowers? I’ll throw them away!”

Wei Wuxian panics, moving to toss the flowers aside, but Lan Wangji halts his movement and intercepts the small bouquet. Up close, he can see that these gentians are not exactly the same as the ones that grow around his mother’s cottage in the Cloud Recesses; the gentians sprout from regular intervals along the stem of the plant, tucked tight into the crooks of leaves, unlike the solitary blooms surrounding the gentian cottage, and the leaves are of a slightly different shape. But they’re close enough to bring up memories of his mother, and it makes Lan Wangji’s vision turn blurry as he murmurs, “No.”

He doesn’t even know why he’s crying. Except, that’s not really true. He’s simply lying to himself. Lan Wangji has a pretty good idea of the reason behind his strange mood, and he had been trying to distract himself from it all afternoon.

It was because of how the sight of the gentians at the marketplace this morning had made Lan Wangji think of his mother. How the very next thought that crossed his mind had been: Oh, I haven’t thought of her in months. Of how that had been utterly unforgivable, because of the promise Lan Wangji had made to himself one bitterly cold winter afternoon when he had been kneeling at the gentian house. He swore that he would never forget his mother as long as he lived. Even if others in the Cloud Recesses had been all-too-relieved to never bring up his mother’s name after her passing, keen to sweep her existence under the rug, Lan Wangji would remember her. It was the least he could do, as her son. Any opportunity he might have had to show her filial piety had vanished when she died, so this would have to suffice.

In the Cloud Recesses, barely a day passed by without thoughts of his mother surfacing in his mind. He still dutifully visited the gentian cottage on the first day of every month, even though it had been years since he understood that his mother was gone and never coming back.

With every visit, he revises all the things he knows about her, all the memories he possesses of her, brief as they may be. Her name, Lu Shan (吕善). The sound of her gentle voice as she read fairytales for him and his brother, silly fables where she acted out the voices to make them laugh. How she would play hide-and-seek with them, musing aloud Oh where have my Huanhuan and Zhanzhan gone, how will I ever find them when they’ve hidden so well?, until the two of them poked their heads out of their respective hiding places and ran to into her warm embrace. The sweets she would procure from her connections, which she would then sneak to Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. They would inevitably gobble them up until they were giggling messes, running around the gentian cottage fueled by their sugar rushes. No matter the displeasure his uncle displayed afterwards, it was always well worth the lecture to hear the sound of his mother’s laughter fill the rafters of the gentian cottage as they crashed from room to room, the rules of the Lan sect cast aside for once in her presence. He remembers her snow-pale skin, almost the same color as the white Gusu Lan sect robes. Only when he grew up had he realized that the only reason she was so pale was because she never stepped out into the sun, constrained within the confines of her cottage as she was.

He guards fiercely in a corner of his mind the memory of her smile, the one that he sees almost every day on his brother’s face. In a corner of his clothes chest in the Jingshi, he still keeps, folded up, a set of infant clothes that she had handmade for him, the same way she had with Lan Xichen. Even though she had to suffer the indignities of house arrest, and her sons had been taken to be raised by others before they were a full month old (满月) , she had at least clothed them in something she made herself.

But ever since he arrived in Yunmeng, the topic of his mother has been far from Lan Wangji’s mind. He has been too busy with adjusting to the new environment, first being irritated, then infatuated with Wei Wuxian. He hasn’t even mentioned his mother once in his letters to his brother, not even the most recent one, which his brother would have received right around now, near the date of his mother’s passing in the early winter.

Lan Wangji has been so selfish. He’s been so preoccupied, caught up in the rush of young love that he hasn’t even spared a thought for his poor mother in nearly nine months’ time. If he hadn’t seen the gentians in the marketplace today, would he even have thought of her? Or would he only have realized what he had neglected to do until he returned to the Cloud Recesses in the springtime? How callously he had cast aside the responsibility to treasure his mother’s memory that he had chosen to shoulder. How unfilial he has been.

He’s crying in earnest now, tears dripping down his cheeks as he sobs and his guilty conscience makes itself known. Wei Wuxian tugs his red inner sleeve out, and uses it to wipe gently at Lan Wangji’s face, blotting the tears away, and his tenderness only make Lan Wangji cry even harder. He doesn’t deserve kindness, after what he’s done.

“Lan Zhan, what happened to you? What made you so sad?” Wei Wuxian asks, his hand staying cradled against Lan Wangji’s face to wipe away any fresh tears that appear.

While he continues to cry, Wei Wuxian ushers him somewhere to sit down. He keeps a hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder as they walk, and when they reach their destination and sit down on soft grass, Wei Wuxian tucks his chin over Lan Wangji’s head, smooths his palm down his back calmingly, and makes soothing noises until Lan Wangji’s crying peters out. “You’re alright, Lan Zhan. I’m here.”

When his breathing is less jagged and his eyes are no longer blurred by tears, Lan Wangji looks at their surroundings. They’re at a deserted corner of the residential wing in Lotus Pier, tucked up against the trunk of a tree with the river spread in front of them. Beside them, dangling from ropes tied to a branch that is parallel to the ground, are two wooden swings, swaying lightly in the wind.

“Do you… feel better, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks hesitatingly.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods, too far gone to be embarrassed by his outburst.

“I’m sorry I got you the flowers, it’s all my fault that you got upset!”

“It’s not your fault. The gentians… they just made me think of my mother.”

Wei Wuxian pauses for a moment, as if considering his words, before saying carefully, “I’ve never asked you about your parents because it seems like a sensitive topic. All I’ve heard is that your mother had a weak constitution and she died from illness, and your father has been in seclusion for the last two decades to further improve his cultivation, that’s why you and your brother were brought up by your uncle.”

As he strokes the thin, soft petals of the gentians meditatively, Lan Wangji answers.

“That’s a lie. She was confined to a cottage fringed with gentians in the Cloud Recesses, because of a crime she committed. In her youth, she murdered one of the Lan sect elders in revenge, and the entire Lan sect was baying for her blood. My father couldn’t bear to see the woman he love die, so he begged her to marry him so he could protect her. Once that was done, the elders couldn’t kill her, but neither could they let someone who had murdered their kin become the mistress of the Cloud Recesses.

“So they mandated that she had to remain confined to her cottage for the rest of her days, never stepping foot out of it for any reason. To allay the suspicions of the other sects, they told the rest of the world that she was in poor health. My father… He couldn’t bear the guilt of marrying someone who had killed his kin, so he entered seclusion, and locked himself in a cottage just like mother had been forced to do.”

Lan Wangji closes his eyes.

“The worst thing that ever happened to my mother in her life was that my father fell in love with her.”

The rest of the story spills out, now that Lan Wangji finally has a chance to unburden himself. Wei Wuxian is a willing listening ear, quiet and empathetic as he hears Lan Wangji unspool his ugly past and bare his soul. His hand slides into Lan Wangji’s and he doesn’t let go, not even when the occasional tear appears on Lan Wangji’s face and that same red inner sleeve moves to blot it away tenderly.

He tells Wei Wuxian about his parents. How he sees his father only infrequently, and his first memory of his father is of his presence at his childhood Soul-Cleansing ceremony: the feeling of his father dabbing water on his forehead; the first time, he thinks, his father has ever touched him, at least in Lan Wangji’s memory. Even now, he only sees Qingheng-jun during the Lunar New Year, and even then, not always. Everybody tells him that his father is supposed to be close to achieving immortality, but all Lan Wangji can see is a man, tired of life and wan. He looks more specter than man in his white robes, his smiles strained, a shadow of his former self. Lan Wangji wonders if his father even knows that he is away from the Cloud Recesses. Had he played a hand in arranging his betrothal to Wei Wuxian? Or had he let Lan Qiren make all the decisions instead, the way he always had?

And his mother. Oh, his poor mother. He tells Wei Wuxian of how he was only allowed to see her once a month, and how she died far too early, leaving Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen bereft of a mother’s warmth too early in their childhood. Just as some flowers wither in pots, and some songbirds fall silent in cages, some people are not meant to live in confinement. Lan Wangji’s mother dies of pneumonia one winter, not for lack of medical attention, but because she lost the will to live.

Everyone else in the Lan sect had only been too glad to sweep her death under the carpet, all of them suffering a collective amnesiac episode regarding Lan Wangji’s mother. As a result, Lan Wangji has always thought that he had a responsibility to keep her memory alive. But now he’s forsaken her, forgotten her just because he left the Cloud Recesses.

Wei Wuxian, silent until now, speaks. “Your mother wouldn’t be angry at you. She would want you to be happy, Lan Zhan. Don’t blame yourself for the mistakes that other people made. You’re not the one who imprisoned your mother.”

Heaving a breath, Lan Wangji nods half-heartedly, not entirely convinced.

“So you and your brother were brought up by Grand Master Lan, right? Does he treat you well? He looks like such a strict person.”

“Uncle is strict, but only because he wants the best for me and Xiongzhang.”

After his mother passed away, his father became more reclusive than ever. Where before a strongly-worded letter from the Lan sect elders would have convinced him to show his face at meetings, after that fateful winter it became much harder to persuade Qingheng-jun to leave his cottage. This left Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen functionally orphans, with no one to rely on besides their uncle and each other.

Lan Qiren had raised Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen himself. He was the person who comforted them when they fell. He taught them how to read, to write, everything a father should have done. They grew up at their uncle’s knee; it was his room that they went to when they had nightmares, his praise that they worked hard to earn, his hand on their foreheads when they fell sick. Even Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen’s courtesy names had been chosen by their uncle, with no input from their father. Xichen, to encapsulate his uncle’s hope that Lan Wangji’s brother would revitalize the Lan sect, just like the morning sun cast its light upon the awakening land every single day. Wangji, to express his uncle’s desire that he hold himself apart from worldly concerns, to never fall in the same trap that his father had.

Later on, Lan Wangji realizes just how much he has to thank his uncle for. Lan Wangji hears the rumors, when he is a little older and understands the idle gossip that servants swap in between tasks. When he and his brother had been born, and their father remained stubbornly in seclusion, the elders had pushed for Lan Qiren to take up the mantle of sect leader himself and adopt an heir, seniority of Qingheng-jun and the existence of his two sons be damned. The elders didn’t wish for their future leader to be someone who carried the blood of a murderer in their veins, much less one who had killed a Lan sect elder in cold blood. He could still remember the phrase the servants had used: like mother, like son (有其母必有其子).

Lan Qiren had refused, and proceeded to raise Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen into peerless individuals, so unreproachable in their conduct that in a less than a decade, the elders went from scheming to remove Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji from the succession, to awaiting the day Lan Xichen took up the mantle of sect leader in Qingheng-jun’s place.

For that, Lan Wangji will never be able to repay his uncle: the grace he has shown them, the help he has provided. It would have been so easy for him to usurp his brother’s place, but instead he had steadfastly guarded it for years, working tirelessly behind the scenes rearing Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji, ensuring that the sect remained in one piece and flourished while its heirs were growing up.

“Although he wasn’t perfect by any means, I am still grateful for the upbringing he provided me with (养育之恩).”

Wei Wuxian smiles as he says, “That’s the same way I feel about Uncle Jiang. I couldn’t be more grateful that he took me in. Here in Lotus Pier, I never have to worry about not having food to eat, or not having clothes on my back. I even met shi-jie and Jiang Cheng.” (“我对江叔叔也是有相同的感受。江叔叔肯收留我,我感到感激不尽。我来到了莲花坞,不愁吃不愁穿,还遇到了师姐和江澄。”)

“But I only bring trouble for him. I’m always the cause of his fights with Madam Yu.” Sighing slightly as he leans his head against his knees, Wei Wuxian continues. “It’s understandable that Madam Yu has her dissatisfactions. No woman on earth would be willing to bring up someone else’s child, much less with the rumors being what they are. Even if they aren’t true, it must be hurtful to listen to what outsiders say.” (“可是我只会给江叔叔添麻烦,让他跟虞夫人吵架。虞夫人有她的不满也是有理的。哪有女人愿意带大别人的孩子啊?更何况,外人说的八卦多么难听。就算知道不是真的,听了也一定很难受。”)

Although Lan Wangji has only been in Lotus Pier for less than a year, even he knows of the rumors that are repeated in shadowy corners: that Wei Wuxian is Jiang Fengmian’s love-child with Cangse Sanren, and that much to her disgrace, Yu Ziyuan was asked to bring up her husband’s illegitimate child. Lan Wangji feels a very strong urge to discipline those rumormongers with the Lan sect rules now, seeing how their idle gossiping has hurt Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian’s face is melancholic as he gazes out at the water, seemingly lost in thought.

Using his free hand that isn’t intertwined with Wei Wuxian’s, Lan Wangji reaches over and pats his head gently, the way he has seen Jiang Yanli do for Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying shouldn’t blame himself. What goes on between the two of them is not your fault. You did nothing wrong.” (“魏婴不该自责。夫妇间的事和你无关。这件事你无罪。”)

Although Wei Wuxian doesn’t respond, he leans his head into Lan Wangji’s hand. After a moment of silence, where they gaze at the calm waters of the river, Wei Wuxian speaks. “Lan Zhan, will you go somewhere with me? I want to show you my parents’ graves.” (“蓝湛,你跟我去一个地方好不好?我想带你去看我父母的坟墓。”)

There’s nothing else Lan Wangji can say, except “Yes.”

Their hands still interlocked, Wei Wuxian leads Lan Wangji out of Lotus Pier, into the foothills nearby that house the cemetery that the people of Yunmeng bury their dead in. Lan Wangji can remember the only time he visited this place, during the Qingming Festival in the summer. It feels like half a lifetime ago, when he had still been exasperated with Wei Wuxian’s constant teasing instead of secretly pleased the way he is now. Instead of the well-trod path that Lan Wangji took the previous time, Wei Wuxian guides him onto a smaller dirt track, overgrown with weeds, that leads to a quieter portion of the cemetery. The gravestones here are humbler, less ostentatious than those of the Jiang sect ancestors. They stop in front of large double tombstone, more well-kept than the other graves around it, although a wild bush of violas with pale purple blooms abuts the back of the tombstone. On it were inscribed the names of Wei Wuxian’s parents: Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren.

Wei Wuxian’s hand slips out of Lan Wangji’s as he steps closer to the tombstone, bending down to brush away the layer of cypress leaves that had accumulated on the ground. He rubs gently at the names carved onto the stone surface, wiping dirt away with the edge of his robes. Lan Wangji can easily imagine Wei Wuxian doing this on his own, perhaps during the time when he had snuck away from the larger procession during Qingming. It was a forlorn sight, to see Wei Wuxian visiting his parents’ grave. From what Lan Wangji had been told by his uncle, both Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren had been orphans. Add that to the fact that Wei Wuxian was an only child, and it meant that he was the only one who had reason to visit their graves. It was a far cry from the crowd of family members and household members that had visited the Jiang sect ancestors during Qingming.

Once he has cleaned the tombstone to his satisfaction, Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji. His eyes are downcast as he speaks. “This is the final resting place of my parents. Their bodies aren’t actually buried here, because they were never found. They died on a night hunt when I was four years old, and by the time Uncle Jiang picked me up, I was ten years old, and I couldn’t even remember their faces anymore, much less the name of the town where they met their end.”

Lan Wangji feels his heart ache for Wei Wuxian. Four years old was such a young age to be orphaned. Even he had only lost his mother at the age of six.

“Wei Ying, you don’t have to feel obligated to tell me anything about your parents. If it is too difficult, or it brings up bad memories, you can tell me some other time, when you are ready.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “No, I want to tell you this. Since we’re on the topic of our parents already, I want you to know about this portion of my past.

“Between losing my parents and Uncle Jiang finding me, I spent six years on the streets. I slept in ditches, and fought dogs for scraps. Got bitten and chased by them quite a few times too. I led an existence that was more like an animal’s than a human’s. By the time Uncle Jiang found me, the only thing I remembered of my previous life was my name, those of my parents, and a single memory of them. I remembered riding a donkey with my mother walking alongside, as my father led it. The three of us were laughing at some joke or other. On cold nights, I would think of this memory to try and keep myself warm.”

“Wei Ying.” To know that behind Wei Wuxian’s happy-go-lucky façade laid such a tragic past made Lan Wangji’s heart ache. How he wished that he could have been there to shield his love from suffering so cruelly. How he wished that he had never experienced such things in the first place. Lan Wangji’s urge to protect Wei Wuxian, to secret him away somewhere safe where he never had to worry about a single thing, intensifies. But that is impossible, at least for now, so he settles for stepping close to Wei Wuxian, and lacing their fingers together.

Shooting Lan Wangji a watery smile in response, Wei Wuxian continues. “But I suppose the gods were watching after me after all. I survived those six years without my parents in one piece, until Uncle Jiang brought me back to Lotus Pier. I really can’t complain. I could still be living on the streets, if Uncle Jiang hadn’t recognized me. I’m just the son of a manservant and a rogue cultivator, but he still took me in out of the kindness of his heart. Thanks to him, I learnt how to read and write, and managed to develop my golden core. He even had Suibian forged for me.”

Four years. Four years of cultivation training had been enough for Wei Wuxian to reach his current level of cultivation, which far outstrips that of most of his peers. Lan Wangji marvels at Wei Wuxian once again: how remarkable he is, how prodigious, and yet utterly incognizant of his talents. If he had possessed the resources that Lan Wangji had been provided with in the Cloud Recesses, and the guidance of his parents if they had not perished, how much further along in his cultivation would he be?

“So I suppose I understand how you feel towards your uncle. I owe that same debt to Uncle Jiang, for raising me these past four years.”

“Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me this, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, before sweeping Wei Wuxian into a hug. Embraces are becoming easier for him now, ever since Wei Wuxian came into his life, and he feels Wei Wuxian melt into his embrace with no small degree of satisfaction: that Wei Wuxian feels safe in his embrace, that he trusts Lan Wangji enough to be vulnerable with him, and tell him of his past.

They hold each other for a long moment in the cemetery, the wind whispering across the leaves around them, before Lan Wangji lets Wei Wuxian go. Although they part, their hands remained entangled, and stay that way until they reach Lotus Pier again.

Chapter Text

In the days leading up to Lan Wangji’s fifteenth birthday in late January, Wei Wuxian is suspiciously absent from his side. It doesn’t take much inference to guess that he is planning something for Lan Wangji’s birthday, and so Lan Wangji lets it slide, accepting Wei Wuxian’s myriad excuses for not keeping him company, even if he grows a little lonely. But despite Wei Wuxian’s absence, Lan Wangji doesn’t spend his days alone. In fact, the whole thing seems far too deliberate and planned-out to be coincidental: a constant string of people seek Lan Wangji’s company so he doesn’t have a spare moment to snoop and spoil the surprise Wei Wuxian is planning.

First, it is Jiang Yanli who comes to him asking for his advice on improving her cultivation. The timing was suspicious, as was the fact that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had both begged off morning training and disappeared somewhere together, but Lan Wangji could hardly refuse Jiang Yanli, especially after the warm hospitality she had shown both him and the Lan sect disciples. She had been so kind to Lan Wangji throughout his stay at Lotus Pier, always ready with a smile to ask after him when Lan Wangji was used to outsiders being put-off by his stoic demeanor and keeping their polite distance.

As a result, he spends the better part of three days in her company, flipping through books and offering his opinion on alternative styles of cultivation that would suit her better. While Lan Wangji was no expert, he had seen his uncle guide batch after batch of Lan sect disciples towards cultivation styles that played to their strengths, and he did his best to offer sensible suggestions to Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Yanli’s golden core was of relatively good quality: her fundamentals were solid, and she had been diligent in her cultivation. While she could not be considered an excellent swordswoman, she could hold her own against the average non-cultivator quite easily. The only thing hindering her was her somewhat weak physical condition: unfortunately, cultivation level was often limited by physical strength, so continuing to cultivate in the same manner was unlikely to benefit her.

But there were other avenues of cultivation: protective wards, or curse-breaking, which required a finer eye for detail and more finesse than brute strength. After he conducts his research, Lan Wangji drops by Jiang Yanli’s room to hand her some texts for her perusal. When she invites him in for a cup of tea, Lan Wangji notices that she has a few cookbooks scattered around her desk, which she hurries to clear away.

Lan Wangji only sees Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin reappear from wherever they went during the day during dinnertime. They turn up, sweaty and smelly, at the dinner table, and get scolded by Madam Yu for not making themselves presentable. When Wei Wuxian sits down next to Lan Wangji, the first time all day that they’ve been this close, he shoots Lan Wangji a warm smile, which he returns, smaller but equally sincere. Lan Wangji notices that the bottoms of Wei Wuxian’s outer robes are dirtied, and there is a crescent of soil under his nails where he hasn’t cleaned them properly. Had they been outdoors? That was strange, because Wei Wuxian had once told him that he would rather kiss a dog than voluntarily go three feet from a source of heat during the wintertime.

Lan Wangji sets his curiosities aside. Time would provide all the answers, and if he is being frank, he rather anticipates what Wei Wuxian has in store for him.

The next person to seek his help (read: distract him) is Jiang Wanyin. This time, instead of advice on cultivation, the distraction comes in the shape of a sword form: complicated and tricky, and one that Jiang Wanyin would like to master with the help of Lan Wangji. It takes an afternoon to teach Jiang Wanyin the individual components of the sword form, linking the different positions together like steps in a dance, and the rest of the evening to drill and perfect it. By the end of the day, Jiang Wanyin has it down pat. At dinnertime, Wei Wuxian turns up, innocuous as a flower, and sends Lan Wangji a crinkly-eyed smile, the one he reserves for Lan Wangji only. When Lan Wangji asks what he did all day, he only replies, “Oh, this and that. Nothing that would interest you. Tell me what you did today!”

Whatever he’s achieved during that one day, it appears that Wei Wuxian has managed to rope the entire group of Lan sect disciples into his scheme. For the following two days, the Lan sect disciples are especially studious, coming one after another to ask Lan Wangji for help with their sword forms, or to clarify questions about this text or the other. Lan Wangji sees neither hide nor hair of Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli, save for dinnertime. While it had been fun to guess at what surprise Wei Wuxian was planning for the first few days, any amusement Lan Wangji felt has faded. He hadn’t anticipated that preparations for his birthday would take quite this long. He misses Wei Wuxian. He just wants to sit down and spend time with him now, listen to him ramble about his most recent fixation, or play the guqin for him to listen to.

Thankfully, on the day of his birthday Wei Wuxian finally reappears. He raps smartly on Lan Wangji’s door before morning practice, at a time that is early for his standards (which is to say, eight o’clock). Lan Wangji looks up from where he had been plucking morosely at his guqin, recognizing the sound, and schools his face into stillness before he answers the door.

The sight of Wei Wuxian grinning and leaning against his doorframe casually is a welcome one that Lan Wangji drinks in. He can only hope that he doesn’t sound too lovelorn and desperate when he says, “Wei Ying.”

“Good morning, Lan Zhan! Here, I brought breakfast for you.” Wei Wuxian presses a lotus paste bun, still warm and soft, into Lan Wangji’s hands. “Well, I know that it’s really more of a second breakfast, because you already ate at six in the morning, but you like lotus paste buns, don’t you? You probably have space in your stomach for just one.”

“You remembered?” No one apart from his brother and uncle had ever taken the effort to remember Lan Wangji’s likes and dislikes.

“Well, of course I did! Whenever there are lotus paste buns at breakfast you always take one. Nothing escapes my eye,” Wei Wuxian says, tapping the side of his nose knowingly.

It looks utterly silly. Lan Wangji loves it.

He startles a little when Wei Wuxian suddenly claps his arms onto Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and looks him seriously in the eye. “Lan Zhan, happy birthday. I wanted to be the first person to wish you a happy birthday. Did I succeed?”

“Mn. Wei Ying is the first to wish me happy birthday today.”

“Good! I’ve got something to show you during lunchtime, so don’t wander away after practice, alright?”

Lan Wangji nods.

“Let’s go, morning practice starts soon. Let’s walk over together.”

They fall into step besides one another effortlessly, like the past few days never happened and Wei Wuxian had never been absent from Lan Wangji’s side. The sound of Wei Wuxian’s voice chattering on about anything and everything is a balm for Lan Wangji’s soul, chasing away any residual loneliness he might have still felt from the past few days. On their way to the training field, they pass by numerous Lan and Jiang sect disciples, who bow and wish Lan Wangji a happy birthday. Lan Wangji accepts their well wishes with somewhat awkward nods, unused to the attention, and Wei Wuxian laughs when he sees that. “Look at you, Lan Zhan. You’ve barely been in Lotus Pier for a year and you’re already Mr. Popular.”

“You are popular too,” Lan Wangji replies. “Besides, aren’t you the one who told them that my birthday is today?”

Wei Wuxian scratches his nose guiltily, averting his gaze. “Hm… I’m neither confirming nor denying. You’ll find out during lunch!”

Morning practice passes by in a flash. Lan Wangji moves through the exercises more by rote than anything, his mind occupied with guessing what will happen at lunch. He hopes it won’t be a large birthday party, like the ones that were held for Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji always feels a little uncomfortable when the spotlight is on him. It is all too easy to imagine how a surprise party for him would turn out: Lan Wangji awkwardly giving thanks to his guests for planning the party, with none of the easy grace and camaraderie that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin possessed. Something small would be better, maybe even just him and Wei Wuxian. A quiet meal with good company, just like the ones that he, Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren shared whenever one of their birthdays rolled around.

At lunchtime, Wei Wuxian lets Lan Wangji return to his room to freshen up before grabbing his hand and excitedly leading him to the main hall, where they usually take their dinners with the rest of the Jiang family. When they approach the front doors of the main hall, Wei Wuxian stops him with a tug on their linked hands.

“Wait, don’t go in yet. Let me cover your eyes, that way the surprise will be greater!”

Lan Wangji hesitates a moment, reluctant to walk into a situation blindfolded, even one as innocuous as this, but he agrees ultimately. He trusts Wei Wuxian.

“Hm… How should I do this? Okay, close your eyes first while I open the door, Lan Zhan.” Creak. “Alright, I’m back. Watch your step. Wait, what am I saying? I mean, there’s a step here, be careful.”

Dry hands chapped from the cold settle over Lan Wangji’s eyes, and Wei Wuxian carefully guides him into the main hall. From the direction they’re heading, he is relatively sure that Wei Wuxian is leading him towards the dining table, and his suspicious are confirmed when Wei Wuxian tells him to sit down.

“Don’t open your eyes yet, Lan Zhan. Tell me what you smell.”

Lan Wangji took a deep inhale. There was the smell of cold winter air, since the dining table was situated outside on a veranda. But beyond that, the air was redolent with the aroma of food, but not that of Yunmeng. It smelled like food from Gusu: the fragrance of vegetables, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and tofu all mingled together into a medley of flavors that made Lan Wangji’s mouth water.

“The fragrance of Gusu.”

“You guessed right!” Wei Wuxian says as he removes his hands. “Tadah, we prepared a table of dishes from Gusu for your birthday lunch!”

As he opens his eyes, Lan Wangji is greeted with the sight of Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin seated across the table from him, one smiling gently, the other glowering with folded arms. On the dining table is a veritable spread of food: steamed tofu topped with minced mushrooms, vegetables stir-fried with finely-sliced bamboo shoots, herbal soup, even bamboo mushrooms stewed with chicken. In addition, there is a bowl of longevity noodles placed in front of Lan Wangji.

Never in a million years had he expected this: for Wei Wuxian to somehow come up with the perfect gift for Lan Wangji, perfectly tailored to his preferences, one that even Lan Wangji hadn’t even thought of.

Sitting down at the seat on Lan Wangji’s right, Wei Wuxian grins excitedly. “I know you don’t like big occasions, so it’s just the four of us. Shi-jie and Jiang Cheng helped me to prepare the surprise too! And of course, the disciples gave their advice and chipped in to help distract you so you wouldn’t catch on. Do you like it?”

To his embarrassment, Lan Wangji can feel himself getting a little misty-eyed at the effort that Wei Wuxian went to for him: recruiting all these people to help him, and going to all this trouble of recreating a table of dishes from Gusu, just to celebrate Lan Wangji’s birthday. All Lan Wangji had done for Wei Wuxian’s birthday was splash out some cash at the marketplace. It was unbelievably touching, and thoughtful. He hadn’t expected for Wei Wuxian to understand his personality so well: to plan a small gathering instead of a party, to prepare the cuisine from Gusu that Lan Wangji had missed dearly during his stint at Yunmeng.

“Wei Ying. Thank you,” Lan Wangji says, infusing his tone with the gratefulness he feels. “And Miss Jiang and Young Master Jiang as well. This is too much. You shouldn’t have gone to this extent for me.”

“Nonsense, I’m just glad you like it,” Wei Wuxian says, biting his lip to contain his grin. His eyes are shining with happiness, like he’s overjoyed that Lan Wangji enjoys the birthday surprise he masterminded.

“You’d better like it, after all the effort we went to,” Jiang Wanyin says waspishly, unfolding his arms.

Jiang Yanli chides him gently before turning to Lan Wangji. “Really, A-Cheng. Don’t complain in front of Second Young Master Lan. It was my pleasure to cook for you. I just hope the dishes are good as they taste back home.” 

“With Miss Jiang’s skills, I’m sure they will.”

Wei Wuxian urges Lan Wangji to begin eating, and once Lan Wangji starts, the rest of them follow, all of them digging into the delicious meal. He takes a sip of soup first, before moving on to sample the rest of the dishes. The food is exquisite, and Lan Wangji savors each bite as the story of how his birthday surprise came to be comes spilling out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth.

“I got the idea because I saw dried bamboo mushrooms being sold by one of the vendors at the market! After that I asked shi-jie for the list of foods from Gusu that she wrote up from all the way back when you first came to Lotus Pier, and from there the plan slowly came together. The hardest part was really gathering the ingredients, especially the bamboo mushrooms and the bamboo shoots!”

Jiang Yanli chimes in. “Xianxian saved up his allowance for weeks just to get enough money to buy the dried bamboo mushrooms. And he even went into the mountains himself to look for bamboo shoots!”

“Yep!” Wei Wuxian continues from where she left off. “I managed to find a vendor at the marketplace who knows where to find bamboo shoots in the winter, but he said that they weren’t worth the effort of selling because they grow so deep in the mountain. It took so much convincing before he finally agreed to get the bamboo shoots for us, and he only agreed to do it if me and Jiang Cheng served as his assistants and helped him to carry his tools.”

Here, Jiang Wanyin chips in to grouse. “That guy brought us to some godforsaken bamboo grove in the middle of nowhere (鸡不生蛋,鸟不拉屎,乌龟不上岸) that took two hours to reach on foot, and we had to dig all day just to get a few measly bamboo shoots. You’d better be grateful, Lan Wangji. I spent three days breaking my back just for your birthday.”

Although Jiang Wanyin’s tone is grouchy, Lan Wangji knows by now that just like his mother, Jiang Wanyin hides his concern in sharp words and complaints, not knowing how to be gentle like Jiang Yanli or earnest like Wei Wuxian. He decides to tease Jiang Wanyin in return. “Much thanks for your sacrifice, Young Master Jiang.”

“Alright, alright, stop complaining about it, Jiang Cheng. You’re the best brother ever for helping me out, okay?” Wei Wuxian says, placatingly, before using his chopsticks to place some bamboo shoot into Lan Wangji’s bowl. “Lan Zhan, the vendor let us have first pick of the harvest, so I picked the biggest and most tender bamboo shoots for you!”

“Mn. I can tell. Thank you, Wei Ying.” The sliced bamboo shoots are crisp and fresh, crunching under Lan Wangji’s teeth. “So the three days I spent in Miss Jiang’s company was so that I wouldn’t find out about the two of you going to the mountains?”

En,” Wei Wuxian nods eagerly. “Then after we gathered all the ingredients, I asked for shi-jie’s help to do the actual cooking, since she’s the best cook I know.”

“You’re such a sweet talker, A-xian. (我们阿羡嘴巴真甜。)” Jiang Yanli says. “It’s a good thing that you asked me for help. I’m not sure the kitchens have recovered from your last attempts at cooking. Auntie Huang still complains about the soot stains on the ceiling!”

Aiya, why bring up the past, shi-jie. You’re embarrassing me in front of Lan Zhan! (哎呀师姐,干嘛提以前的事?你让我在蓝湛面前好丢脸啊!)”

Jiang Yanli doesn’t let Wei Wuxian off, continuing with a mischievous glint in her eyes as she leans closer to Lan Wangji conspiratorially. “A few years ago for my birthday, A-xian got the idea into his head that it would be a nice surprise to cook a meal for me. As it turns out, he’s terrible at cooking. We have no idea how, but in the few hours he spent in the kitchen, he ruined two woks and singed the ceiling! The cooking aunties still won’t let him within arm’s reach of the cooking stove even now.”

“Not to mention the fact that he overspices everything he touches. The one omelet he managed to cook turned out so spicy it made my eyes water just to smell it,” Jiang Wanyin adds.

Internally, Lan Wangji agrees. He has seen firsthand how generous Wei Wuxian is when adding chili oil to his food. Just looking at his plate and the bright red oil that covered everything in it made Lan Wangji wince. When he looks over at Wei Wuxian, he is staring into his bowl with a moue of annoyance marring his face. It’s adorable, the way Wei Wuxian is upset at how his siblings are bullying him.

To comfort him, Lan Wangji says, “Don’t worry. I don’t know how to cook either.”

Perking up at Lan Wangji’s defense of him, Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out at Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin. “Hmph. Lan Zhan is still the one who treats me the best.”

“Alright, alright. We’ll stop teasing you,” Jiang Yanli says.

The conversation moves on to other topics as they eat, and after a while Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Wuxian is picking at his food. Half of his rice still remains in his bowl, even though the rest of them have already emptied theirs. This is an unusual sight, because if anything Wei Wuxian is the fastest eater out of the four of them, constantly getting chided by Madam Yu that he will choke if he always inhales food at his usual speed. Seeing this, Lan Wangji uses his chopsticks to place a piece of chicken into Wei Wuxian’s bowl. “Wei Ying. Eat.”

Wei Wuxian smiles, before ducking his head sheepishly. “Thank you, Lan Zhan. I’ll be honest, Gusu cuisine doesn’t really do it for me. But we made it for you, so you should eat your fill!”

Nodding, Lan Wangji says, “Don’t force yourself to eat it. Perhaps you just need to get accustomed to the taste.”

Chuckling, Wei Wuxian says, “Well, Jiang Cheng and I have been tasting these dishes for the past two days as shi-jie’s taste-testers, so I don’t think it’s a matter of more exposure. Maybe my taste buds are just so used to spice that I can’t appreciate plainer foods.”

“You and Young Master Jiang were the taste-testers? How did you get the dishes to taste exactly the same as the ones in the Cloud Recesses? I don’t recall either of you having visited the Cloud Recesses.”

Hehe, that’s because we had insider info! The day when you were teaching Jiang Cheng, I asked around and recruited a few Lan sect disciples to be taste-testers as well. They were a great help. They were the ones who told me that in the Cloud Recesses, you eat longevity noodles on your birthday as well!”

It was true. In the Cloud Recesses, where occasions were celebrated more modestly than in other sects, the easiest way to tell when it was someone’s birthday was to observe what the kitchens prepared for their lunch. Only once a year on their birthday would a disciple receive a bowl of longevity noodles instead of the standard Lan sect fare. Out of all the people in the Lan sect, those who worked in the kitchen probably had the best memory for dates, considering that they never missed anybody’s birthday, no matter their rank or age.

“Was it also them who told you about my birthday?”

“That was A-die. He was wondering whether or not to do something for your birthday since you were far from home, but he said he would take care of everything.” Jiang Wanyin gestures with his head towards Wei Wuxian.

En.” Wei Wuxian nods, pushing away from dining table. “Hold on, I’ve still got one last surprise!”

When he returns to the table, he is holding a tray with a tea set and a steaming kettle on it. The rest of them look on as he begins preparing the tea: warming the tea pot, washing and steeping the tea leaves, before finally serving them in order of age: first Jiang Yanli, then Lan Wangji, and finally Jiang Wanyin, before Wei Wuxian takes a cup for himself. When Lan Wangji smells the tea, his eyes widen in surprise. “This is… Gusu’s cloud tea. How did you manage to find it?”

“When I spoke to the Lan sect disciples, I found out that some of them have a secret stash of tea they brought from home. I managed to convince them to share,” Wei Wuxian brags. “Ah, unfortunately they were only willing to give up enough tea leaves for one pot of tea, so this is all I have. Sorry, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Not at all. This is more than enough.”

There’s a fetching blush on Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, and it distracts Lan Wangji sufficiently enough that he doesn’t hear Jiang Yanli’s question addressed to him and has to ask for her pardon.

Hiding a giggle behind her hand demurely, Jiang Yanli repeats herself. “I was saying, Second Young Master Lan, that A-die told us that we will need to bring a gift as thanks for Grand Master Lan when we go to the Cloud Recesses as guest disciples. Do you have any idea what would make a good gift?”

Lan Wangji considers for a moment before replying. “Uncle has received a variety of gifts. Precious books, pottery and herbs are common.”

“Hmm… Then would you happen to know what Grand Master Lan is fond of?” Jiang Yanli’s gaze darts to Wei Wuxian momentarily. “I would like for him to have a good impression of Yunmeng.”

“I have some ideas, but perhaps I can write to brother to enquire whether Uncle has expressed any desires recently.”

“Thank you, Second Young Master Lan!” Jiang Yanli says.

“No need,” Lan Wangji demurs.

The meal concludes shortly thereafter when they finish off the pot of post-lunch tea, and the Jiang siblings vanish off somewhere, leaving Lan Wangji alone with Wei Wuxian.

“Lan Zhan, what would you like to do today? Since you accompanied me all day for my birthday, I’ll return the favor!” Wei Wuxian says. “Ah, unless you’d rather spend the day in peace. I’ll leave you alone if you’d prefer that.”

The prospect of spending a day in Wei Wuxian’s company only makes Lan Wangji’s mood, already wonderful after lunch, even better. He hurries to assure Wei Wuxian that spending the day alone is the last thing he wants.

“No. Without Wei Ying, I was lonely these past few days.”

Astonished by Lan Wangji’s candor, Wei Wuxian says, “Ah, I’ve been so cruel, to leave Lan Zhan all by his lonesome. I’ll make it up to you and do whatever you want today!”

A thought pops into his head, and Lan Wangji requests, “Music.”

“A duet? You’ve got it. Just let me grab my dizi and I’ll meet you at your room!”

Lan Wangji picks a cheerful tune for them to play. He plays it through once, fingers plucking the strings of his guqin in mimicry of birdsong in the springtime, before Wei Wuxian joins in. Their two instruments meld together in a wonderful counterpoint, Wei Wuxian’s expressive playing soaring through the air like swallows in flight while Lan Wangji anchors the song’s melody. The song shifts and changes, until eventually they leave the original tune behind and just begin improvising, bouncing motifs off one another, and picking up tunes where the other leaves off. It’s exhilarating, and by the time Wei Wuxian puts down his dizi and Lan Wangji lays his hands against the strings of his guqin to silence them, they are both entirely content, gazing into each other’s eyes with silent understanding.

The rest of the day passes ordinarily and wonderfully. Lan Wangji reads, and when Wei Wuxian gets hungry he goes to the kitchen to rustle up something to eat, returning with a plate of dumplings that he shares with Lan Wangji. They chat about their days, Wei Wuxian catching him up on what went on those five days they spent apart while Lan Wangji describes to him the myriad ways he had been thoroughly distracted, thanks in no small part to Wei Wuxian’s efforts. Remembering Jiang Yanli’s request, Lan Wangji also writes a letter to his brother to ask whether he knows of any gifts that would please their uncle.

As he is preparing to sign off, Lan Wangji hesitates, his brush hovering over the paper uncertainly before he places it down to sort out his thoughts. Something Wei Wuxian had said during lunch bothered Lan Wangji. If Gusu’s food truly did not suit Wei Wuxian’s palate, would he not suffer when he went to the Cloud Recesses for his guest discipleship? It was a common complaint amongst outsiders who visited the Cloud Recesses that the food was too bland and unpalatable. Wei Wuxian, with his predilection for spicy food, would most likely find the food all but inedible. Perhaps Lan Wangji could purchase some spices to bring back home with him, so that Wei Wuxian could add flavor to his food as he wished.

For that matter, how could Wei Wuxian go an entire year without drinking his favorite lotus root and pork rib soup? Pork ribs would be easy enough to acquire from Caiyi Town, but Lan Wangji was less sure about the availability of lotus roots at Gusu. In his recollection, he had never seen lotus roots for sale in the markets at Caiyi Town, although to be fair, he had never paid much attention to vegetables in the first place. Perhaps it would be prudent to ask his brother to do some reconnaissance for him, and enquire if there were lotus roots to be had in Gusu. If there were none, he could explore the possibility of growing them himself. Mind made up, Lan Wangji adds another sentence to his letter asking for Lan Xichen’s assistance in the matter before signing off.

Time flies by. They go for dinner, where Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu give Lan Wangji red packets for his birthday, and after dinner Wei Wuxian walks Lan Wangji back to his room. As they wind their way through passages of Lotus Pier, ascending staircases and passing quiet ponds, Lan Wangji observes that Wei Wuxian is behaving strangely. He fiddles with his dizi unnecessarily, and clears his throat many times, breaking into awkward laughter at things that aren’t even that funny. After a while, Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Wuxian is nervous, though for what he doesn’t know.

At the door to his chambers, Lan Wangji pauses just inside the threshold to bid Wei Wuxian good night, and faster than he can react, Wei Wuxian leans close and kisses him on the cheek. His lips are warm and soft, and Lan Wangji can smell the pleasant fragrance of spice that always lingers around him. The contact lasts only for a second, before Wei Wuxian steps back.

Lan Wangji is surprised, and can only blink at Wei Wuxian as he speaks, his words tripping out of his mouth one after another quicker than they usually do. “Happy birthday Lan Zhan! Okay, I gotta go. Go to bed, it’s almost nine o’clock. Wouldn’t want you to miss your beauty sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

Laughing nervously, Wei Wuxian all but sprints back to his own room, leaving Lan Wangji still speechless at his door. In his chest, his heart is beating double-time. His hand comes up to touch the spot where Wei Wuxian’s lips had been, and it is not just his imagination that makes him think that his cheek is warmer than usual.

Well. So that was what Wei Wuxian had been nervous about. It feels like Wei Wuxian has passed his nervousness to Lan Wangji, because all he wants to do right now is muffle his mouth against his pillow and squeal with excitement or something else equally ridiculous as he replays that perfect moment in his head. With great discipline, Lan Wangji manages to resist that temptation. Instead, he closes his door slowly so no one can see how affected he is, and spends the rest of the night tossing and turning in bed, exhilarated and giddy.

 

 

(The next morning at breakfast, Wei Wuxian makes no mention of what happened the night before, although his smile is shyer than usual when he greets Lan Wangji. He seems to be waiting for Lan Wangji to make the first move, so Lan Wangji speaks.

“Thank you for organizing my birthday celebration yesterday, Wei Ying. I enjoyed it,” Lan Wangji says, trying to convey through his tone that what it was referring to wasn’t really the lunch, or their duet, but the kiss at the end of the night.

Wei Wuxian appears to get his message, because he blushes an attractive pink as he bites his lip. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lan Zhan. I… really enjoyed it too.”

His confirmation only serves to make Lan Wangji a little flustered as well, and their conversation slides into an awkward silence, their gazes looking everywhere but each other. Thankfully, Jiang Wanyin, acerbic as always, joins them at their table and dispels the tension.

For the rest of the day though, Lan Wangji finds himself staring at Wei Wuxian more, especially the plushness of his lips, revisiting the sense memory of having them pressed against his cheek. And more often than not, he finds Wei Wuxian staring back.)

Chapter Text

Coming right on the heels of Lan Wangji’s birthday is the Lunar New Year (春节). In the days preceding it, fleets of servants descend upon Lotus Pier to give it a thorough spring-cleaning (大扫除), leaving no room unscathed. After that, every conceivable corner that can bear decoration is adorned. Doorways are plastered on either side with auspicious red couplets (春联, chunlian), their gold calligraphy glittering, and jolly round lanterns are hung from the eaves. Even the windows don’t escape decoration: exquisite paper cuts made from red paper (窗花) are affixed to them, so that when the morning light that shines through, they cast shadows of auspicious characters onto the floor of each room.

It comes as somewhat of a culture shock to Lan Wangji, although he really shouldn’t be surprised by now, having already spent the better part of a year in Yunmeng. In the Cloud Recesses, Lunar New Year celebrations were never this extensive or rowdy. In the runup to the Lunar New Year, the disciples would spend class time practicing their calligraphy, and the person with the superlative performance would have the honor of pasting their spring couplets on the doorways of their disciples’ quarters. Senior disciples in the sect who had already married would also hand out red packets (红包) to the junior disciples, but in terms of decoration and gift-giving, that was the extent. Of course, the scattered Lan sect members who were of the direct Lan bloodline also flocked back to the Cloud Recesses in droves for a reunion dinner and to pay their respects to Lan Qiren, but even then, mealtimes were quiet, and their custom was to partake only in vegetarian food. Oftentimes, reunion dinners on the eve of the Lunar New Year were the only glimpse of his father that Lan Wangji got all year. Qingheng-jun would occasionally show his face at these gatherings, although he never stayed past the fourth course before returning once more to his cottage and his seclusion.

In comparison, the people of Yunmeng go all out for the Lunar New Year: the streets are decked to the gills with red decorations, so that one can barely turn a corner without seeing some red adornment or other. The kitchens bustle with activity, cooks busy manning their stations and grilling thin slices of sweet-and-salty rougan (肉干) as kitchen hands totter in with baskets piled high with mandarin oranges. The festive mood is apparent everywhere, as the residents of Yunmeng gather to exchange gifts of food and discuss the new clothes they have purchased.

In the midst of all this, Lan Wangji takes the time to remind the Lan sect disciples to wear blue robes, instead of their usual white, for the duration of the Lunar New Year. Although in the Cloud Recesses it was acceptable to wear white even during the Lunar New Year, to outsiders white was still an inauspicious color, far too similar to the appearance of mourning clothes for many. Having foreseen this, Lan Wangji and the rest of the Lan sect disciples had included a few sets of clothes that were in other colors when packing for Yunmeng. Lan Wangji himself does not lack for choice: among the many white robes he had brought along from Gusu, he had included a few sets in light cerulean, and he also had the pale purple set he had made back in summer.

The night of Chinese New Year’s Eve (除夕), Lan Wangji dons his purple robes in preparation for the Jiang family reunion dinner, and is about to leave his room when he hears a knock at his door.

“Lan Zhan, it’s me!” Wei Wuxian hollers.

Smiling softly, Lan Wangji opens the door and greets Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying.”

With an answering smile on his face, Wei Wuxian proffers something to Lan Wangji. “Here, a present for you.”

When Lan Wangji inspects what he has been handed, he discovers that it is a crimson sash, the kind that one would tie around one’s waist to secure clothing or to serve as decoration. He shoots a curious look at Wei Wuxian.

“It’s from Madam Yu. She wanted to give the Lan sect disciples a splash of red to add to their clothing to make them look more auspicious. It’s the Lunar New Year, after all. I’ve already given them all out, yours is the last one.”

Nodding his head at Wei Wuxian’s explanation, Lan Wangji moves over to the dressing area in his room so he can see himself in the mirror. With deft hands, he ties a decorative knot in the sash, before fastening it on top of the wide belt he is already wearing. Wei Wuxian wanders over from the door to join him, his head poking out above Lan Wangji’s shoulder in the reflection of the mirror.

“All the Lan sect disciples I saw today were already wearing blue instead of white though. And you’re not wearing your usual white as well. Did you guys plan it out in advance?”

Lan Wangji nods. “To people outside of the Lan sect, white can be an inauspicious color. It would be disrespectful to wear it during such an occasion.”

“I see…” Wei Wuxian says, pacing around to look at Lan Wangji from different angles. “I kind of miss your white robes though, I’m so used to seeing you in them! When I first met you, I thought that they did look like mourning clothes, but now they just look very fitting for the Lan sect’s reputation of being above worldly concerns and unbeleaguered by petty problems.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji hums as he adjusts his sash, content to let Wei Wuxian think aloud.

“The purple you’re wearing now looks very becoming on you too though! Look, we match!” Wei Wuxian says, moving abreast of Lan Wangji so their reflections are side-by-side in the mirror.

Just as Lan Wangji has shed his regular white robes for purple, Wei Wuxian has done the same. Instead of his usual black-and-red ensemble, tonight he is garbed in deep, dark purple robes, identical to the color of over-ripe mulberries. Long-accustomed to seeing Wei Wuxian in his signature hues, Lan Wangji is a little unused to this new look, and it makes him cast his gaze over Wei Wuxian once more. The dark purple only serves to highlight the milky whiteness of his skin, as well as the strong line of his jaw as it casts intriguing shadows that drape lovingly across the valleys of his collarbones. Lan Wangji swallows dryly.

He turns his gaze back to the mirror, and studies their reflections. Although unplanned, the shades of purple in their robes are complementary, one pale where the other is dark. With the added effect of Wei Wuxian’s hair ribbon and Lan Wangji’s sash, the red accents in their outfits truly do make it seem as if they had planned it all out to match.

“You changed your clothes as well.”

“Well, I kind of had to. Black isn’t any better a choice for the Lunar New Year compared to white. I usually only wear these robes once a year to appease the elders, or when I absolutely run out of clothing,” Wei Wuxian says, running his hands through his hair idly. “Don’t worry, by the second week of the Lunar New Year the elders don’t care as much anymore, and as long as we keep out of their way we can go back to our usual clothes.”

En,” Lan Wangji says in acknowledgement. He finishes adjusting the sash to his satisfaction. “Shall we go?”

“Sure! Tonight’s dinner is going to be delicious. I can’t wait to eat eight treasure rice (八宝饭) for dessert,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

 

 

The two of them walk over to the Jiang sect ancestral hall to meet the rest of the Jiang family, instead of the main hall where they usually eat dinner. Before the living partook in their reunion dinner, it was customary to lay out food offerings for the dead, and the ancestral hall had already been set up by industrious servants; the tables were covered with a spread of food, and red candles were already lit and flickering. The members of the Jiang family take their turns to light joss sticks (香) and bow to the ancestral tablets, going two by two. As the oldest people in the family, Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu go first, followed by Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin. Lan Wangji stands at the side, prepared to simply observe, but when it is Wei Wuxian’s turn he beckons for Lan Wangji to join him.

Immediately, Lan Wangji’s gaze darts to Sect Leader Jiang to seek his approval. Lan Wangji wasn’t a member of the Jiang family by any measure, simply their guest, and offering incense to someone else’s ancestors without their say-so was an indecorous thing to do. Only after seeing Sect Leader Jiang’s nod does he move to join Wei Wuxian in front of the offerings table, and the two of them light three joss sticks apiece before kneeling down. Closing his eyes, Lan Wangji silently thanks the Jiang ancestors for looking after and ensuring the safety of the Lan sect disciples during their time in Lotus Pier so far. He and Wei Wuxian both bow three times before placing their joss sticks in the incense pot (香炉), then the offering is complete, and they can move to the main hall for dinner.

Usually, reunion dinners were gatherings of entire extended families. The ones Lan Wangji was used to in the Cloud Recesses were the one time in a year when the whole Lan clan congregated, regardless of whether they resided in the foothills of the mountain, or had moved elsewhere to set up their own homesteads. The reunion dinner itself was always a grand event held in the largest hall in the Cloud Recesses, simply because of the sheer number of people in attendance. In contrast, Wei Wuxian had told Lan Wangji that the Jiang family reunion dinner would just be made up of the same six of them who ate dinner together every day, because of a dearth of close Jiang familial relations. Sect Leader Jiang was an only child, and the few aunts he had would be spending Chinese New Year’s Eve with their husbands’ families, and only visiting Lotus Pier in the days after. As for Madam Yu’s family, the Jiang family would be paying Meishan a visit on the second day of the Lunar New Year. As such, instead of a vast hall, the reunion dinner would be held at the same place where they usually took their dinner.

When they arrive, the dinner table is covered with delicacies, each laden with a particular meaning and carrying auspicious wishes for the upcoming year: A whole roasted chicken, to symbolize a family’s togetherness. Spring rolls (春卷) and dumplings (饺子), chosen for their resemblance to gold ingots and gold bars, are plated next to leeks sautéed with rondelles of Chinese sausage (蒜炒腊肠), all three dishes representing a wish for riches and prosperity in the coming year. There is also an entire steamed fish which Sect Leader Jiang divides into equal portions for each person, taking care to leave its head and tail intact (年年有余,有头有尾). He removes the fish’s bones instead of flipping it over, thanks to a quaint Yunmeng superstition that flipping a fish over is tantamount to cursing a boat to capsize. It was understandably an utterly unlucky omen for those from Yunmeng, where many made their livelihoods fishing. This was just another piece of cultural knowledge about Yunmeng that Lan Wangji stored in his mental archives, sure that it would come to use in the future.

For dessert as well, they are spoilt for choice. There are sliced apples, to wish for a peaceful year ahead (平平安安), and mandarin oranges, representing luck. Wei Wuxian immediately gets his hands on some eight treasure rice (八宝饭), digging into the sweet glutinous rice pudding studded with dried longans and red dates, while Jiang Wanyin uses his chopsticks to snag a piece of deep-fried nian gao (年糕) for himself (年年高升).

“Lan Zhan, do you want to try a bite? It’s really sweet!” Wei Wuxian offers, holding out his spoon in Lan Wangji’s direction.

It’s a tempting suggestion, and he can’t possibly say no when it’s Wei Wuxian asking him, with his sweet voice and even sweeter smile. Distinctly aware of the audience that they have at the dinner table, Lan Wangji leans in quickly and takes a bite, ears burning with self-consciousness. Thankfully, Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu don’t say anything about their brazenness at the dinner table. Jiang Wanyin on the other hand, starts coughing, and Lan Wangji hears a thump coming from under Jiang Yanli’s side of the table that precedes Jiang Wanyin’s wince of pain.

“Isn’t it good?” Wei Wuxian asks, blissfully ignorant of everything going on. “Do you have this in Gusu?”

Sotto voce, Jiang Wanyin murmurs something that sounds like “Shouldn’t you ask that question before offering to feed him, you idiot?” Thankfully, Jiang Yanli manages to hush him before Wei Wuxian can hear him.

“No. In the Cloud Recesses we eat exclusively vegetarian food on the eve and first day of the Lunar New Year, so this is my first time having many of these dishes at a reunion dinner.”

“A vegetarian reunion dinner? I can’t imagine what you would eat.”

“Vegetables,” Lan Wangji replies archly, before elaborating. “We have a dish called Buddha’s delight (罗汉斋) as well, which contains arrowhead and black moss. That’s usually the highlight.”

“Ah, I’ve heard of Buddha’s delight before! It has your favorite bamboo shoots and bamboo mushrooms in it, right?” Wei Wuxian replies enthusiastically.

“Mn. Next time I’ll let you try it,” Lan Wangji says, before his manners lead him to include the others at the table. “Of course, Miss Jiang and Young Master Jiang are welcome to come along as well.”

“That sounds wonderful, Second Young Master Lan. May I ask why your sect has the custom of following a vegetarian diet during the Lunar New Year?” Jiang Yanli asks.

“My ancestors thought that it would ensure peace and joy for the rest of the year, but there are practical reasons motivating it as well. Killing and slaughtering of animals is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses to prevent any tainting of its spiritual energy, so any meat we consume has to be procured from Caiyi Town. Since shops are closed on the first few days of the Lunar New Year and meat cannot be purchased, it makes sense to abstain from it.”

“That makes sense,” Jiang Yanli says. “I wonder what other differences there are in the way Lotus Pier and the Cloud Recesses celebrate the Lunar New Year?”

Chapter Text

It turns out that there are quite a number of differences in the way Yunmeng and Gusu celebrate the Lunar New Year, the first of many being the practice of staying up to see in the new year (守岁). In Yunmeng, it was customary for the younger members of the family to stay up all night on Lunar New Year’s Eve, and it was said that the later one stayed up, the longer their parents’ lifespans would be. The Cloud Recesses, with its rigid curfew, naturally did not prescribe to such a practice, and as such this was the first time Lan Wangji had heard of it, and gotten a chance to participate. It would be interesting, Lan Wangji thought, to see how they would pass the time until daylight.

After dinner, the four of them bid goodnight to Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu and congregate in Jiang Wanyin’s room. Working together, they prepare the room for their night-long vigil: Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin retrieve packets of peanuts and rougan from the kitchens, while Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji light all the candles in the room until it is as bright as day.

When the preparations are complete, they array themselves around the square table in the middle of Jiang Wanyin’s room, amusing themselves with silly games. They start off with the category game. First to decide who gets to pick the category, they play rock paper scissors, before going round the circle, each person saying an example of something that fit in that category. If somebody repeats something already brought up, or cannot come up with a new example, they are disqualified. When Jiang Yanli wins their game of rock paper scissors, she taps her chin as she deliberates, before deciding on the category of animals. The game begins in earnest then, all four of them competing for the final piece of rougan that they had unanimously decided would be the prize.

“Horse,” Jiang Yanli says to get the ball rolling.

Sitting next to her, Lan Wangji goes next. “Rabbit.”

Wei Wuxian pipes up from where he’s sprawled next to Lan Wangji. “Cat.”

The last person in their circle, Jiang Wanyin finishes the circuit. “Fish.”

The game goes on in the same vein for several rounds, as they get the common animals out of the way. It is far more entertaining that Lan Wangji could have expected. Jiang Yanli somewhat sheepishly uses “dog” for her second turn, and Wei Wuxian sends her an affronted look. By the time Lan Wangji gets to his fifth turn, he has to dig further into his archives for an example.

“Scorpion.”

“Damn, I was going to say that one,” Wei Wuxian curses. “Um…”

Jiang Wanyin begins counting down, jumping on the chance to eliminate one of his competitors. “Ten. Nine…” Jiang Yanli joins in, mischievous smile on her face.

A sudden flash of inspiration hits Lan Wangji, and he decides to help Wei Wuxian out. It would be a pity for him to be kicked out of the game so early on. He casually moves his hand from where it rests in his lap, and lays it on the floor where the table blocks it from the Jiang siblings’ vision, inching his index finger across the ground like a caterpillar. Quick-witted as ever, Wei Wuxian’s gaze darts down inconspicuously. A look of comprehension comes across his face, and he pretends to rack his brains for a few more seconds, before yelling out, “Caterpillar!”

“Hey, I said butterfly just now already. Caterpillar doesn’t count!” Jiang Wanyin protests.

“You never said we can’t do that! The only rule we decided on was that we wouldn’t split hairs and all types of birds like owls or pheasants would just be counted as birds, and the same goes for everything else.”

(That was true. Lan Wangji had objected to that rule, but he had been outvoted three-to-one. He silently mourns the fact that his extensive knowledge of Gusu’s avian fauna would not be able to net him the last piece of rougan.)

“Well, fine! Then my animal is tadpole,” Jiang Wanyin says, throwing his hands up. Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out at him in response, having been the person who said frog one round ago.

Jiang Yanli is the first person to be eliminated. After eight rounds (and ergo thirty-two animals), she understandably gets muddled up and ends up repeating Lan Wangji’s squirrel, and all three of the boys, Lan Wangji included, pounce on her mistake, fired up by their competitiveness.

Aiya, what a pity. Rougan, looks like the two of us aren’t fated,” Jiang Yanli pouts, sitting back to watch the rest of them duke it out.

It’s a little silly, Lan Wangji admits, to fight and compete over a piece of food. He knows that in the kitchens there is probably more rougan to be had, and it would be simpler to wait until tomorrow and ask the cooks for more than it is to do this. But this is fun, and Lan Wangji has never had occasion to play such games before, having always been too occupied with his studies and cultivation. He wonders if this is what the disciples have been doing in their dormitories, whenever Lan Wangji catches them for staying up past curfew.

Lan Wangji is the next person to be eliminated. He times out, having exhausted his reserves of faunal knowledge, thus leaving only Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian in the running. Although slightly disappointed, he is in no way upset: while the categories game was simple in concept, it had been such an enjoyable experience to see Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin tiff over the rules, and beyond interesting to come up with animal after animal himself. Although it was well past nine o’clock by now, he was still wide awake, buoyed by the excitement of the game.

In the end, it is Wei Wuxian who reigns supreme. Even after ten seconds, Jiang Wanyin cannot think of any new animals to follow Wei Wuxian’s bamboo rat, and he concedes defeat, banging his face down onto the table in dismay.

“Bamboo rat!” Wei Wuxian crows, fists in the air.

Gentleman that he is, Wei Wuxian splits his prize between all four of them. Although there is a Lan sect rule that states Consume food with appropriate utensils, Lan Wangji eats his portion of rougan with his fingers. After all, it was a special occasion. (And Lan Wangji was already breaking so many other rules: no staying up past 9 o’clock for frivolous reasons, no noise, and especially no noise after curfew, so what was one more?) Closing his eyes, he licks up the fragrant oil coating his fingers, before licking his lips for good measure, eager to savor the addictive sweet-and-salty flavor of the rougan.

As he finishes reveling in the delightful taste, Lan Wangji opens his eyes and sees Jiang Wanyin raise his eyebrows in Wei Wuxian’s direction, as if to say really? When he turns his head around, however, Wei Wuxian is looking at the floor, his hand shielding the lower half of his face. Seeing Lan Wangji’s gaze on him, Wei Wuxian coughs a little, a flush rising to his cheeks.

“Wei Ying, are you alright?” Lan Wangji asks, hand coming up to pat at Wei Wuxian’s back.

Wei Wuxian waves his hand off, reaching for his teacup. “Nope, it’s okay, I’m absolutely fine. Just… my throat was a little dry. Some tea will solve it right away. Nothing to concern yourself with.” His voice sounds a little choked.

Somewhat puzzled by his reaction, Lan Wangji nods. “Drink more tea, then.”

To try and understand Wei Wuxian’s strange reaction, Lan Wangji sends an enquiring look Jiang Wanyin’s way, but all he gets in return is an exasperated eye roll. From Lan Wangji’s right side, all Jiang Yanli contributes is a demure smile hidden none-too-subtly behind her sleeve.

After Wei Wuxian recovers from his sudden bout of dry throat, he proposes another diversion: the word chain game (词语接龙). The rules were simple: one person would start the game by saying a phrase, and the next person would have to come up with a phrase whose first word had the same pronunciation as the last word of the previous person’s phrase. So on and so forth, forming a word chain. The game went on until someone couldn’t think of a phrase that could continue the chain, and that person was eliminated, until enough people were eliminated that only the final winner was left. [See disambiguation for clarification.]

“I’m in, but what prize will we play for?” Jiang Wanyin asks.

“How about this? The winner gets to ask any one of the losers for a favor that they can’t turn down,” Wei Wuxian proposes after some deliberation, eyes twinkling with mischief.

Now that was an interesting proposition. But even if he won, what would Lan Wangji ask for? There was nothing he lacked. His mind flashes back to his birthday celebration mere days ago, and a warm feeling that feels like contentment arises once again in his stomach at the thought of it: the lovely meal, the effort Wei Wuxian had gone to in order to prepare it, and the wonderful company he had shared it with. Wei Wuxian understands him so well, and he is always so good to him. Besides, Lan Wangji hardly needs a favor to fulfill his greatest wish: to get Wei Wuxian to spend time with him. After their few days of separation, it was apparent that Wei Wuxian was similarly loathe to be apart for Lan Wangji as well, what with how clingy he had been for the past few days.

No matter. If Lan Wangji won, there would be time afterwards to think of what to ask for as his favor. Judging from Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin’s bickering though, Lan Wangji is the only one unsure of what to ask for.

“Jiang Cheng. You’d best prepare yourself. When I win again, I’ll make you call me older brother (哥哥) for an entire day,” Wei Wuxian gloats.

“Ugh, don’t be gross, Wei Wuxian! Who wants to call you older brother?” Jiang Wanyin yells, already leaning over the table to roughhouse with him.

Wei Wuxian scoots closer to Lan Wangji, away from Jiang Wanyin. Shaking a disapproving finger in Jiang Wanyin’s face, he says, “Really, Jiang Cheng. I’m so disappointed in you. Respect your elders. Isn’t that a Lan sect rule, Lan Zhan? Which number was it again?”

“Mn. Fifty-six,” Lan Wangji replies, silently enjoying the way Wei Wuxian’s body is pressed up against his. This close, Wei Wuxian has to look up through his lashes at Lan Wangji, which makes his eyes look even lovelier than usual, and Lan Wangji’s heart fills near to bursting with affection. It was just like Wei Wuxian, to cite rules only to rile up Jiang Wanyin.

“We’re not even in the Cloud Recesses yet, you idiot! Already memorizing the sect rules?” Jiang Wanyin throws a peanut shell at Wei Wuxian, who bats it away easily.

“What can I say? I spend so much time around Lan Zhan that I unconsciously picked up on some of the Lan sect rules (耳濡目染).” Wei Wuxian directs a blinding smile towards Lan Wangji. “Look, Lan Zhan. You’re such a good influence on me.”

“Ugh, please, I beg you. Go and be gross somewhere else,” Jiang Wanyin groans, already reaching for more peanut shells.

Jiang Yanli giggles, and lays a hand on Jiang Wanyin’s arm to prevent him from carrying out any further aerial assaults on Wei Wuxian. “Enough already, you two. At this rate, I’ll have to use my favor to make the two of you get along for a day without fighting.”

“Alright, as winner from the last game I’ll exercise my right to start the game off,” Wei Wuxian says. “Fish scale (鱼鳞, yúlín).”

“In the nick of time (临时, línshí),” Jiang Wanyin supplies.

“Timing (时机, shíjī),” says Jiang Yanli.

Rounding out their circle, Lan Wangji contributes his phrase. “A scheming mind (机心, jīxīn).”

In comparison to their earlier game, the word chain game takes a far longer time to reach its conclusion. Unexpectedly, Lan Wangji is the first one to drop out. He chalks his loss up to the late hour. By this point in the evening it is nearing eleven o’clock and he is already starting to feel drowsy, his eyelids getting heavier and his blinks slower. He concedes defeat gracefully and spectates for the rest of the game, desperately fighting the urge to yawn.

Unfortunately for Jiang Yanli, she is the next one to be trounced, once again leaving Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin to battle it out. When a sleepy Lan Wangji turns to his right to look at Jiang Yanli, she looks similarly somnolent and she gives him a commiserating smile. “I’m not used to staying up so late either. I have no idea how the two of them have so much energy right now,” she says, gesturing at Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin who are lobbing phrases at each other at a rapid pace.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees.

After a hard fight, Wei Wuxian gets stumped by Jiang Wanyin’s “to understand clearly” (明了, míngliǎo). As a bystander unaffected by the stress of a time limit, Lan Wangji can think of many phrases that would work: straightforward (了当 , liǎodàng), to conclude (了结, liǎojié) or even a chengyu meaning to have no worries (了无牵挂, liǎowúqiānguà), but unfortunately Wei Wuxian’s brain has clearly reached its capacity, and Jiang Wanyin emerges as winner.

Despondent from his loss, Wei Wuxian’s head slumps against the table. Lan Wangji spares a consoling hand to pat his head as he tilts his head to up watch Jiang Wanyin give his victory speech.

Yes!” Jiang Wanyin says, punching his fist through the air. “I’ve thought of the perfect favor to ask from you, Wei Wuxian.”

“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian groans, lifting his head. There are a few stray fragments of peanut shell sticking onto his cheek, and Lan Wangji brushes them off. Wei Wuxian darts a thankful look in Lan Wangji’s direction. “Okay, fine. Lay it on me. How bad could it get?”

“When second great-aunt (二姑婆, èrgūpó) comes to Lotus Pier to visit us, keep her off my back. If I hear her telling me to find a woman with ‘child-bearing hips’ to continue the Jiang sect bloodline one more time I’ll throttle someone, I swear.” Jiang Wanyin mimes strangling an invisible person.

Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows infinitesimally. Isn’t fourteen too early to bring up such things? Of course, he and Wei Wuxian are both the same age and the two of them had already been betrothed, albeit on a provisional basis, but there was a tacit understanding that any engagement they had would be a long one. Pondering the thought of heirs so early seems a little premature to Lan Wangji. Then again, Jiang Wanyin is the only son in the Jiang family. Jiang Yanli was also already promised to a future sect leader, thus eliminating any possibility of a ruzhui marriage (入赘), where Jiang Yanli could marry a man who took her Jiang surname, instead of getting her to give it up. There were also no cousins from the Jiang side of the family to speak of who could step up as sect leader. Perhaps it was prudent to think of these things beforehand.

Lan Wangji wonders whether Lan Xichen goes through such inquisitions during the Lunar New Year as well, and it is simply that Lan Wangji has just never noticed them before.

“Consider it done,” Wei Wuxian says. He clambers up to swing an arm around Jiang Wanyin’s shoulder. “You know, if you were so bothered by her I would have helped you out even without a favor on the line.”

“As if. All you ever do is laugh your head off when I get trapped by her long-winded speeches about the importance of hip width when choosing a wife,” Jiang Wanyin huffs, distaste evident in his tone as he elbows Wei Wuxian. He aims an assessing look towards Wei Wuxian. “Wait. Does this mean I still get another favor?”

“No way,” Wei Wuxian says, already dancing out of Jiang Wanyin’s reach as he smiles impishly. “One favor, and that’s keeping second great-aunt from you when she comes over.”

“But you said you would do it even if you didn’t owe me a favor.”

“That’s not quite the same thing, is it?” Wei Wuxian says cheekily.

The two of them tussle, chasing each other around the room and messing up a good portion of Jiang Wanyin’s room, as Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji exchange long-suffering looks, both accustomed to their antics by now.

When Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin finally quieten down, Jiang Yanli blinks away the somnolence in her eyes, and comes up with the idea of having a go match. It takes only a matter of moments for Jiang Wanyin to set up the board and set down the two containers of white and black playing pieces respectively, and they play rock paper scissors to decide who will play against who.

The first to go are Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli. Gathering his focus, he tries his level best to play well, but ends up thoroughly trounced by Jiang Yanli (打了个落花流水). Given that she placed second in the go competition during the discussion conference at Lanling, the outcome isn’t that surprising. Similarly, Wei Wuxian loses to Jiang Wanyin, who had placed fourth in the same competition, and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian end up watching the two Jiang siblings play against each other to decide the champion.

Unfortunately, the sound of the windchime in Jiang Wanyin’s room gently tinkling in the night breeze, compounded by the soothing sight of candleflames flickering against decorative lotus-shaped candleholders, both serve to make Lan Wangji drowsier with every passing minute pass his usual bedtime. He endeavors, as best he can, to blink himself awake whenever he finds his eyes slipping shut, but eventually he loses the fight against his sleepiness. He closes his eyes for a brief moment after seeing Jiang Yanli capture one of Jiang Wanyin’s black playing pieces, and when he blinks awake, the playing board has been kept and the tabletop is clear.

As he stirs, Lan Wangji assesses his situation. His neck is a little sore from being tilted at an awkward sideways angle, but the shoulder he is lying against is comfortable enough. Upon closer assessment, the shoulder belongs to Wei Wuxian; Lan Wangji can recognize the dark purple robes pressed against his cheek as his. Lan Wangji isn’t the only person who has fallen asleep: Jiang Yanli has her head cushioned on her forearms as she dozes in a corner of the table. When he casts his gaze further afield, he sees Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin playing another game. Jiang Wanyin has his index fingers held up as goalposts, as Wei Wuxian channels his spiritual energy into a yellow paperman and tries to kick a crumpled paper ball into the goalpost. Neither of them have noticed that Lan Wangji is awake yet, being too engrossed in their game, and so Lan Wangji allows himself to luxuriate in the sensation of leaning his head against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder for a few more moments, before finally sitting up.

Wei Wuxian’s paperman droops to the table surface immediately, and he asks, “Lan Zhan, you’re awake?”

Lan Wangji nods. “How long was I asleep? What time is it?”

“Maybe about half an hour,” Wei Wuxian replies.

Jiang Wanyin ponders for a moment. “It’s a little past midnight now.”

(During his time at Yunmeng, Lan Wangji has discovered that Jiang Wanyin has the oddly specific, yet often useful skill of always knowing what time it was without ever checking the sky.)

“Jiang Cheng, go wake shijie up. We’d best get them to their beds.”

“Aren’t we supposed to stay up all night?” Lan Wangji asks.

“Nah, it’s alright. No one’s keeping count. It’s late enough that it’s technically tomorrow anyway. It’s the thought that counts. Come on, up you get.” Wei Wuxian tugs Lan Wangji’s hand and pulls him up to stand, before steering him in the direction of the door and towards his room. “Jiang Cheng, you bring shijie back to her room and we’ll meet back here?”

Jiang Wanyin nods his agreement, before bending down to shake Jiang Yanli’s shoulder gently. “A-jie, it’s time to get up…”

With his hand in Lan Wangji’s, Wei Wuxian guides Lan Wangji to his room, walking in front of him. Their surroundings are pitch-black and still, not a person to be seen as they pick their way back to the corner of the residential wing where Lan Wangji’s rooms are located. Overhead, the sky is similarly dark, with no moon to speak of. Over the fifteen days of the Lunar New Year, it would wax until a full moon could be seen the night of the Spring Lantern festival (元宵节), but for now, the sky was illuminated only by the twinkling constellations.

They make it to Lan Wangji’s room with a minimal amount of tripping, and Wei Wuxian shepherds Lan Wangji inside.

“Wei Ying, you’re not going to bed?”

“Me and Jiang Cheng are going to stay up a little longer, see if we can make it till dawn.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji acquiesces. It wasn’t good for the body to stay up late, but it was a special occasion, after all. Wei Wuxian would be fine, if a little sleep-deprived. He pulled all-nighters consistently enough for his body to be used to it.

Before he turns to go, Wei Wuxian makes his scrunched up face, the cute one that Lan Wangji adores, and says, “Aiya, Lan Zhan. Look at you, your forehead ribbon is crooked from your nap. What would your uncle say if he saw you like this?”

His fingers reach out towards Lan Wangji’s eyebrows to adjust his forehead ribbon, until he catches himself and drops his hands to his sides. “Ah, I’m sorry. I almost forgot. Your forehead ribbon is sacred. I shouldn’t touch it without your permission.”

“It’s okay,” Lan Wangji says, a little unsure of his own meaning. It’s okay that Wei Wuxian made that mistake? It’s okay that he wants to touch Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon?

Scrubbing the back of his neck, Wei Wuxian continues. “What was I thinking anyway? You’ll probably take it off to sleep, won’t you? Goodnight, Lan Zhan. See you tomorrow.”

Wei Wuxian sways on the balls of his feet, indecisive, and for a moment Lan Wangji almost thinks that he is going to lean forward and kiss Lan Wangji’s cheek again, in a repeat of the night of his birthday. But to his dismay, Wei Wuxian eventually makes up his mind, rocking back on his heels as he says another goodnight before heading back to Jiang Wanyin’s quarters.

As he watches Wei Wuxian’s departing back view, Lan Wangji thinks that he must be sleep-addled, to have thought that Wei Wuxian was going to kiss him goodnight again. Somehow, though, he cannot push down the disappointment that he feels, or the sense memory that floats to the forefront of his mind unbidden: soft lips against his cheek and the smell of warm spice, a shy smile and his exhilarated heartbeat thudding in his ears.

Even though it comes late by a few minutes, Lan Wangji is hit with the realization that he is completely fine with the idea of Wei Wuxian laying his hands on his forehead ribbon. If not him, then who else? If there is ever going to be someone he allows that privilege, it would be his betrothed, his love. His future husband, if everything goes right.

Maybe one day he’ll gather enough courage to kiss Wei Wuxian back on his cheek, or even on his lips. But tonight is not that night, and Lan Wangji goes to bed, possibilities brewing in his mind.

Chapter Text

The next morning finds Lan Wangji sleep-deprived. When he drags himself out of bed at five in the morning, he is immediately struck by the urge to climb back under his covers, and the only thing that gets him to wash his face instead is the self-discipline he’s spent the better part of his life honing. He can feel that his mind is sluggish today, taking longer than usual to shake off the vestiges of sleep, and he already feels tired, although he just woke up. Staying up late is awful. He understands why Wei Wuxian likes to sleep in so much, given the number of all-nighters he pulls. Lan Wangji’s body clock wins out in the end though, and he puts on a set of pale cerulean robes to prepare for the day. In the middle of dressing, his eyes alight on the red sash Wei Wuxian had given him last night, and after a second of deliberation Lan Wangji ties it on.

When he sees Jiang Yanli, she is in similar states, stifling her yawns throughout breakfast, but Jiang Wanyin is the worst-off. Lan Wangji finds out from Wei Wuxian that Jiang Wanyin had stayed up the entire night in an impressive feat of willpower. He looks like a zombie at breakfast, mechanically eating dumplings with his chopsticks. Wei Wuxian himself had gone to bed somewhere around two in the morning, but he looks largely normal, if a little more tired than usual. He’s found another set of purple robes to wear this time, pale lilac in color, and completed the outfit with his usual red hair ribbon. Like this, wearing the Jiang sect colors and sitting bookended on either side by Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian truly looks like a part of the Jiang family. When Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji staring at him, he raises a curious eyebrow, but Lan Wangji only shakes his head, the edges of his mouth turned up just the slightest bit.

After breakfast, the entire household, including the staff, gathers in the courtyard outside the Sword Hall to light up firecrackers. Most of the Lan sect disciples, who have been left at loose ends since they are too far from home to visit their relatives, have come as well. A tall stand has been built right in the middle of the courtyard for the firecrackers to be hung up, and two long strings of firecrackers, each dangling with countless pairs of red cylinders filled with small amounts of gunpowder, are swaying in the late morning breeze. Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu do the honors of lighting up the fuses of the firecrackers, each taking one string.

Once ignited, the small flames travel quickly up the fuses, reaching the firecrackers and setting them off. They explode with a cacophony of sound, scattering little fragments of red paper everywhere. The sound is deafening, an endless parade of small explosions accompanied by bright flashes, and Lan Wangji’s hands move to cover his ears. When he looks to his right, he finds that Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian are doing the same as well, grins on their faces as they soak in the festive mood. Although the Cloud Recesses did not have the tradition of setting off firecrackers, Lan Xichen had brought Lan Wangji down to Caiyi Town once to witness the sight of firecrackers exploding. As such, this was not Lan Wangji’s first experience with them, and he was spared any embarrassing reactions that he might have had, if he were surprised by their loudness the same way some shrieking children amongst the crowd were.

Other than a small group of household servants that stay behind to clean up the mess caused by the firecrackers, the crowd dissipates after the spectacle is over, returning to their posts. Lan Wangji, along with Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, locate the nearest decorative basket of tangerines and either collaborate to find the most unblemished and symmetrical specimens (Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli), or squabble over them (no prizes for guessing who). Once they each have two tangerines, they proceed to the main hall, where they wish Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu a happy Lunar New Year (拜年).

Their hands cupping their tangerines, they bow to Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu and take their turns to wish them first a happy Lunar New Year (新年快乐), followed by a litany of well wishes that varies from person to person: wealth and prosperity (恭喜发财), the fulfillment of all hopes and desires (万事如意) and health and well-being (身体健康). Quite cheekily, Wei Wuxian tacks on a wish for Madam Yu to stay eternally youthful (青春永驻) at the end of his turn, which garners him a little twitch from Zidian, but Madam Yu hands over a red packet to Wei Wuxian anyway.

After that, the guests start flooding in. Lan Wangji keeps his tangerines at hand and accompanies Wei Wuxian as he greets all the guests and wishes them a happy Lunar New Year, netting himself a considerable number of red packets this way. As the extended Jiang family descends upon Lotus Pier in their finery, the kitchens go into overdrive, churning out platter after platter of snacks. Wei Wuxian makes himself useful, serving tea and tidbits to all the guests, earning himself quite a few pats on the cheek in the process. Whenever possible, Lan Wangji sticks with Wei Wuxian; he has no idea who all these people are, and helping out with errands is a better fate than standing awkwardly in the corner and risking the possibility of becoming snared in a conversation with a stranger.

During a quiet moment, Lan Wangji takes the chance to observe the scene before him. Around the main hall, people with all manner of connections to the Jiang clan are seated and catching up with each other: godmothers and great-aunts and second-cousins once-removed exchanging gossip and showing off their grandchildren, while their husbands stroke their beards attentively as they discuss business with their peers. The mood is decidedly festive, the boisterous crowd making a convivial racket as they eat roasted watermelon seeds (西瓜子).

The main hall that the guests are sitting in has been dressed up to the nines. All the wooden furniture in the main hall have been specially polished with oil for the occasion. Their dark surfaces glisten in the afternoon light, with not even the smallest details in their carvings having been spared the treatment. Artful displays of plum blossom branches (梅花) arranged in meiping (梅瓶) specifically designed to hold them are scattered throughout the main hall. With their dark pink petals fringing yellow stamens, plum blossoms were the perfect harbingers of springtime. Their presence during the Lunar New Year was universal; even in the Cloud Recesses they were displayed.

Lan Wangji could imagine the scene that played out each year in the Cloud Recesses perfectly in his mind: the small copse of plum blossom trees that the gardeners always took their clippings from, and the antique meiping that were carefully removed from storage and dusted before being placed in reception halls. How is the Lunar New Year like in the Cloud Recesses this year, Lan Wangji wonders. Would there be any wedding invitations handed out? One of his second-cousins was supposed to be close to finishing his six rites, if he remembered correctly. Would his father make an appearance? Would he notice Lan Wangji’s absence at the reunion dinner at all, and ask after him, or would he not even bother to leave his cottage, the same way he hadn’t last year?

Without Lan Wangji noticing, Wei Wuxian pops up in front of him, interrupting his melancholic thoughts.

“What are you thinking about, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Lan Wangji shakes his head. It would do no good, to burden Wei Wuxian with his maudlin musings. “Nothing important.”

Tilting his head curiously, Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji for a while, before accepting his excuse. “Will you help me? I caught wind that second great-aunt is at the gate. Will you go and let Jiang Cheng know while I go intercept her?”

Lan Wangji mns, a small sound of affirmation.

With help from Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli, Wei Wuxian succeeds in corralling second great-aunt away from Jiang Wanyin, as per his wishes. Absolutely no mention of child-bearing hips reach Jiang Wanyin’s ears, and he thankfully does not strangle anyone. The only interaction Jiang Wanyin and his second great-aunt have is when she arrives and Jiang Wanyin wishes her a happy Lunar New Year. The moment Jiang Wanyin has his red packet in hand, Wei Wuxian finds an excuse to whisk her away, and Jiang Wanyin absconds to the kitchen, ostensibly to help bring food for their guests. In actual fact, Wei Wuxian whispers into his ear later, Jiang Wanyin has gone to his room to catch a catnap. Remembering the way that Jiang Wanyin has been dead on his feet all day, Lan Wangji has to admit that it is a wise choice.

The rest of the day passes in a blur of conversation and activity. Old ladies croon over how big Wei Wuxian has grown and how Jiang Yanli is blossoming into a fine woman, and marvel at the Lan sect disciples (Oh, look at them, so handsome! Are any of them of marrying age? I have two daughters, you know…) Lan Wangji ends up having to decline any and all offers of matchmaking on behalf of the disciples somewhat uncomfortably, while Wei Wuxian, the traitor, disguises his laughter as a sudden coughing fit brought about by the smoke of the firecrackers earlier.

Thankfully, after lunchtime Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji manage to escape the main hall, and they get saddled with, essentially, babysitting duties. The grown-ups visiting Lotus Pier have brought along their entire families, including their children, and all of them save the infants have unanimously decided that listening to their parents talk to other old people all day is a fate worse than death. And so, for the most part they have scattered to have fun with people of their own age. The youngsters who are around Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s age are mostly self-sufficient, and have congregated into giggling groups, trading secrets and snacks in various corners of the Lotus Pier estate. The littler ones though, require a little more supervision and entertainment.

In all honesty, Lan Wangji is caught a little off-guard. He has no idea how to take care of a child, much less how to play with one. Back in the Cloud Recesses, disciples were split up according to their age, so Lan Wangji’s peer group has always been made up of people who were the same age as he was. Junior disciples in the Lan sect were mostly looked after by their teachers, and, if Lan Wangji is being honest, he has spent most of his life around adults: his teachers and seniors in the sect, his uncle and to a certain extent, his brother. In Lan Wangji’s lessons, his uncle has only ever emphasized on the need for Lan Wangji to carry himself properly in adult company, especially his elders. While some of the other disciples were called upon to babysit occasionally when the teachers responsible for the juniors were out on night hunts, Lan Wangji had never been one of them.

Although he must have played when he was little, most likely with Lan Xichen, when Lan Wangji thinks of his childhood he mostly recalls practicing his calligraphy in the Library Pavilion, or running through drills with a practice sword. With such a boring childhood and absolutely no experience with children, Lan Wangji is decidedly unqualified for this task. In this aspect though, as in so many others, Wei Wuxian is more talented than Lan Wangji. Utterly in his element, he takes to the task like a duck to water and sets immediately to playing with the kids with gusto.

As expected, Wei Wuxian knows all of their names already, and gets them to introduce themselves to Lan Wangji. When they mumble or mispronounce words, Wei Wuxian simply repeats their name cheerfully so that Lan Wangji can pick it up, and by the end of the introductions Lan Wangji can roughly attach names to the children’s faces. Just as a precaution, however, Lan Wangji does a quick head count, and takes note of the number of boys and girls in their little group: as long he returns at the end of the day with six boys and three girls, they’ll be golden.

After that comes the playing. With a frightful roar, Wei Wuxian chases after their group of excitedly screaming toddlers around the courtyard in a game of tag. Even though Lan Wangji has seen his agility first-hand, Wei Wuxian deliberately slows his strides and runs at half-speed, his hands darting out to tag the children and narrowly missing them. The herd of shrieking children weave and dodge all around the courtyard, like sheep avoiding a herding dog or a shoal of fish escaping a shark. Not entirely sure how to join in, Lan Wangji stands stiffly in a corner of the courtyard spectating, until somehow he gets roped in: one of the little girls hides behind him, saying save me, gege! and by some unspoken consensus, Lan Wangji becomes a safe zone in their game of tag. One after the other, the children herd behind Lan Wangji like ducklings, until he is the only thing standing between them and Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji has tiny hands gripping his robes and frightened squeals sounding behind him whenever Wei Wuxian tries to make a grab at one of his ducklings, and to his surprise, he’s actually having some fun. It feels a little like the spar he and Wei Wuxian had in the autumn, that same playful give and take, except now with the addition of their young wards.

Seeing that all of his targets have taken refuge behind Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes and takes a testing step towards Lan Wangji. In tandem, Lan Wangji takes a step backwards, left hand held out to shield the children behind him. Similarly, when Wei Wuxian darts to the left, then to the right in rapid succession to test for weak points, Lan Wangji matches his movements and keeps his body between Wei Wuxian and the children.

Crossing his arms in mock anger, Wei Wuxian says, “Hmph. Teaming up against me? I feel betrayed, Lan Zhan.”

“I had no choice. Be just and protect the weak. Rule number one hundred and—”

“—forty-seven, I know. But don’t think that that this will be enough to stop me!” With that, he swoops in towards the back of the group and runs off with one of the little boys hiding behind Lan Wangji. The rest of the children scatter, yelling gleefully as they run from Wei Wuxian once more.

The game continues for quite a while after that, and by the end of their merry game of tag, everyone is winded. Wei Wuxian is the first to call it quits, and he collapses on the stone courtyard floor dramatically, groaning and making a fuss. “Oh god, I’m so tired. You guys have defeated me. You’re all too good at tag.”

Splayed like a starfish in the courtyard, Wei Wuxian plays up his exhaustion, pretending to fall asleep, and the children all tug at his arms, asking him to get up gege, stop sleeping! Let’s keep playing! It’s an adorable sight. Lan Wangji can see that Wei Wuxian, for all his acting, does look a little tired, and so he counsels the children, “Xian-gege is tired. Maybe if you get him some water and let him rest for a bit, he’ll continue playing with you.” The children comply enthusiastically, and totter back to the courtyard with so many half-spilled cups of water that Lan Wangji has to help Wei Wuxian finish them.

As the afternoon passes, those families living further away from Lotus Pier decide to begin their journey home early, and one by one the children are collected by their parents. Having long since exhausted them by letting them run around, Wei Wuxian picks a more sedate activity to occupy their attention. An unfortunate fig tree donates its young spring leaves for their cause, and Wei Wuxian teaches the children how to fold the leaves and press them against their lips to play them as little leaf flutes (树叶笛). After some warmup, he plays a cheerful ditty with remarkable finesse, and the children regale him with applause, which he bows and accepts. Under the warm spring sunshine, the courtyard fills with the sounds of amateur leaf flute playing as the children practice. The music, if it can even be called that, is a little too jarring and off-pitch to Lan Wangji’s musician’s ears, but he cannot fault the children for their enthusiasm, nor their inexperience.

As dusk draws near, they are eventually left with only one little boy, who is sleeping soundly against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. As the two of them sit on the steps outside the main hall, they can hear the muffled sounds of the household servants tidying up now that most of the guests have left. The little boy’s twin brother had been carried off by their young mother to nurse, and she had requested that they look after her oldest for just a little longer so that she could get through feeding without having to juggle two toddlers. The little boy in Wei Wuxian’s arms looks positively angelic as he sleeps, his eyelashes fluttering in his dreams and the apples of his cheeks reddened by his earlier exertion. Absentmindedly, Wei Wuxian smooths his hand down the little boy’s back while he gazes at the sky, already tinted purple.

“It’s been a long time since I played like that,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice pitched low to avoid waking the little boy. “That was fun, wasn’t it Lan Zhan?”

“Mn. I added a new instrument to my repertoire.” While Lan Wangji had focused his attention on the guqin instead of other instruments for the better part of his life, his inexperience with wind instruments was made up for by the fact that the leaf flute was very simple to play, and by the end of their practicing session Lan Wangji was proud to say that he was somewhat passable at it.

“Look at you, you even know how to joke now. I’m rubbing off on you.” Wei Wuxian’s chuckle is muffled, unlike his usual boisterous laughter, but Lan Wangji can hear the fondness telegraphed by it nonetheless.

Lan Wangji hums to signal his agreement, and he uses the back of his finger to gently stroke the little boy’s cheek. It’s as smooth as the inside of a silk purse. He wishes that it were Wei Wuxian’s cheek he was touching, but they are in public and there are still a considerable number of people scattered in the main hall behind them, so he restrains himself.

“Is he heavy? Do you want me to carry him instead?” Lan Wangji offers.

“No, that’s alright,” Wei Wuxian replies. “The jostling would probably wake him. My arms are fine. I wish that I had something to eat though.”

Easily enough, Lan Wangji procures a seedless tangerine, and begins peeling it for Wei Wuxian to eat. The scent of citrus permeates the air as he digs his thumbs into its orange-colored skin. He removes the top and bottom of the rind first, before peeling the rest of it off, as well as the spongy white pith, so that he is left with only succulent bite-sized tangerine segments. The discarded pith and tangerine peel he lays onto a handkerchief to be disposed of later.

When his hand comes up to feed Wei Wuxian, however, Wei Wuxian insists that really, I was just joking, there’s no need to go to all this trouble for me, Lan Zhan. You should just eat it yourself! Eventually, Lan Wangji talks him into a compromise, and he feeds Wei Wuxian every other segment: one for you, one for me. Out of carelessness, or maybe just because he wants to, Lan Wangji’s fingertips brush Wei Wuxian’s lips when he feeds him, and Lan Wangji thinks of the idle musing he had a while ago, of feeding Wei Wuxian lotus seeds in a pond. The place and the food both aren’t quite what he had imagined, but the spirit of his daydream is all here. Really, the setting doesn’t matter so much, as long as he has an excuse to keep touch Wei Wuxian shamelessly. And Wei Wuxian is letting Lan Wangji: he opens his mouth obediently for each slice that Lan Wangji brings to his lips, and he smiles that shy smile of his that makes Lan Wangji almost lose his mind every time he sees it. As a final killing blow, Wei Wuxian says, “The tangerines that you peel for me are so sweet, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji is going to perish from desire. He wants nothing more in the world than to kiss Wei Wuxian, right here on the steps of the main hall. He would taste sweet and tart, just like the tangerines they were eating. But they’re sitting in plain sight of countless people, and there’s a child sleeping on Wei Wuxian’s breast who would definitely get woken up if they did kiss, and so Lan Wangji dismisses the idea, no matter how tempting it sounds. Besides, he would much prefer if their first kiss were somewhere private, with just the two of them.

The moment passes, and by the time they polish off the tangerine, the little boy’s mother has returned and bundled her offspring back home. She leaves the two of them with her effusive thanks, as well as a thick red packet from her and her husband.

Dinner that night is more crowded than usual, since a handful of guests have elected to stay on for the meal. The main hall is crammed with dining tables and people, who bustle from table to table to chat or to pass around platters of food. Jiang Wanyin reappears from his nap, and his great-aunts fall over themselves fawning over the only male heir of the Jiang sect, all of which Jiang Wanyin endures self-consciously. The din of the crowd wears on Lan Wangji’s nerves a little after a day full of social interaction, and he’s all too glad when the last of the guests have been sent home and peace settles over Lotus Pier once more.

That night, Lan Wangji dreams of Wei Wuxian: instead of being the chaser, this time Wei Wuxian is the one being chased. As Wei Wuxian’s laughter rings out through a bamboo forest reminiscent of the ones that can be found in Gusu, they race each other, darting and weaving between the plants nimbly. Although Wei Wuxian is treating it like a game, Lan Wangji is single-minded and focused, utterly sure in his dream logic that if he catches Wei Wuxian he gets a prize. At last, when Lan Wangji does catch him, he presses Wei Wuxian against a thicket of bamboo boldly, twirling a finger slowly through the scarlet ribbon in his hair, before finally leaning in and capturing his lips in a kiss.

In the morning, Lan Wangji startles himself awake with thoughts of the dream he had. His lips are tingling, and Lan Wangji reaches his fingertips up to touch them, before covering his face with his hands entirely. It takes a moment for him to calm himself down, his ears burning with embarrassment at how daring his dream self had been, pressing Wei Wuxian against the closest available surface and stealing a kiss from him. If only Lan Wangji could summon the courage to do that in real life.

His heartbeat thumps in his chest, still caught up in the excitement of his dream, and Lan Wangji takes a deep breath. Alright. He would need to meditate twice as long this morning, to regain his composure.

 

 

Thankfully, there are no guests in Lotus Pier that day, unlike the first day of the Lunar New Year. Lan Wangji is grateful for the chance to recharge after the hustle and bustle of yesterday. The only task he has is to send off the Jiang family in the morning, and the rest of the day can be spent however he pleases. When he meets up with Wei Wuxian at the Sword Hall to bid their goodbyes to the Jiang family, Lan Wangji returns Wei Wuxian’s cheery good morning! a little guiltily, thoughts of the dream he had the previous night still floating in his mind. In the end, Lan Wangji’s extended meditation had been of limited use. Curious, Wei Wuxian cocks his head, ready to ask Lan Wangji a follow-up question, but thankfully he gets interrupted by the arrival of the Jiang family.

It being the second day of the Lunar New Year, where women customarily returned to their maiden homes to see their parents, Madam Yu is going back to Meishan, and the rest of the Jiang family is following along. The four members of the family are all dolled-up and resplendent in their purple clothing. Madam Yu goes around adjusting Jiang Wanyin’s lapels and Jiang Yanli’s earrings to her satisfaction, before turning around to face Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.

The two of them will be staying behind in Lotus Pier. When the subject of visiting Meishan had come up a few weeks before, Wei Wuxian had volunteered to stay behind in Lotus Pier to accompany Lan Wangji. It’s not hard for Lan Wangji to see why he chose to do so: seeing Madam Yu’s parents would undoubtably be an awkward experience because of the rumors swirling around Wei Wuxian’s parentage. No matter that the rumors didn’t hold a single grain of truth; simply the suspicion that they planted was enough for tongues to wag.

Afterwards, Wei Wuxian had also confided in Lan Wangji that he had absolutely no desire to visit Meishan: “Did you know that Madam Yu has two older sisters? Their personalities are almost exactly alike. It must be something in Meishan’s water.” Wei Wuxian shudders. “Anyway, one Madam Yu is more than enough for me. I would rather stay here in Lotus Pier with you. Someone’s got to keep you from getting bored!”

When all the final preparations have been made and the Jiang family is ready to depart, Madam Yu addresses Wei Wuxian. “You’ve finally made some progress recently and become more responsible. No doubt it’s due to Second Young Master Lan’s good influence. I expect to see Lotus Pier in one piece when I get back, understand?”

“Yes, Madam Yu,” Wei Wuxian answers, trying to look as innocent as possible. “I swear I won’t get up to any trouble while you’re gone.”

“You’d better not.” She nods at Lan Wangji. “Second Young Master Lan. I hope you’ll be Wei Ying’s impulse control for the day.”

Lan Wangji bows, more out of politeness than agreement. Wei Wuxian really isn’t as bad as Madam Yu thinks he is, and Lan Wangji doubts that he’ll need to talk Wei Wuxian out of any trouble today. With a satisfied nod, Madam Yu sweeps out of the Sword Hall. The rest of the Jiang family follows in her wake, and then Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are free for the rest of the day.

Not even Lan Wangji is cruel enough to conduct morning training during the Lunar New Year period, so the Lan sect disciples, along with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are all at loose ends the entire day. Through the grapevine, Wei Wuxian has heard that around lunchtime there will be festivities and performances held on the main street, but besides that, there’s little to do other than loafing around and eating.

Lan Wangji can’t quite bring himself to reprimand the Lan sect disciples for lazing around, because in all honesty, he himself plans to do so in Wei Wuxian’s lovely company. Besides, the disciples have rather endeared themselves to him after the role they played in Lan Wangji’s birthday surprise. Most of them were also undoubtably homesick for Gusu by this point, especially since they wouldn’t be able to see their family members this Lunar New Year. So Lan Wangji cuts them some slack, and when he and Wei Wuxian are heading out to participate in the festivities, he drops by their quarters to let them know about the performances as well.

When he and Wei Wuxian venture into the main street, it is filled with the hubbub of laughter and shouting by Yunmeng residents buoyed by the Lunar New Year atmosphere. The streets are crammed full of people, although little pockets have been carved out to allow performers enough space to show off their talents. His hand in Lan Wangji’s, Wei Wuxian excitedly drags him closer to one of the performances.

A juggler tosses his hourglass-shaped diabolo (空竹) into the air and catches it on a string attached to two batons that he is holding, eliciting cheers from the crowd that he has attracted. He intersperses his tricks with acrobatics, throwing the diabolo upwards before doing a cartwheel and catching the diabolo again when he lands with a flourish.

“Wow, isn’t that amazing? He’s so good at it!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, wonder glittering in his eyes. Lan Wangji nods his agreement.

It turns out that Wei Wuxian has praise for each and every thing they come across: young girls twirling scarlet handkerchiefs deftly in their hands as they dance in a choreographed number (手绢花舞) complete with handstands and front aerial flips; dragon dancers (舞龙) bearing poles controlling an intricately-crafted cloth dragon that undulates sinuously down the street with their movements, as if it truly is alive; lion dancers (舞狮) draped under cloth lion costumes with gold-painted eyes, proving their absolute mastery of their craft with every life-like blink and jaunty flick of the lion’s neck they execute. Even the candied hawthorn that Wei Wuxian must have had a hundred times before is effusively complimented, and the two of them end up sharing a stick between themselves. In between ducking into festive stalls and enjoying performances, they find the time to sit down and have a bowl of noodles each, and that in addition to the candied hawthorn suffices as lunch.

Throughout all of this, there have been crowds thronging the streets of Yunmeng. There were undoubtably many who were spending their second day of the Lunar New Year in their homes in the company of their families, but there were also those who had chosen to attend the festival as well. Interspersed with the plainer fabrics of the Yunmeng people, Lan Wangji can see his fair share of Lan sect disciples clad in their blue cloud-embroidered robes instead of their white uniforms, just as Lan Wangji instructed. He passes quite a few of them as he browses through the stalls with Wei Wuxian, and sends a polite nod of acknowledgement in their direction each time before returning his attention to Wei Wuxian.

In order to not lose each other in the sea of people, Wei Wuxian keeps a firm grip on Lan Wangji’s hand, never letting go of it for even a second. Being the one who always gets attracted by this thing or that, it is more often than not Wei Wuxian who leads Lan Wangji to new destinations. As Wei Wuxian tugs Lan Wangji towards whatever has caught his attention now, Lan Wangji looks at the back of Wei Wuxian’s head. His eyes catch on the fluttering of Wei Wuxian’s scarlet ribbon, and Lan Wangji flushes a little, reminded of his dream.

As with the previous two days, Lan Wangji is wearing the red sash that Wei Wuxian brought him, and a little part of him thrills at the fact that anyone on the street looking at them, at the way they’re holding hands and how they both have red accents in their clothing, even if they don’t know who Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are, can tell that the two of them come together as a matching set. (Realistically speaking, of course, there isn’t anyone in Yunmeng who doesn’t know of the Jiang family’s cheerful adopted ward and the solemn boy in white who follows him around, but Lan Wangji is allowed to imagine.)

After the festival, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian return to Lotus Pier to while away the rest of the day. Lan Wangji reads, and Wei Wuxian does the following: first he reads, then he grows bored and starts daydreaming while staring in the general direction of Lan Wangji’s nose. Lan Wangji tells him to do something more productive, and Wei Wuxian cheerfully refuses. It’s a comfortable pattern that they’ve fallen into, and Lan Wangji relishes it: the fact that they’ve spent so much time together that they have well-worn routines to fall into.

They have dinner together in the main hall, just two people at the hexagonal table. Their knees knock together and their elbows jostle the entire meal, because against all good sense, they’ve chosen to sit side-by-side as is their custom even though the rest of the table is empty. Wei Wuxian spends more time putting food into Lan Wangji’s bowl using his chopsticks than actually eating, so Lan Wangji retaliates by returning the favor. He gets some chili oil onto his chopsticks in the process and accidentally ingests some of it, but the burnt taste buds are worth it in the end.

Lan Wangji places another morsel of stir-fried mushroom into Wei Wuxian’s bowl. Wei Wuxian smiles at him, and Lan Wangji smiles back, and there’s nowhere else in the world that Lan Wangji would rather be.

 

 

Dear Wangji,

In a few weeks’ time you will be back home in the Cloud Recesses. The servants have already begun preparing the quarters that the guest disciples will occupy, and I’ve asked them to dust the Jingshi in anticipation of your return as well.

I write this letter out of concern for you, as your elder brother. I know your personality well enough, I think, to guess that you have not spoken of your feelings to Young Master Wei. From your letters, I can tell that when Uncle asks for your opinion on the betrothal in the spring, your answer will be an unequivocal yes. However, when he writes to Lotus Pier afterwards asking for their opinion, I would not like for the answer to disappoint you.

We from Gusu are people of few words, long-accustomed to letting our actions and silences speak for us in the stead of words. But in matters of the heart, this does not suffice. I suggest that before you leave Lotus Pier and head home, find a quiet moment and a private place to speak to Young Master Wei. Tell him exactly how you feel, so that there is absolutely no ambiguity.

I hope with all my heart that you will arrive home with a light heart and good news to share.

I remain,

Your brother Lan Xichen

 

 

Lan Wangji receives the letter from his brother out of the blue around the end of the Lunar New Year celebration period, marked by the Spring Lantern festival (元宵节). When a messenger hands it to him, he is at first puzzled: during the Lunar New Year period, all work grinds to a stop, even at the ever-industrious Cloud Recesses. His brother had already written to him a few weeks before, wishing him a happy Lunar New Year, as well as answering his questions regarding the availability of lotus roots and suitable gifts for their uncle, so what could have possessed him to hire a messenger to travel from Gusu to Yunmeng, when virtually everyone was spending time at home with their family?

When he opens the letter to read it, he finds his mind occupied by other, more urgent matters. His brother has never led him astray, and Lan Wangji trusts his advice, especially when it concerns interpersonal affairs. After, it had been Lan Xichen who the elders had taught how to read other people and untangle their desires, all so he could better lead their sect. All this time, Lan Wangji has thought that his feelings for Wei Wuxian were beyond obvious to anyone with eyes: one only has to observe the way Lan Wangji treats him, speaks to him, smiles at him, to tell that Lan Wangji loves Wei Wuxian. After all, Lan Wangji doesn’t just let anyone on the street play duets with him, or lean on his shoulder when the weather is cold, or kiss him on his cheek. (The cheek kisses are of paramount importance, because after Lan Wangji’s birthday, Wei Wuxian has kissed him twice more, on both occasions giving Lan Wangji absolutely no warning before skipping away merrily.) But maybe Lan Xichen is right, and Lan Wangji is assuming too much in this situation. He would have to find a time to talk to Wei Wuxian about his feelings, so that he knows with absolute certainty that Lan Wangji loves him.

Lan Wangji participates in the celebrations for Spring Lantern festival distractedly, half his mind occupied with pondering when would be a good time to speak to Wei Wuxian about his feelings. He eats peanut and sesame-filled tangyuan at the main hall of Lotus Pier with the rest of the Jiang family, and thinks, Maybe afterwards when we walk back to our rooms.

Then when Wei Wuxian beckons him outside to solve riddles and admire the lanterns on display on the main street, he demurs, Maybe tomorrow, after morning training. This goes on for days, until even Wei Wuxian looks at him with worry in his eyes, asking Lan Wangji if you’re feeling alright, you’ve been so preoccupied recently, what’s been troubling you?, and Lan Wangji finally makes up his mind, and asks Wei Wuxian to go with him for a final stroll at the willow grove before they leave for the Cloud Recesses.

Wei Wuxian’s tendency to do nigh-everything extemporaneously can be inconvenient sometimes, despite how much Lan Wangji adores his spontaneity. Lan Wangji doesn’t want to muster the courage required to talk to Wei Wuxian about his feelings, only to find that Wei Wuxian has run off somewhere and cannot be found. Better to ask him directly, and set a time. They eventually decide on a day later in the week, one that they had already set aside for finding Lan Qiren’s gift. Acquiring the gift will probably only take up the morning, so they can have lunch at the Yunmeng main street, then head to the willow grove afterwards.

When Wei Wuxian asks him why, Lan Wangji tells him that it’s “For remembrance’s sake”, since they’ll be leaving Yunmeng for Gusu soon, and he would like to take a final look at the willow grove. Honestly though, Lan Wangji chooses the location for its privacy, and the good memories he has associated with it: lazy summer afternoons filled with music, and that one day in autumn when the two of them played in the leaves together.

In the days leading up to their visit to the willow grove, Lan Wangji gets a lot of thinking done. In all honesty, Lan Wangji has been afraid to confess to Wei Wuxian for fear of rejection. He’s afraid that he’ll hand his heart to Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian will just say no thank you, blithe as you please, and give it right back to Lan Wangji, shattered beyond repair.

Sure, it was true that Wei Wuxian had done many things that showed that he was not only receptive to Lan Wangji’s affections but actively returned them: it was Wei Wuxian who sought out Lan Wangji’s company at every turn, who had gone to great effort to make Lan Wangji’s birthday celebration an enjoyable one, who had instigated the kiss on the cheek. But although all evidence points to the contrary, there is still a part of Lan Wangji that is hesitant and unsure: maybe all this time he has been reading Wei Wuxian’s intentions wrongly. Deciphering the feelings of other people has never been Lan Wangji’s strong suit; Lan Xichen was the one who had been taught to read men’s minds through their actions and speech. For most of his life, Lan Wangji has kept to himself and his Jingshi, and his experience with friendship, much less romance, can be most kindly described as lacking.

Besides, Wei Wuxian was a consummate flirt: he flattered the aunties in the kitchen to get extra bowls of dessert, and drawled compliments for giggling shop girls in the marketplace to snag discounts. He smiled at everyone; Jiang Yanli, Jiang Wanyin, even Madam Yu, for goodness’ sake! Maybe all of it was just another method for Wei Wuxian to test Lan Wangji’s boundaries, the same way he had teasingly called Lan Wangji Lan-ergege the first day they met. Maybe Wei Wuxian has paid so much attention to Lan Wangji only because he’s new and exciting and foreign, and once Wei Wuxian tires of him, he’ll realize that Lan Wangji is too staid and sombre for his tastes and cast Lan Wangji off. Who is to say that Lan Wangji is that special to Wei Wuxian, after all? (A small part of him, the one corner of his mind that staunchly holds out hope, says: Wei Wuxian smiles at Lan Wangji differently. Lan Wangji has never seen Wei Wuxian aim that particular smile, the one so wide that Wei Wuxian’s eyes are happy crescents, at anyone else other than himself.)

For all that Wei Wuxian has been doing, be it blushing prettily when Lan Wangji buys him gifts, or leaning his head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder when they sit next to each other, and, once again because this really bears repeating, kissing Lan Wangji on the cheek, there is still a little voice that whispers in Lan Wangji’s mind what if? What if Wei Wuxian has just been treating Lan Wangji as a dear friend? What if he doesn’t think of Lan Wangji in that way? What if when Lan Wangji confesses to him, Wei Wuxian will be shocked and surprised, and they’ll stop being friends, much less fiancés?

It would break Lan Wangji’s heart. Quite possibly, he would return to the Cloud Recesses immediately and go into seclusion to nurse his shattered heart, or something equally dramatic.

When Lan Wangji’s overthinking brain sends his mood plunging into melodramatic depths of despair for the third time in the same day, he decides that enough is enough. Lan Wangji knows that thinking more on this issue won’t help things. His analytical mind, which usually serves him so well, is thinking itself in circles, and there’s really no way of telling how Wei Wuxian feels, unless Lan Wangji actually opens his mouth and asks him. Thankfully, by the time that Lan Wangji finally decides that his throes of overthinking are no longer serving him well, the day of his visit to the willow grove with Wei Wuxian is already impending.

As he lays down for bed, Lan Wangji takes a deep breath to fortify himself for what will happen the next day. Tomorrow, he will tell Wei Wuxian that he loves him.

Chapter Text

Winter sucks. It’s just so cold and miserable. Wei Wuxian hates it. It’s the worst season, objectively speaking. It rains all day, there’s nowhere fun to go, and if Wei Wuxian wants to feel warm he has to stay cooped up indoors all day. Even the cranes know better than to stay in Yunmeng, choosing to migrate elsewhere warmer and more pleasant.

It’s not so bad when he has Lan Wangji as company, though. A visit to their pavilion is unlikely, unless it’s the middle of the afternoon. Even then, Wei Wuxian has to weigh the chances of rain against his desire for fresh air. In summer he would have no qualms about being caught in a drizzle, but in winter it’s entirely out of the question. Ditto for the willow grove: there isn’t much to see in the forest during winter, and getting caught in inclement weather is a terrible fate that Wei Wuxian would prefer to avoid. Besides, Wei Wuxian loves wearing his new robes that were made with the cloth Lan Wangji gave him for his birthday, and he would be loath to have to switch them out early for another set. They’re the warmest set of robes he has, and something tender and unnamable unfurls in his heart whenever he puts them on, warmed by the idea that he’s wearing something that Lan Wangji gave him. Now that spring is arriving though, the walk in the willow grove that Wei Wuxian has set with Lan Wangji will probably be pleasant enough.

In any case, Lan Wangji really is the only thing making winter bearable for Wei Wuxian. The gloves that Lan Wangji gave him keep his hands toasty, and even better, he has Lan Wangji himself, who always runs warm despite his icy exterior. Lan Wangji always lets Wei Wuxian snuggle closer to him than is strictly necessary, so that Wei Wuxian can leech off his body heat. (That is, unless they’re somewhere very open, in which case Lan Wangji will still let Wei Wuxian attach himself to Lan Wangji like a limpet. Unavoidably though, Lan Wangji being the prude that he is, he’ll shift a centimeter or two in discomfort, and Wei Wuxian will ease off on the bodily contact.)

With their usual haunts out of bounds, they take to spending time in each other’s rooms, or in any warm corner they can find in Lotus Pier. The moments they spend in Lan Wangji’s room are the best, because Wei Wuxian can use the excuse that Lan Wangji’s room is drafty to sit closer to him. Lan Wangji is too proper to allow Wei Wuxian to sit too near to him in public, but in the privacy of his room, he allows Wei Wuxian to scoot up close, until their thighs are pressed together. What’s more, Wei Wuxian gets the chance to breathe in the smell that he’s come to associate with Lan Wangji: something like what he imagines the mists shrouding the Cloud Recesses smell like, mixed in with the warm scent of sandalwood.

(Rather guiltily, Wei Wuxian uses the excuse of thanking Lan Wangji for sharing his body heat to steal a few more kisses from him, pecking Lan Wangji lightly on the cheek when he’s caught unawares, before dashing off. Ever since Lan Wangji’s birthday when Wei Wuxian had pecked him farewell on the cheek at bedtime, the thought of kissing Lan Wangji hasn’t left his mind, and something about sitting so close to Lan Wangji for the better part of the day weakens his self-control. A part of him secretly wishes that Lan Wangji would turn his head at just the right moment, so that his lips are the recipient of Wei Wuxian’s kiss, instead of his cheek.)

Wei Wuxian even resorts to joining Lan Wangji and the other Lan sect disciples for their twice-weekly morning meditation sessions, which really goes to show the extent of his boredom. In all honesty, initially it had been a little creepy to Wei Wuxian how a bunch of teenagers his age were able to sit in silence for the better part of two hours, and not get bored or fall asleep. Now, he just accepts it as an integral part of the Lan sect identity, along with their preternatural ability to keep their white robes pristine.

The breakdown of what he actually does during the meditation sessions goes something like this: five percent of the time actively trying to meditate, ten percent of the time giving up on meditation and feeling bored, twenty percent of the time either falling asleep or actually asleep, and sixty-five percent of the time staring at Lan Wangji. (That one time he actually managed to meditate for an hour really was awesome though, so at least he’s getting better at it.)

A Lan Wangji who is meditating is the best Lan Wangji to stare at, Wei Wuxian discovers, because he won’t tell Wei Wuxian that he’s being ridiculous, or ask him to stop staring and go do your work, Wei Ying. Wei Wuxian has all the time in the world to admire the straight line of Lan Wangji’s nose, and the creaminess of his pale skin, and the lovely plush curve of his lower lip, and imagine himself kissing each lovely location. It’s perfect. The only drawback is that Wei Wuxian can’t look at Lan Wangji’s pretty eyes as well, which are always so beautiful, especially when they catch the sunlight and look honey-gold. Well, that and how cold the room that they meditate in is. The Lan sect disciples, Lan Wangji included, are completely unaffected by the Yunmeng winter, and they get by fine without so much as a brazier to warm their hands against. It’s sort of a miracle how Wei Wuxian manages to doze off even in such a chilly room, and he gives himself a mental pat on the back for that. Achieve the impossible indeed.

Of course, after Wei Wuxian accidentally falls asleep for the third time in the same morning, Lan Wangji gently suggests that he find something else to do. Wei Wuxian, who has honed his skills in analyzing Lan Wangji’s statements for the better part of a year, internally translates his suggestion as: Maybe it would be better if you leave before you actually do embarrass me in front of the Lan sect disciples, by doing something like jolting awake with a shout. Which: unfair. That was one time!

Without meditation (or pretending to meditate but really just gazing at Lan Wangji) occupying his time, Wei Wuxian finds his mind caught on other matters. Lan Wangji has been in a strange mood recently: frowning distractedly whenever he thinks Wei Wuxian isn’t paying attention, or taking an extra split second to reply when Wei Wuxian calls his name. To anyone else other than him, Lan Wangji would look the same. (Wei Wuxian has asked; when he brought up his concern to Jiang Cheng, all he got in reply was: “He looks the same to me. Maybe he’s just stressed about going back home.”)

But Wei Wuxian can tell now, by the little details: the slight tension around Lan Wangji’s mouth, the way his eyes look the tiniest bit clouded by some sort of emotion – indecision? hesitance? Wei Wuxian can’t be sure, although he knows that if he spent another decade or so looking at Lan Wangji’s perfect face, he could probably figure it out. Hell, he could write a dictionary detailing Lan Wangji’s micro-expressions with that much time. For now though, Lan Wangji is still inscrutable to him, and Wei Wuxian just has to wonder what goes on in that pretty head of his, besides thoughts about cultivation and playing the guqin, and whatever is bothering him right now.

Anyway: Lan Wangji is out of sorts, and he’s asked Wei Wuxian out for a walk, and that puts Wei Wuxian in a sort of thinking mood as well, which is why he goes to his shi-jie for advice because she’s the wisest person he knows.

That’s how Wei Wuxian ends up in Jiang Yanli’s room, staring at her neat calligraphy as she composes a letter to one of her cousins on Madam Yu’s side of the family. On his way here, he had stopped by the kitchens and charmed the cooks into giving him two piping hot roasted sweet potatoes (烤地瓜), their centers gooey-soft and caramel-sweet, and when shi-jie saw his offerings she had let him in with an indulgent smile. It’s warm here, and Wei Wuxian has always liked his shi-jie’s room. Decorated tastefully with her feminine touch, it was here that he and Jiang Cheng would run to whenever they got into trouble when they were little, hiding behind his shi-jie’s skirts to evade punishment. She has always been the person to counsel Wei Wuxian, who comforted him when he was sad, and teased him into laughing when he was down. Which is why when he sees her finish off her letter, he takes the opportunity to ask her something that has been on his mind for quite a while.

Shi-jie, how do you know if you like someone?”

When she hears his question, his shi-jie frowns a little, head tilting in curiosity as she murmurs something under her breath that Wei Wuxian can barely catch. “I thought… Didn’t he accept the comb already? Unless he really is that oblivious…”

“What was that?” Wei Wuxian asks.

His shi-jie shakes her head as if to say nothing at all. Then she smiles gently with a knowing glint in her eye, like she’s understood whatever confused her before. Oh no, Wei Wuxian despairs internally: he’s being entirely too obvious, isn’t he?

“You just know when you like someone. They’re special to you, and you want to spend all your time with them.”

Well. Of course Lan Wangji is special to him, he’s Wei Wuxian’s kind-of-maybe-fiancé who Madam Yu told him very specifically not to piss off, advice which he elected to ignore an hour into his acquaintance with Lan Wangji because he just had to know what would get a reaction of that handsome block of ice.

At first, he had hung around Lan Wangji all day because it amused him endlessly to tease and wheedle until Lan Wangji got angry. Then afterwards, when Lan Wangji finally warmed up to him, Wei Wuxian discovered that Lan Wangji was good company. It had been no ordeal at all for Wei Wuxian to accompany him: to show him Lotus Pier, and to converse with him about any topic under the sun, especially since Lan Wangji was so knowledgeable. For all that he was such a quiet person, Lan Wangji was a good conversationalist: he listened well, and mn-ed and nodded in all the right places to show that he was paying attention. Now, when Wei Wuxian goes anywhere without Lan Wangji, he feels like there’s a silent, warm presence missing at his side.

Lan Wangji is special to him, and Wei Wuxian never wants to spend a minute apart from him. Even before he had asked his shi-jie this question, he had been relatively sure he liked Lan Wangji. What was not to like about him? Wei Wuxian loves Lan Wangji’s quietude. The way he stays calm and reliable no matter what, the calm eye of the storm to Wei Wuxian’s hurricane, anchoring him always. He loves the way he always listens attentively to what Wei Wuxian is saying, even when it’s rubbish, like the new talismans he’s always developing.

Lan Wangji is a patient teacher, knowledgeable in almost all aspects, but never feigning expertise when he genuinely doesn’t know something. The sound of his fingers strumming the guqin is enough to make the other Lan sect disciples despair at their own lack of skill. His swordsmanship is as stunning as the beauty of his calligraphy, and all the disciples, be they from the Lan sect or the Jiang sect, look up to him as a paragon of virtue. Lan Wangji is wonderfully strong in all the best ways as well: he carried Wei Wuxian on Bichen all the way back to Lotus Pier without so much as breaking a sweat, not to mention the time he had taken Wei Wuxian’s joking for real, and piggybacked him back to the boat when they were out at the willow grove one summer day.

And oh, how Lan Wangji spoke. In that soft Gusu accent of his that all the other Lan sect disciples had, but it sounded so much better coming out of his mouth. Wei Wuxian could listen to him talk forever. He’d listen to all three thousand Lan sect rules in rapt attention, if it was Lan Wangji reciting them: his erudite accent, the lilt of his words, the way his tongue twisted around each syllable gently would be like music to Wei Wuxian’s ears. Not only that, but just the way that Lan Wangji speaks is utterly adorable: like he stepped straight out of the pages of a book. Lan Wangji is always economical with his words, never using two words where one would suffice, like someone once told him that he had a lifetime allotment of words and he was trying to save them for a rainy day.

And he’s so beautiful. Lan Wangji is, objectively speaking, perfect. He honestly looks like a celestial being who took a wrong turn and descended from heaven by mistake (美若天仙), especially in his flowy white robes. Wei Wuxian has always thought so, ever since that spring morning in the Sword Hall. The first time Wei Wuxian laid his eyes on his betrothed, he thought that he had to be a statue: Lan Wangji had this way of holding himself so still, and his features were so breathtaking that only a master artisan could have created him. It had seemed impossible to Wei Wuxian that someone so beautiful could be human. Wei Wuxian isn’t the only one who thinks this way either. At the archery competition during the discussion conference at Lanling, many in the crowd had stared with great admiration at Lan Wangji’s poise and elegance in handling his bow as he landed bullseye after bullseye.

Wei Wuxian had not been exempt. His eyes had been glued to Lan Wangji that entire afternoon: his look of complete concentration, the tension in the muscles of his forearm when he drew back the bowstring, the hint of satisfaction that Wei Wuxian could detect in his eyes when he hit the target; so much so that the sight of spilled water against the column of Lan Wangji’s neck had been enough to lose him the position of first place in the archery competition. Witnessing Lan Wangji dominate the archery field effortlessly had made Wei Wuxian want to stride out and announce to the whole world that Lan Wangji was his. Seeing Lan Wangji wear Yunmeng purple that one summer day had been enough of a revelation, but ever since the discussion conference in Lanling, whenever he sees Lan Wangji in Yunmeng colors, a curl of possessiveness sneaks out from some corner of Wei Wuxian’s mind, and the urge to see Lan Wangji in red and black, in Wei Wuxian’s own colors, so that anyone can see that Lan Wangji is Wei Wuxian’s and Wei Wuxian’s only, is hard to fend off.

And, as if it’s not enough that he’s handsome and accomplished, Lan Wangji is so sweet! He peels lotus seeds and tangerines for Wei Wuxian to eat, and buys gloves for Wei Wuxian when he complains of the cold, and candy when he whines about cravings. Ever since the discussion conference in Lanling, it’s like a switch flipped in Lan Wangji’s head for whatever reason, and he was more solicitous than ever to Wei Wuxian’s desires. Just– Lan Wangji makes Wei Wuxian so happy. Wei Wuxian can still remember the dumb grin he couldn’t wipe off his face after he had impulsively kissed Lan Wangji on the cheek, how even after he ran back to his room and rolled around his bed kicking his heels excitedly, he still ended up smiling at the rafters uncontrollably, heartbeat rabbiting in his chest, giddy with joy.

Of course, Lan Wangji isn’t without his flaws. He’s sort of (correction: very) awkward with strangers, often resorting to stilted formalities when talking to people, even when those people are friendly fisherman who have seen Wei Wuxian grow up since he was a little boy. He walks like the quintessential shaoye (少爷), with his right hand tucked behind his back all prissy, but this one doesn’t count as a flaw, because Wei Wuxian kind of loves it. Lan Wangji is almost unbearably nerdy, and he can quote classics to Uncle Yang from the bookstore all day without getting bored. He’s obstinate, but only about the right things. (So really, this one doesn’t count either, and Wei Wuxian strikes it off his mental list of Lan Wangji’s flaws. Not that he’s keeping count.)

In the way that rich people often are, Lan Wangji is also astonishingly ignorant about money matters, like how much a bag of rice costs, and Wei Wuxian constantly has to save him from unscrupulous vendors trying to rip him off. He bets that back home in the Cloud Recesses, all Lan Wangji has to do is ask for something, and it would magically appear the next day. Wei Wuxian can’t really blame Lan Wangji for this, really. If Madam Yu hadn’t been adamant about teaching the value of things to Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng, they probably would have ended up the same way.

But for all his (admittedly, quite few) flaws, Lan Wangji is still an amazing person. He can’t stand to let someone in help go unaided, and he’s the most responsible person Wei Wuxian has ever seen. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that if he were the one bringing a troop of Jiang sect disciples on a year-long trip away from home, they would have gotten into trouble countless times, but in their entire tenure here the Lan sect disciples haven’t so much as accidentally broken a teapot. Lan Wangji cares intensely about the people he lets into his inner circle: his brother, his uncle, Wei Wuxian, and maybe even shi-jie and Jiang Cheng now. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure Lan Wangji’s never had a covetous thought in his life, even though he was born a younger son, and all that separates him from being the sect leader of the Lan sect is Lan Xichen.

The person Wei Wuxian adores is about fifty different sorts of wonderful. It feels like Wei Wuxian has been a talisman with one stroke missing his entire life, and Lan Wangji has completed him, activated him with a single brush-stroke. Added the missing ingredient, and made Wei Wuxian spark to life. He finally has someone whose mind moves at the same speed as his does, who is his equal in sword fighting, who challenges him and makes him want to do better.

Who is Wei Wuxian kidding? At the Mid-Autumn Festival when the time to wish upon their sky lanterns had come, he had even tacked on a clause about Lan Wangji after his usual wish to uphold justice. I hope that Lan Zhan has a really good time at Lotus Pier, so he’ll come back and visit me, and we can become even closer. Now, he wonders whether the wish he had truly wanted to make had been: I wish that Lan Zhan feels the same way about me as I feel about him.

“Then how do you know if the person you like also likes you?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Jiang Yanli places a hand on Wei Wuxian’s head, and pats it absent-mindedly as she answers. “Well, you can look at how they treat you. Do they spend time with you, and make you laugh? Do they buy gifts for you that will make you happy? When you’re sad, do they cheer you up? When you need help, do they put aside everything else for you? These little things will let you know whether your affections are returned.”

Wei Wuxian ponders for a moment, chin leaning against his hands where they’re pressed against the table surface.

Lan Wangji’s actions ticked every single box that shi-jie had listed: He was the person that Wei Wuxian spent the most amount of time with every single day, as far as their duties permitted them to. As Lan Wangji had warmed up to him, Wei Wuxian had also discovered that Lan Wangji had a wicked sense of humor when he was so inclined. His mind flashes back to the night of the reunion dinner, when Lan Wangji had sassed him (sassed! Him, Wei Wuxian! By Lan Wangji!) when he wondered about what the Lans ate for their reunion dinners. When Wei Wuxian had mock-reprimanded Jiang Cheng for disrespecting his elders later in the evening, Lan Wangji had even played along.

As for gifts… Wei Wuxian was sure that the amount of food that Lan Wangji had either surreptitiously paid for on Wei Wuxian’s behalf, or just outright presented to him as a gift would be enough to feed an army by now. Lan Wangji bought all sorts of things for Wei Wuxian, even outside of the frankly extravagant heap of presents that he had given Wei Wuxian for his birthday. At that time, Wei Wuxian had interpreted it as a sudden fit of generosity on the part of Lan Wangi or something. But now that he’s heard Jiang Yanli’s words, he finds himself seeing the past events in a new light.

And not just that, but Wei Wuxian had even told Lan Wangji about his parents, and brought him to see their tombstone. As a rule, he never did that. Wei Wuxian preferred to leave the past in the past, and while his parents were not quite a sore point to him the same way that Lan Wangji’s parents were to Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian didn’t like dwelling on his parents’ passing. That was something he left for his late-night self to ruminate, when it was so late it was early and saying nonsense was forgivable. But listening to Lan Wangji spill his heart out about his upbringing had made Wei Wuxian feel such a connection to him, and the urge to share about his own parents, to let Lan Wangji know that he wasn’t alone in his frankly shitty childhood, had been too strong to shake off. Honestly, it had felt good telling Lan Wangji about his parents, like– like coming clean or something, not that Wei Wuxian was deliberately hiding anything, but just... There was no need for pretenses between the two of them any longer, because they knew things, important things, about each other.

The nail in the coffin though, is something that shi-jie hasn’t mentioned at all, and in fact, something that Wei Wuxian hasn’t told anyone about. The kiss. Well, the kisses. The first one at Lan Wangji’s bedroom door had really been more of an impulse decision than anything, but god, Lan Wangji is a temptation that Wei Wuxian can’t resist. Ever since that first time, Wei Wuxian hasn’t been able to restrain himself from doing it again and again, just to see the flustered fluttering of Lan Wangji’s lashes, and the way his ears turn pink. Lan Wangji’s response was encouraging, to say the least. He never turned his face the other way, or pushed Wei Wuxian away from him, he just blushed in that pretty way of his. He had even said that he liked it!

Of course, it was just the tiniest bit worrying that Wei Wuxian was always the one initiating their kisses. Maybe Lan Wangji actually didn’t like them, but he was just too polite to say anything about it? The smallest traces of doubt start to creep into Wei Wuxian’s mind. From what shi-jie was saying, it sounded like there was a high chance that Lan Wangji felt the same way, but there was always the possibility that Wei Wuxian was mistaken.

 “But if you think about it that way, you, me and Jiang Cheng would qualify! Maybe the person I like just treats me as a really good friend, or like a brother!”

Jiang Yanli raps her knuckles against Wei Wuxian’s skull gently. “You silly boy. The love between us is familial. Romantic love is different. Romantic love means you want to hug someone, and kiss them, and start a family with them in the future.”

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had already done plenty of the first two, that was for sure. Actually getting married though? Wei Wuxian had never really thought about that aspect of their engagement before. Sure, he liked spending time with Lan Wangji, but getting married to him, truly and properly, with a whole wedding and the works? The thought had never passed through Wei Wuxian’s mind seriously. Back when Uncle Jiang had told him about the Lan sect disciples visiting Lotus Pier, he had said, “Just be yourself, A-xian. I don’t want you to change yourself just to please someone else. If it turns out that the two of you get along and could see yourselves married someday, then we’ll discuss things further with the Lan sect.” He had left after patting Wei Wuxian on the head, and Wei Wuxian had swept any thoughts of the marriage part of his betrothal under a mental carpet.

He tries to imagine himself married to Lan Wangji, and something just feels off. Lan Wangji has fit in perfectly at Wei Wuxian’s side in Lotus Pier, but somehow Wei Wuxian can’t picture himself in the Cloud Recesses accompanying Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji is completely out of Wei Wuxian’s league: he’s the quintessential young master, accomplished and dignified. Lan Wangji ranks second in the list of outstanding young cultivators of their generation, for crying out loud! He deserves someone better, someone as perfect as him, rich and handsome and talented and caring. Not Wei Wuxian, with his terrible bloodline and messy hair and propensity for stirring up trouble everywhere. Lan Wangji is perfect, all-round, and if someone else better comes along, Wei Wuxian doesn’t stand a chance.

What is Wei Wuxian to do, though? He’s already fallen in love with Lan Wangji. Or at least, he’s about ninety-eight percent sure that what he feels for Lan Wangji has long since passed the line of childish fancying, and is well into the realm of, hand to god, actual serious love now.

But hey, isn’t the Jiang sect motto to attempt the impossible? Wei Wuxian can try. Even with stiff odds, he can try. Maybe he’ll be lucky and Lan Wangji will accept him, warts and all.

Jiang Yanli notices his despondence, and leans down to look him in the eye. “What are you thinking about, Xianxian? You look down.”

Just for confirmation of what he already knows, Wei Wuxian asks, “Shi-jie… How do you know when you don’t just like somebody, you love them?”

“That I’m not so sure. I haven’t fallen in love before.” Humming in contemplation, Jiang Yanli takes some time to gather her thoughts before replying. “From what I’ve read in books and heard from others, when you love someone you want the best for them always. Even if they don’t return your feelings, you’ll wish them the best. You want to spend time with them always, and you feel at ease in their presence. When they’re far away, you miss them. Something like that?”

Even if they don’t return your feelings, you’ll wish them the best. The thought of Lan Wangji marrying someone else stings, but he deserves a cultivation partner of the same caliber as he is. Someone who isn’t Wei Wuxian: someone who won’t be a stumbling block for his future, someone who doesn’t break a dozen of the Lan sect rules before they even get out of bed in the morning, someone who doesn’t make enemies and offend people left and right. The thought of this makes tears prickle at the edges of Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

“What if the person you love is too good for you?” Giving up the pretense entirely, Wei Wuxian says, “I’m not worthy of Lan Zhan at all, shi-jie.

“Who said that? Tell me and I’ll break their legs for you,” Jiang Yanli says, affronted on Wei Wuxian’s behalf. Hearing that particular threat, one of Jiang Cheng’s trademarks, come out of his shi-jie’s mouth is incongruous enough to startle a laugh out of Wei Wuxian.

“Nobody,” he says, calming Jiang Yanli down. “You don’t have to break anyone’s legs on my behalf. It’s just, no matter how I think about it, my qualifications don’t match Lan Zhan’s.”

“What makes you think that way?” Jiang Yanli asks earnestly.

“Just… It makes sense. Look at Lan Zhan. He’s so outstanding even at such a young age (年少有为). Whenever we go to the market together, a whole troop of admirers follow behind us to stare at him. I don’t have any money, much less power to aid him in his future. He should find someone better to be his fiancé. Someone more dignified, who won’t make him lose face in front of others. Some wealthy heir or heiress who will be able to buy him all the nice things he wants.” Wei Wuxian smiles bitterly. “I bet if Grand Master Lan announced that Lan Zhan is looking for a spouse, the number of candidates would be long enough to circle the Jade Mountain thrice. What chance do I stand? You just have to throw a rock to find someone who can treat Lan Zhan far better than I can, who can treat him the way he deserves.”

Frowning, Jiang Yanli asks, “Has Second Young Master Lan actually said these things to you?”

“No.” The thought of actually telling Lan Wangji any of his insecurities out-loud is mortifying. “But it makes perfect sense. Lan Zhan deserves the best things in the world. And I’m definitely not the best.”

“Wei Wuxian. Don’t you dare think of yourself like that. You are kind, and good, and my darling little brother. I love you, and A-Cheng loves you,” Jiang Yanli says, cupping Wei Wuxian’s face in her warm palms. “How are you not worthy of Second Young Master Lan?”

His shi-jie may always know just the right thing to say to comfort Wei Wuxian, but somehow, today her words just can’t seem to combat how inferior Wei Wuxian feels compared to what he thinks Lan Wangji deserves.

Seeing that Wei Wuxian isn’t quite convinced just yet, Jiang Yanli continues. “Let’s put it another way. If, hypothetically speaking, you weren’t worthy of Second Young Master Lan, do you think he would have fallen in love with you?”

“There’s no saying that he has. I’m just speculating right now. He might not even like me. He hated me when he first got here, do you remember?” Wei Wuxian says, evasive. If someone else other than himself reaches that the conclusion that Lan Wangji might like him, that means it’s actually possible, which means that the stupid hope that Wei Wuxian is trying to quash down so that he can prevent disappointment is going to get stronger, all of which means that when Lan Wangji inevitably turns out to not like Wei Wuxian, it’ll just be more crushing.

“Okay. How about this? Second Young Master Lan gave you a comb for your birthday, didn’t he? That’s concrete evidence that he likes you,” Jiang Yanli points out.

The sandalwood comb. It was true that the night of his birthday, after Wei Wuxian had gotten over the excitement of the celebration and Lan Wangji’s gifts, his mind had snagged on the fact that Lan Wangji had given him a comb. Combs were unquestionably romantic gifts; one didn’t just give combs to any old acquaintance. The fact that out of all the combs available, Lan Wangji had specifically picked a sandalwood comb, one that smelled like him, only made the gift seem even more intimate. It was like Lan Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian to think of him every time he used the comb.

“Well. Maybe Lan Zhan was just being nice! When we went on the night hunt to Liaojing, you know, the one where I got injured, he saw that my comb was all worn out. He’s just being a thoughtful friend. He’s great that way,” Wei Wuxian says. Maybe if his tone is strident enough, Jiang Yanli will let the matter go and Wei Wuxian can slink back to his room to preemptively wallow in the despair that’s unavoidable when Lan Wangji rejects him.

“Fine. Let me find another example.” Ugh. Wei Wuxian’s tactic didn’t work. They mostly never do, where shi-jie is concerned. She’s too smart to fall for his distractions. “Do you remember one day in summer when you and Second Young Master Lan were hiding from the heat in one of the pools in the residential wing? You know, the one that you fell into accidentally once. Second Young Master Lan was reading a book, and you were dozing.”

“Yeah, that does ring a bell. What about that day?”

How could Wei Wuxian forget? That was the day Lan Wangji had volunteered his lap as Wei Wuxian’s pillow, and afterwards when he got up, he had stumbled because his legs were numb. That was when Wei Wuxian had discovered that when Lan Wangji got embarrassed, it was his ears that turned red, not his cheeks. Wei Wuxian remembers thinking to himself at that time, how adorable, and to this day he still maintains that this is the cutest thing about Lan Wangji. A close second is the look on Lan Wangji’s face when he gets the hiccups, as if he’s utterly disgruntled that something as undignified as hiccups is happening to him.

“Well, let me tell you something I saw accidentally. I was running errands for Niang, and I passed by the two of you. Did you know that as the sun shifted, Second Young Master Lan used his book to shade your eyes so you wouldn’t wake up from your nap? He wasn’t even reading it anymore, just holding it up for you! When I passed by again an hour later, he was still holding it up. Do you think he would do that for just any other person?”

Lan Wangji had been doing that for Wei Wuxian? For more than an hour? All of a sudden, Wei Wuxian remembers how when he had woken up that day, he’d seen Lan Wangji holding up his book, but not in a manner that would suggest that it was being read. When he’d asked Lan Wangji about it afterwards, he had refused to reply, and Wei Wuxian had let it go. God, Lan Wangji really was the most thoughtful person on earth.

A little bubble of joy expands in Wei Wuxian’s chest, before his rational mind catches up and pops it with a needle. Maybe Lan Wangji is just being extra nice to Wei Wuxian because his uncle and brother told him to treat Wei Wuxian well. Or maybe Lan Wangji’s uncle had told him to be polite and not to offend anyone, the same way Madam Yu had told Wei Wuxian that he was to, under no circumstances, offend their guests from the Lan sect, an order that Wei Wuxian summarily threw out of the window when he saw Lan Wangji standing there in the Sword Hall, with his perfect face and perfect everything, and his traitorous mind had thought, Ooh, I wonder if I can make him yell at me? There’s probably some obscure Lan sect rule that says disturbing someone else’s sleep is forbidden or something, and that is the only reason why Lan Wangji had shaded Wei Wuxian’s eyes while he napped. Yeah. That makes perfect sense.

“Maybe? Lan Zhan was probably just being nice.”

“Do you think he would have done it for A-Cheng, then?”

Imagining Jiang Cheng lying in Lan Wangji’s lap in any context makes Wei Wuxian pull a face. Ugh. That was just wrong, like eating pickled vegetables with candied hawthorn or some other food pairing equally revolting. Something about the combination just made Wei Wuxian feel ill at ease.

“No. Definitely not.” Wei Wuxian shakes his head to clear his mind of the vaguely disturbing images his mind supplies.

“See?” Jiang Yanli gestures I told you so. “Do you want to hear my opinion on the issue?”

En.” Wei Wuxian trusts Jiang Yanli. Besides, sometimes onlookers have a clearer view of the situation compared to those directly involved (当局者迷,旁观者清).

“I can see that Second Young Master Lan likes you. He’s never once made the indication that he thinks you’re unworthy of him. He admires your talents, and he likes spending time with you, and he cares for you.”

Leaning his head against the hand that Jiang Yanli has laid on top of it, Wei Wuxian lets her words sink in. The traitorous part of his heart that clings on to hope that Lan Wangji might return his feelings gets buoyed up once again, and Wei Wuxian has to find a new method to push it back down lest it overtake his mind with false promises.

“But shi-jie, you’re just saying that because you’re my sister and you don’t want my feelings to get hurt. You’re too nice to dash my hopes.”

Jiang Yanli uses her fingers to flick Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “Wei Wuxian, I’m offended that you think I would lie about something so important just to protect your feelings.”

“Ow! Sorry, sorry.” Wei Wuxian cups his hands over his forehead to ward off further attacks. It was the second time Jiang Yanli had called him by his full name in the conversation, which meant that she was being serious, and probably more than a little bit mad at him.

“Well,” Jiang Yanli huffs. “If you don’t believe what I said, you can ask A-Cheng. He’ll tell you the same thing.”

Hm. That was true. Jiang Cheng has never had any qualms about shooting Wei Wuxian’s outlandish ideas down. Maybe Jiang Cheng’s brand of brutal honesty is just what Wei Wuxian needs.

“That’s… actually a really good idea. Maybe I will,” Wei Wuxian says. “Before I go though, I have one last question for you, shi-jie.”

“Go ahead.”

“Is there any way to know for sure whether or not Lan Zhan likes me?”

“If you want to know for certain whether someone likes you in return, there’s only one way.”

“Uh-huh?” Wei Wuxian nods eagerly. Maybe his shi-jie knows some sort of method like, he doesn’t know, dream scrying or tea leaf interpretation that will allow Wei Wuxian to skip over any uncertainty and jump straight to knowing whether or not Lan Wangji will receive a confession from Wei Wuxian well.

“Ask them,” Jiang Yanli says, as if she isn’t asking Wei Wuxian to do something utterly mortifying, with the attendant risk of being rejected. “State your feelings, and ask Second Young Master Lan if he feels the same. That’s the only fool-proof method that will put to rest all of your doubts.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. There goes any hope of finding an easy way out. “Shi-jie. How come you’re so wise?”

“Hmm… I stole all of you and A-Cheng’s wisdom when you were kids!” Jiang Yanli says, wrinkling her nose mischievously as she taps Wei Wuxian on the nose. “Okay, now scram. Go ask A-Cheng what you asked me, and when you’re done thinking things through, go confess to Second Young Master Lan!”

With that, Wei Wuxian finds himself unceremoniously shooed out of Jiang Yanli’s room. He pouts at her from outside her door, but all Jiang Yanli does is pat him on the head, and say, “Good luck!” before shutting the door in his face.

 

 

The conversation with Jiang Cheng goes much quicker compared to the one Wei Wuxian has with his shi-jie. It takes a little bit of hoofing around, but Wei Wuxian eventually tracks Jiang Cheng down in one of the private training halls inside Lotus Pier, practicing sword drills. Truly, he understands Jiang Cheng’s obsession with practicing so much, but he works himself so hard. So, as his kind shixiong, Wei Wuxian convinces Jiang Cheng to take a break, and coaxes him to one of the less-frequented pavilions in the estate to rest, all the better to have a private conversation. To butter him up, Wei Wuxian even carts over a tray of treats, as well as tea, from the kitchens for Jiang Cheng to snack on.

Three sips into his cup of lotus tea, Wei Wuxian is still hemming and hawing over how to open his mouth and ask Jiang Cheng his burning question, when Jiang Cheng speaks first.

“Well? Spit it out,” Jiang Cheng snaps, impatient. “You obviously have something to say, or you wouldn’t have come to look for me.”

Wei Wuxian grins. His little brother knows him so well. “Okay. Jiang Cheng, I’m going to ask you a really serious question, and I want you to consider your answer carefully before replying, alright?”

Frowning slightly, Jiang Cheng replies, “What’s up with you? It’s weird seeing you so sincere. Yeah, I’ll answer seriously. Shoot.”

“Do you think Lan Zhan likes me? You know, not just as a friend, or an acquaintance, but in that way. A romantic way,” Wei Wuxian clarifies.

Without a moment of hesitation, Jiang Cheng replies, his tone conveying exactly how obvious he thinks the answer is. “Yeah.”

Sputtering, Wei Wuxian points his finger at Jiang Cheng’s face accusatorily. “You didn’t even think your answer through! You answered straight away!”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, stealing a walnut pastry from Wei Wuxian’s plate. “Any fool can see that he likes you.”

“How do you know?” Wei Wuxian rebuts.

“One, you two have been living in each other’s pockets for months.” Jiang Cheng says, using his fingers to count off the reasons. “Do you honestly think Lan Wangji would have put up with your company if he hates you? He was moping the entire time you were gone preparing his birthday surprise. And two, you didn’t see how worried he looked when you got snatched by the Zhen on that night hunt. Before, I always thought he was a block of ice, but he looked really frantic when he was chasing after you. Believe me, anyone with eyes can tell that Lan Wangji likes you. Why are you asking me crap like this anyway? Aren’t you guys a couple already?”

Wei Wuxian chokes on his sip of tea, and squawks as he coughs. “What!? What makes you think that?”

“I don’t know, the entire Lunar New Year period?” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “You guys wore matching outfits to the reunion dinner, and you were spoon-feeding him your dessert. If you wanted to be any more obvious about being together, you would shout it from the rooftops. Besides, I heard from Jie that Lan Wangji gave you a comb for your birthday.”

“Why does everybody know about that?” Wei Wuxian wonders, mystified. “I never told anyone about it. More importantly, Lan Zhan and I are not a couple! I don’t even know if he likes me, which is why I asked you about it!”

That earns him an incredulous look from Jiang Cheng. “Are you an idiot? You mean you really couldn’t tell? You’re the person who spends the most time with him.”

“I mean, maybe Lan Zhan is just being nice to me because I’m his fiancé. It doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m not a good enough match for him.”

“That’s bullshit. You’re the head disciple of our clan. Do you really think Niang would have allowed you to take up that responsibility if she didn’t think you were capable?” Jiang Cheng scans Wei Wuxian up and down. “So what, you’re fine if Lan Wangji goes and marries someone else?”

“No!”

Somehow, hearing Jiang Cheng flippantly float the possibility of Lan Wangji breaking off their betrothal strengthens Wei Wuxian’s resolve. Just a few hours ago when he was talking to Jiang Yanli, Wei Wuxian had still thought that if a better match for Lan Wangji appeared, Wei Wuxian would gracefully step aside to give Lan Wangji the life he deserved. Now though, he knows that if someone tried to tear Lan Wangji away from him, Wei Wuxian would fight tooth and nail.

If Lan Wangji ended up wedded to someone else, that would be a worst case scenario for Wei Wuxian. The ideal scenario being, of course, him and Lan Wangji living together somewhere, having duels every day and striking up duets on the dizi and guqin whenever the mood struck them. Maybe some pets, if they had the space for them.

Wei Wuxian has only just started learning how to read Lan Wangji’s expressions: the extra sparkle in his eyes when he’s amused, and the slight upturn of the corners of his lips when he’s happy. Wei Wuxian can’t help it, he’s greedy, and he wants to keep all of Lan Wangji’s affections for himself: his blushes, his smiling eyes, his gentle touches. Hoard it all, and never let someone else experience the funny fluttery feeling he gets in his chest whenever Lan Wangji directs a smile at him. It’s so unfair, he hasn’t even had enough time with Lan Wangji yet! Hasn’t heard Lan Wangji laugh beyond an amused huff, like the one he had made when Jiang Cheng accidentally swallowed a bayberry whole, or seen Lan Wangji smile a proper smile yet, one that crinkles the corners of his eyes and shows his teeth. The closest that he’s ever gotten was the expression on Lan Wangji’s face the first day of the Lunar New Year when they were playing tag with the various Jiang family rugrats: the corners of his mouth had been quirked up at least twice as much as they usually did in a small smile, though no teeth peeked through just yet. Lan Wangji’s smiling face is a marvel, so much more precious for its scarcity, and if one of Lan Wangji’s slight smiles is enough to make Wei Wuxian’s heart quicken with joy, he’ll probably expire from happiness if he ever sees Lan Wangji smile or laugh properly.

Wei Wuxian repeats, “No. Of course not.”

Then he flinches, because Jiang Cheng slaps him on the back extra-hard. “Then get your shit together and talk to Lan Wangji about it. And on that note, stop with your public displays of affection! If I have to see the two of you being all lovey-dovey at the dinner table day after day, I’m going to lose my appetite.”

The temptation to put Jiang Cheng in a headlock for his impudence rears its head, but Wei Wuxian resists the urge because Jiang Cheng had, after all, ended up helping Wei Wuxian clear up a lot of his hesitations. He swipes half-heartedly at Jiang Cheng, who twists out of the way deftly.

“You brat. Thank you, Jiang Cheng. For everything.”

For setting Wei Wuxian straight even when shi-jie’s counsel hadn’t managed to. For always being there for Wei Wuxian. For his approval of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship, given begrudgingly, but given nonetheless.

Rolling his eyes in a manner that means he’s embarrassed rather than irritated, Jiang Cheng mumbles in reply, “Yeah, whatever.”

Wei Wuxian grins and hugs his little brother. “Okay, enough about me! Do you want help practicing? I’ll spot you as you run through your drills.”

 

 

That night as he washes up, Wei Wuxian takes his own sweet time, letting his body move through the motions automatically as his mind wanders. His conversations with Jiang Cheng and his shi-jie today have left him with a lot to digest. He makes sure to scrub himself up extra-clean so that he’s neat and presentable for his walk with Lan Wangji the next day, and when he’s done, he soaks in his bathwater for a little while, sinking in until his nose barely pokes above the water, watching ripples dance across the surface of the water in quiet contemplation.

The notion has been coalescing in his mind all day, ever since Jiang Yanli said “Ask them. State your feelings, and ask Second Young Master Lan if he feels the same”, and by the time Wei Wuxian finishes drying himself off and combing his hair with the sandalwood comb that Lan Wangji gave him, he comes to a decision. When he goes to the willow grove with Lan Wangji the next day, Wei Wuxian will tell him that he loves him.

Although he isn’t as confident as either Jiang Yanli or Jiang Cheng that Lan Wangji’s answer will be favorable, at least he’ll know for sure. After tomorrow, Wei Wuxian will either give up on the idea of love entirely and, he doesn’t know, maybe take a vow of bachelorhood for the rest of his life? or spend the rest of his days kissing Lan Wangji silly. One of the two. Wei Wuxian knows which one he prefers, but the outcome really lies in Lan Wangji’s hands, and not his own.

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll settle everything.

Chapter Text

When the day of his confession comes, Lan Wangji awakens to find himself, unexpectedly, rather serene. It’s almost as if he got all his nervous thinking done in advance, so now all he feels is calm and quiet anticipation as he goes about his day, meeting Wei Wuxian and strolling down to the marketplace where they will purchase a gift for Lan Qiren. After the hectic period of the Lunar New Year celebrations, Lan Wangji had found the time to tell the others that his brother had written back, saying that a gift of medicinal herbs would probably go over well with their uncle. After seeking approval from Sect Leader Jiang, it was decided that they would scour the marketplace for valuable herbs that might be suitable for gift-giving. Only he and Wei Wuxian will be carrying out this errand, as the two Jiang siblings are otherwise occupied with some problem regarding the Jiang disciple uniforms meant for their time at the Cloud Recesses. The weather is fair, and their walk goes by quickly. In no time at all, the two of them arrive at the medicinal herb store that Jiang Yanli had pointed them towards.

As they step over the threshold of the store, the pungent scent of a motley of medicinal herbs assaults Lan Wangji’s nose. Although the room is large and spacious, the shop owner has sought to maximize storage wherever available: as such, towering wooden cabinets (百子柜) containing medicinal herbs take up two walls, each drawer inscribed with the names of their contents. From the ceiling dangle ready-made prescriptions, each packaged in paper and bound with string. Scattered all around the shop are the tools of an apothecary’s trade: mortars and pestles for grinding, slicers for cutting up herbal roots (铡刀), and lopsided steelyard balances (戥秤) for measuring the weights of herbs.

“Young Master Wei! Back again so soon?” A skinny man calls out good-naturedly from behind a counter, presumably the owner of the shop. Within the glass counters are arranged containers of precious herbs: curling saiga antelope horns lie alongside nubs of dark orange cordyceps and bundles of whiskery ginseng.

Laoban, it’s good to see you! How have you been?” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m here as a customer this time, not as free labor.”

A brief moment of confusion falls upon Lan Wangji, before he recalls that during the summer, one of the punishments Madam Yu had doled out to Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had been relegating them to becoming apothecary assistants for a spell. They had returned at the end of each day with their clothes reeking of bitter herbs and complaining of sore arms from operating mortars and slicers all day. Presumably, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin had been stationed at this very shop, which explained how friendly the owner was with Wei Wuxian.

“That’s a pity. Those two afternoons you and Young Master Jiang spent helping me out were wonderful, I barely had to lift a finger,” the owner of the medicinal herb shop teases. “Who did you bring along with you?”

“Ah, let me introduce you to Lan Wangji, the second young master of the Gusu Lan sect.” Wei Wuxian grins in Lan Wangji’s direction, before biting his lip and continuing. “My fiancé.”

Blinking in astonishment, Lan Wangji barely scrapes together enough composure to bow to the owner of the medicinal herb store. Wei Wuxian has never introduced Lan Wangji as his fiancé before. Never. For him to start now… Lan Wangji can’t help but feel hopeful that Wei Wuxian reciprocates his feelings after all.

Bowing in return, the shop owner says, “So this is the young man I’ve been hearing so much about in the marketplace. Well met, Second Young Master Lan. You can call me Old Tian. Now, how can I help you today, Young Master Wei?”

“We’re looking for herbs. These, specifically.” Wei Wuxian gestures, and Lan Wangji passes to Old Tian a list of herbs that Lan Xichen had compiled.

Scanning down the paper, Old Tian says, “Banqiao dangshen (板桥党参), goldthread (黄连), frillitary lily bulbs (贝母)… This is quite a long list, but we have all of these in stock. What kind of quantity are we talking about here?”

“It’s intended to be a gift, so the amount has to be more generous. Let’s say, enough to fill up a medium-sized chest?”

“Alright. It’ll take a day or two to prepare the herbs. Shall I send them straight to Lotus Pier when I’m done?” That would be plenty of time; their large party was due to depart for Gusu in a week’s time.

“That would be great! Thank you, laoban.”

Their business concluded, they step back outside into the sunshine. As Wei Wuxian stretches languidly, eyes squinting against the bright afternoon sun, Lan Wangji takes in a big lungful of fresh air, relieved to have escaped the over-strong scent of medicinal herbs.

“I didn’t expect to settle that so quickly,” Wei Wuxian says. “How about it? Do you want to head straight to the willow grove now?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. Confessing will be difficult enough on its own. He doesn’t want to contend with a growling stomach at the same time. “Lunch first.”

En. As you wish,” Wei Wuxian says, good-natured as always.

They agree on a restaurant for lunch, one conveniently located near the wharf so that they can head immediately to the willow grove after their meal. As they wend their way towards the restaurant, they pass by the meat and produce section of the marketplace. There are still a few decorations left over from the Lunar New Year celebrations, but for the most part, the red lanterns and banners have been removed. In the market, many of the baskets of vegetables displayed in front of each vendor are rather bare, by virtue of the morning crowd that had already come and gone. Ready to wrap up their operations and head home to rest, butchers and fishmongers sluice down their stalls as the two of them walk by. Wei Wuxian, affable as ever, gets caught in a conversation with one of the butchers asking after their family, and as Lan Wangji waits for Wei Wuxian to conclude his chit-chat, he scans the offerings on display at the other stalls. When something catches Lan Wangji’s eye, he touches Wei Wuxian’s shoulder to get his attention, gesturing in the direction he’s heading in to signal to Wei Wuxian that he would be over there. After seeing Wei Wuxian’s quick nod in reply, Lan Wangji walks over to a stall just around the corner to browse its wares.

Crowded on the stall’s table are small flasks of chili oil. When Lan Wangji inspects them further, he realizes that quite serendipitously, he has landed on the stall that Jiang Yanli had recommended to him when he approached her yesterday enquiring about the provenance of Wei Wuxian’s favorite chili oil. He lifts up one of the bottles curiously, testing its weight, and the storeowner takes that as permission to start her marketing spiel.

“Young Master, our chili oil is the best you’ll find in Yunmeng! We only use the finest ingredients: pure sesame oil infused with Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili peppers. Every single drop is fragrant, spicy and numbing. I guarantee that you’ll be satisfied with the product, we even sell these to Lotus Pier!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji hums, calculations whirring in his mind.

How many bottles would make up a one year supply for Wei Wuxian? Twenty? He holds up a bottle, trying to estimate its volume. Assuming that Wei Wuxian uses a small condiment dish’s worth of chili oil to accompany each meal, twenty bottles might not suffice. Frowning slightly as he recalls the truly prodigious amounts of chili oil Wei Wuxian adds to meals he deems as bland, Lan Wangji revises his estimate upwards. A full calendar year in the Cloud Recesses would probably require at least forty bottles of chili oil, at the minimum.

Lan Wangji does a little mental math to determine how much money he has left, adding the money he had received from his Lunar New Year red packets to the sum he has left over, and decides that forty bottles is within his budget. He manages to bargain with the storeowner to bring down the price of his bulk purchase, and asks for the order to be send directly to Lotus Pier under his name. Developing his haggling skills probably wasn’t what his uncle had in mind when he told Lan Wangji to learn new skills in Lotus Pier, but it came in handy nonetheless.

Wei Wuxian joins Lan Wangji right when he’s wrapping up his purchase.

“Ooh, chili oil! You don’t like spicy food at all though, Lan Zhan. Why are you looking at these?” Wei Wuxian says, “Ah, are you intending to play a prank on someone back in the Cloud Recesses?”

“No. These are to accompany food.”

“Whose food? It can’t be yours, can it?” Wei Wuxian widens his eyes dramatically. “Lan Zhan, if you want to build up your spice tolerance, you have to start small. This chili oil is for professionals like me only!”

Lan Wangji is a little tempted to roll his eyes at Wei Wuxian’s showboating. His love can be so oblivious sometimes. Who else does Lan Wangji know who appreciates spice as much as Wei Wuxian does? No matter. It would be a nice surprise for Wei Wuxian once he reached the Cloud Recesses. Maybe Lan Wangji will pull out a bottle of chili oil right when Wei Wuxian is bemoaning the blandness of Gusu’s food, and he’ll get to enjoy Wei Wuxian’s stunned reaction.

A small smile tugs at Lan Wangji’s lips as he starts walking, leaving Wei Wuxian still boasting about his spice tolerance to thin air. “Let’s go. I’m hungry.”

Sputtering, Wei Wuxian scrambles to catch up. “Lan Zhan, wait for me!”

 

 

Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian reach the restaurant, and their meal goes by quickly; Lan Wangji has somewhat grown to appreciate the food in Yunmeng, and he suspects that he might even miss it occasionally when he returns to the Cloud Recesses. As he is wont to do, Wei Wuxian chatters throughout their lunch, and Lan Wangji, well-used to Wei Wuxian’s antics by now, tucks the excess material of his sleeves out of the splatter zone so that his clothes don’t get dotted with red flecks. Maybe it’s the way that Wei Wuxian is speaking a little too quickly, but Lan Wangji can tell that he is somewhat nervous today. What’s more, on several occasions Wei Wuxian has paused suddenly in his speech and seemed like he wanted to tell Lan Wangji something, but stopped himself each time. Maybe Lan Wangji’s anxiety from the previous few days have rubbed off on Wei Wuxian, or Wei Wuxian has guessed that Lan Wangji has an ulterior motive for asking him out to the willow grove. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to hurry up and move on to the main event, and so Lan Wangji suggests to Wei Wuxian that they go looking for a boat to row out to the willow grove.

They split the bill, because Wei Wuxian insists on it and also because Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji trying to sneakily pay for both of them. When they leave the restaurant, however, Lan Wangji spots a candied hawthorn vendor, and, remembering how Wei Wuxian likes to end his meals off on a sweet note, buys him a stick before he can pay for himself. Wei Wuxian wags his index finger at Lan Wangji when he sees it, but accepts with a grin nonetheless.

“You’re too good to me, Lan Zhan.”

“As long as you enjoy it, I’m happy.”

Bumping his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s, Wei Wuxian says, “I have my own money from the Lunar New Year, you know. You don’t have to keep buying things for me.”

“I know. I still want to.”

When he looks over, Lan Wangji finds that Wei Wuxian is smiling, cheeks flushed as he chews his food happily. Lan Wangji adds one mark to the mental tally of the number of times he’s made Wei Wuxian happy, a tally that he’s already lost track of, but one he intends to keep up for the rest of his life, if Wei Wuxian will have him.

It is easy enough to find an idle boat when they reach Lotus Wharf. With Wei Wuxian’s wide connections, they borrow a small rowboat from one of the lotus seed pickers, and promise to have it back by dinnertime.

How Wei Wuxian finds the energy to speak to so many people about their lives in the course of a single day will never cease to amaze Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian is finishing up his conversation with the lotus seed picker, when he yells over his shoulder to Lan Wangji, “Lan Zhan, you can just relax. I’ll row!”

Of course, this means that by the time he turns back to the boat, Lan Wangji is already sitting inside it, both oars held loosely in his hands. Wei Wuxian’s eyes are narrowed as he boards the boat, and he makes a token attempt at grabbing for the oars. Three things happen in rapid succession: Lan Wangji leans back out of Wei Wuxian’s range, Wei Wuxian lunges forward, and their chests end up plastered together.

Wei Wuxian’s face is extremely close to Lan Wangji’s, their lips mere centimeters apart, and when Lan Wangji lets out a shaky exhale he can feel the warm air caught between their mouths. This is the closest to a full-on kiss that they’ve ever gotten. There is red dusted across Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, and his widened eyes dart between Lan Wangji’s eyes and his lips. They’re so close that Wei Wuxian is a little cross-eyed, and Lan Wangji would laugh, except he can feel his ears reddening from their proximity. He wants so desperately to close the distance between their mouths and finally kiss Wei Wuxian. Above the sound of his racing heartbeat though, Lan Wangji can hear the giggling and sighs coming from bystanders witnessing this scene, and he clears his throat to break the moment’s tension, his eyes looking sky-wards in a plea for strength. Wei Wuxian springs back and retreats to the other end of the boat.

Aiya, let me row, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, his voice louder than required and sounding a little strangled.

Clearing his throat once more to make sure he sounds normal when he speaks, Lan Wangji says, “Sit down, Wei Ying. You’re rocking the boat,” and starts rowing. The sooner they get away from here, the better. Lan Wangji can’t believe that he almost let his first kiss with Wei Wuxian take place in front of all the fishermen gathered at the wharf. He had a plan and everything! The two of them would take a romantic walk at the willow grove, where hopefully Lan Wangji would find some way to segue into the speech he had prepared, and finally tell Wei Wuxian that he loved him.

If Wei Wuxian notices that Lan Wangji’s rowing is a little hurried, he doesn’t mention anything. Instead, his hands flit restlessly from place to place, twirling his dizi or tapping a frenetic rhythm against the wooden surface of the boat. When they reach the willow grove and start strolling through the woods by silent accord, the dizi remains in Wei Wuxian’s hand, tapping out a nervous pattern against his thigh.

They walk some distance apart, Wei Wuxian in the front seemingly caught up in his own thoughts while Lan Wangji trails behind trying to control his nerves. All of his previous reservations about confessing have caught up with him now, and Lan Wangji tries to ground himself in the scenery around him to calm down.

The air all around them is fresh, smelling of trees and nature and growing things in a way that only ever happens in the forest. There are coy flower buds unfurling and verdant leaves growing on nearly all the plants he sees, and the warm air is filled with the merry chatter of cicadas and birdsong. As Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian walk through the forest slowly, a strange sort of tension builds in the silence between them, as if they’re both holding back their words and teetering on the brink of letting them spill out.

Ahead of Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian suddenly stops and tucks his dizi into his belt, before taking a deep breath and spinning around to face Lan Wangji. This is the moment that Lan Wangji has been waiting for, and he opens his mouth.

“Lan Zhan—” “Wei Ying—”

They both speak at the same time, and a short silence falls between the two of them until Wei Wuxian says, “You can go first, Lan Zhan.”

“Let’s sit down first,” Lan Wangji says. He gestures towards a patch of grass nearby that looks reasonably soft, shaded by the shadow cast by two beech trees intertwined together. At some points, it even looks as if the branches of the trees have merged into one entity. The two of them settle down cross-legged on the ground, knees brushing against one another’s as they sit side-by-side. Lan Wangji’s clammy palm flexes on Bichen’s hilt nervously one last time, before he puts his sword down at his side and twists his body to face Wei Wuxian. Any thoughts of the speech that he had so carefully prepared have completely fled his mind, and Lan Wangji decides to simply say the words running through his head right now.

“Wei Ying, I—” love you, Lan Wangji wants to say, but he gets interrupted by the hand Wei Wuxian claps onto his mouth.

“No, wait! I’m sorry, I changed my mind. If you go first I’m afraid I’ll lose my guts,” Wei Wuxian blurts out.

Looking at Wei Wuxian’s flustered expression, Lan Wangji gestures for him to continue. The hand covering his mouth falls away, and Wei Wuxian’s gaze darts around uncomfortably before finally settling on his lap.

“Okay. So. Lan Zhan, I have to tell you something and it’s really important. You’re— you’re wonderful, and perfect. You’re skilled not only in cultivation but also in the literary arts (文武双全), and your family background is top-notch (金枝玉叶). You’re so accomplished despite your age (年少有为), and I’m sure there are wagonloads of people out there who would like to be betrothed to you. If your uncle asks around, he can definitely find a candidate who’s a million times better than me,” Wei Wuxian says, his words accompanied by gesticulation.

Lan Wangji feels his heart sink, hope curdling at the bottom of his stomach. This sounds like a rejection. It sounds like Lan Wangji’s worst nightmare. It sounds like Wei Wuxian is buttering him up with compliments all so he can let Lan Wangji down gently, like the next words out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth will be thanks, but no thanks, I’m looking for someone less boring than you and Lan Wangji will have to endure the next year in the Cloud Recesses, seeing Wei Wuxian but not being able to touch him.

He can’t bear to hear what comes next. He isn’t sure if he’ll be able to hold himself together if he hears Wei Wuxian utter the words Let’s dissolve the betrothal. But Lan Wangji will do it anyway, and be gracious in his acceptance of Wei Wuxian’s rejection: he won’t be like his father, tying down the person he loves even though they don’t return his affections. It would be better, if Wei Wuxian were happy with someone else, than if he were chained to Lan Wangji’s side for the rest of his life, stifled and bored.

Perhaps Lan Wangji can take the coward’s way out, and go into seclusion like his father did. Wait a little while, until the timing is less suspicious and it isn’t apparent to the whole world that he’s been heartbroken. It would be lonely, but probably less painful than seeing Wei Wuxian flouncing around with a new paramour. Lan Wangji can’t decide what will be the worse outcome: the sweet torture of seeing Wei Wuxian at the Cloud Recesses, always in sight but out of reach, or Wei Wuxian making his excuses and staying in Lotus Pier when Lan Wangji returns to the Cloud Recesses, deprived of any chance to see his sunshine smile, or hear his mellifluous voice.

Wei Wuxian’s rejection is probably for the best, really. Lan Wangji knows he can be dour and straight-laced, and that he is too laconic to ever make friends. One of the guest disciples from the last time the Cloud Recesses hosted students had rather colorfully described him as ‘having a stick up his ass’. It’s already a miracle that Wei Wuxian has put up with him for such a long time. Wei Wuxian deserves someone vibrant like he is, who will smile at him freely and roam the country (走江湖) with him, not an arranged marriage that will tie him down to the staid Lan sect. He would wither like Lan Wangji’s mother had. Lan Wangji doesn’t want Wei Wuxian’s vivacity to be smothered by the rules of the Cloud Recesses, until he resents Gusu and everything in it, including Lan Wangji. If Wei Wuxian asks though, Lan Wangji would move to Yunmeng to be with him. It would necessitate sacrifice: the weight of his uncle’s disappointment, and guilt at having let down his brother by not being by his side aiding him in running the Lan sect. But Lan Wangji will do it without a second of hesitation, if it means he can keep Wei Wuxian in his life.

As he listens to Wei Wuxian speak, waiting for a chance to interject, Lan Wangji almost wishes he could disregard the Lan sect rule that states Do not interrupt the speech of others and tell Wei Wuxian straightaway about his willingness to move his entire life to Yunmeng if it means that Wei Wuxian will stay by his side.

“I know that technically I’m the head disciple of the Jiang sect, but that doesn’t amount to much anyway. I’ve got neither riches nor power. And I know you probably want someone more demure and less annoying to spend the rest of your life with,” Wei Wuxian says in fits and starts, hesitation evident in his body language.

A small furrow forms between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows. When had he ever given Wei Wuxian the impression that he would prefer someone demure as his life partner? Had this misconception arisen because Lan Wangji had accused Wei Wuxian of being shameless during the early days of their acquaintance whenever he got flustered by Wei Wuxian’s teasing? He opens his mouth to disabuse Wei Wuxian of his misconception, but Wei Wuxian continues speaking, unstoppable as an avalanche now that he has begun.

“Lan Zhan, I know that I’m no match for you. You and your brother are the prides of the Lan sect. You’d be wasted on me; I’m an orphan, and I have nothing to my name. Any dowry or dower I have will probably be pitiful. I’m too loud, and I offend people at every turn, and I’m a troublemaker. But I’ll improve! I’ll work really hard from now on to turn myself into someone who deserves you. I’m so glad I met you, and that you were the person Madam Yu and Uncle Jiang chose as my fiancé. I don’t know what I would have done if it were anybody else in the world. I know that I’m undeserving, but I really like you, Lan Zhan. No. I love you, and I really want to remain your fiancé and marry you and spend the rest of my life by your side,” Wei Wuxian finishes, gazing into Lan Wangji’s eyes as he pours his heart out.

Lan Wangji’s pulse is singing, his heart soaring. The blood is rushing through Lan Wangji’s ears so loudly that he can barely hear what Wei Wuxian is saying. He can’t believe it. He’s not the only one. Wei Wuxian returns his affections, and Lan Wangji hasn’t been misinterpreting his actions, his words, at all. Wei Wuxian is looking at him, apprehension clear in his eyes as he scans Lan Wangji’s face, looking for signs of his reaction to the confession, and it is suddenly utterly imperative that Lan Wangji make it crystal clear to Wei Wuxian right away that his love is returned. Not just returned, but returned a hundredfold – no, a thousandfold. Lan Wangji clasps Wei Wuxian’s hands in his own, and he sees Wei Wuxian’s eyes gleam with hope.

“You are kind. Selfless. Impulsive, but in a good way. Wei Ying, I don’t care about status or riches. To me, just the fact that you can still be so cheerful despite going through so many tragedies is astounding. I can’t imagine spending my life with someone demure. I want someone shameless like you. There is nobody else better for me. I only want you, Wei Ying. There isn’t a single aspect about yourself that you need to improve. I should be the one asking if you’ll accept me. I’m too boring. If you marry me you’ll probably regret it in the future. My uncle will mostly likely yell at you at least once a week, and the Cloud Recesses is so cold in winter that you’ll hate it. But I love you, Wei Ying. I want to marry you, love you, stand by your side and never leave you,” Lan Wangji finishes, his vision blurring with emotion.

“Really?” Wei Wuxian says, his voice sounding choked up. “You’re not playing with me, right? You really love me back?”

“Yes, really,” Lan Wangji says, wiping at the single tear that has managed to drip down Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “I love you, Wei Ying.”

The sound of Wei Wuxian’s relieved laughter startles a few unlucky birds into flight. There’s a thump as Wei Wuxian throws himself into Lan Wangji’s arms, hugging him tight, and Lan Wangji returns the embrace, twining his hands around Wei Wuxian’s waist. He can hear Wei Wuxian sniffling a little, but if Lan Wangji is being honest, he’s a little teary himself from the relief of finally knowing where they stand with their relationship, so all Lan Wangji does is rub his hands along Wei Wuxian’s back soothingly as he returns the crushing embrace.

When he pulls back, Wei Wuxian is smiling, his darling face stretched wide with joy as he wipes his tears away roughly. “I don’t even know why I’m crying. I’m just so happy, Lan Zhan! I was so afraid that you would reject me.”

“Silly.” As if there was ever any chance of that happening. Lan Wangji would say yes to Wei Wuxian in a hundred universes, in a thousand iterations. Lan Wangji’s sleeve goes to blot at the wet spots that Wei Wuxian had missed on his face, and Wei Wuxian returns the favor by drying the dampness at the corners of Lan Wangji’s eyes.

Wei Wuxian laughs breathlessly in response. “I’m telling the truth. You make me so happy every day. When I’m with you, I feel like we’ll never run out of topics to talk about. Even when I’m walking the same paths I’ve trod a thousand times, with you by my side it becomes exciting. I was so scared that I would lose you and you wouldn’t be in my life anymore.”

“I’m sorry I gave you any reason to doubt. In the future, I’ll never make you cry,” Lan Wangji says, his hand stroking Wei Wuxian’s cheek tenderly. “I’ll shield you from all hardships and you’ll never have to concern yourself with the judgments of others (让你一辈子不用吃苦,不用看着别人的脸色过活). I even promise to chase all dogs away for you for the rest of your life.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are happy crescents as he gazes at Lan Wangji. He’s smiling his Lan Zhan smile, the one that no one else besides Lan Wangji gets to see, and Lan Wangji can feel himself smiling back, helpless in the face of Wei Wuxian’s charms. A hand comes out to playfully punch Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “Don’t bring up dogs at such a romantic moment, Lan Zhan!”

The blow is intended as just a light-hearted reprimand, but it sobers Lan Wangji nonetheless. He remembers the things Wei Wuxian just said of himself: undeserving, orphan, penniless. Every derogatory word is like a knife to Lan Wangji’s heart. It is unacceptable that Wei Wuxian thinks of himself this way, when really, he is the personification of a lotus: growing out from the mud and blooming pure and untarnished despite adversity. He has risen above all the challenges thrown at him, and remained, at his heart, a good person. There aren’t many people who can do that, Lan Wangji knows. He isn’t even sure if he himself would be able to do it. Wei Wuxian needs to know just how much Lan Wangji appreciates him, and he needs to know right now.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, waiting until the full weight of Wei Wuxian’s attention rests on him to continue speaking. “You don’t know how amazing you are. You have flaws, but nobody on the world is without them. The things you view as your inadequacies have never bothered me. Don’t change yourself for me. There may be many people out there with more money, or better bloodlines, but I don’t want any of them. They can’t replace you. Wei Ying is the one I fell in love with, and I don’t want anyone else but you.”

“It’s the same for me too. If it isn’t you, Lan Zhan, it won’t do.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is quiet and sure as he says this, his eyes gazing deeply into Lan Wangji’s.

Lan Wangji’s heart skips a beat in his chest, and he ducks his head, embarrassed. It’s easy to tell Wei Wuxian about how much Lan Wangji treasures him, but the moment Wei Wuxian returns the favor, it’s as if Lan Wangji’s heart is an unruly steed, spurred into a gallop by the most innocuous of words. As a distraction, Lan Wangji drops his hand from Wei Wuxian’s face, and interlaces their fingers together. He marvels at the sensation, so new and yet so familiar at the same time: slightly calloused skin sliding together, Wei Wuxian’s smooth thumbnail under Lan Wangji’s fingertip. The fact that Lan Wangji is allowed to do this now, to touch Wei Wuxian, to hold him close and tell him that he loves him, is thrilling.

He drags his gaze back upwards to Wei Wuxian’s face. Eyes locked, hands locked, Lan Wangji says, “Wei Ying. Come back to Gusu with me. Let me show the best parts of it, so that you can fall in love with the Cloud Recesses like I did with Lotus Pier and with you.”

En.” Wei Wuxian nods enthusiastically. He’s still smiling so wide that Lan Wangji imagines Wei Wuxian’s cheeks will ache later, and Lan Wangji can’t help but touch his thumb to the edge of Wei Wuxian’s smile, uncontrollably fond.

“Wei Ying, you’ve upended my life.” A little confusion flickers across Wei Wuxian’s face, and he draws back, a little unsure. Lan Wangji hurries to reassure Wei Wuxian before he can misinterpret Lan Wangji’s words. “No. I like it. I like you. Before you, I didn’t realize how colorless my days were.”

In the past, Lan Wangji had not known that he was missing something, because he had no point of reference for comparison. Now that he’s had Wei Wuxian in his life, he knows. All this time, it was Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji wants to let Wei Wuxian into the Jingshi, and allow him fill up the empty silences within it that always rang a little too loudly in Lan Wangji’s ears. He wants to bring Wei Wuxian on long rambling walks in the forests around the Cloud Recesses to relearn his home from a fresh new perspective. Let Wei Wuxian meet his brother and spend time with him the same way Lan Wangji has done with Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin, and learn of Lan Xichen and Gusu’s abundant charms.

“I know what you mean,” Wei Wuxian says, nodding his understanding. Then, his tone turns slightly mischievous. “Do you mean what you said earlier? You like it when I’m shameless?”

“Sometimes,” Lan Wangji replies, interested in seeing where this line of thought goes. He has a pretty good idea already, from the way Wei Wuxian’s eyes keep flicking down to stare at Lan Wangji’s mouth.

“Okay. I’m going to be shameless now,” Wei Wuxian says.

And then, Wei Wuxian tilts his head up, closing his eyes, as if proffering his lips to Lan Wangji for a kiss. It would be so easy to do it: All Lan Wangji has to do is lean over a few more inches, and press his mouth against Wei Wuxian’s the same way he’s been thinking, imagining, dreaming of doing for months. A huff escapes Lan Wangji’s mouth. If Wei Wuxian wants a kiss, all he has to do is say so. Just to make sure that he’s reading the situation correctly, Lan Wangji asks, “Wei Ying, may I kiss you?”

Wei Wuxian’s smile is blinding as he leans closer to Lan Wangji, betraying his eagerness. “Yes.”

The world slows to a stop as they kiss, and nothing else matters anymore. Lan Wangji doubts there will ever be anything more monumental in his life than this. Wei Wuxian’s lips are as soft as Lan Wangji had imagined, his mouth still sweet from the candied hawthorn he ate earlier. Their first kiss is clumsy and unskillful, noses bumping and teeth clicking, and perfect in every way. A hand slides along Lan Wangji’s lapel to pull him closer to Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji goes willingly.

Lan Wangji drags himself back from the kiss with difficulty, and when he leans back, he realizes with satisfaction that Wei Wuxian still looks a little dazed, his mouth slack and his eyes closed as he leans towards Lan Wangji’s direction, as if to chase his mouth. When his eyes slowly blink open, Wei Wuxian is blushing.

“One wasn’t enough. Can I have another kiss, Lan-ergege?”

A shiver runs down Lan Wangji’s spine when he hears Wei Wuxian address him as Lan-ergege. He hasn’t heard that name in a long time, not since that first evening at the pavilion. The way Wei Wuxian says it, all dulcet and mellow and honey-sweet, makes Lan Wangji realize that he likes it. He really likes it.

“As many as Wei Ying wants.”

Lan Wangji is smiling when he leans back in again, his hands coming up to cup Wei Wuxian’s face so that their lips slot together effortlessly without the awkwardness of their first kiss. His mind goes empty, all of his senses attuned only to the person in front of him: the clenching of Wei Wuxian’s fist at his collar, the smooth skin of his neck under Lan Wangji’s fingertips, and the delicious sensation of their lips moving against each other. It would be all too easy to get addicted to this feeling: every minute change in angle is a revelation, each time their lips meet more wonderful than the last. Once he starts, Lan Wangji can’t stop. When he finally draws back to catch his breath, Lan Wangji can feel an unfamiliar stretch in his cheeks: he’s smiling, probably the widest he’s smiled in years. It’s highly likely that there are teeth peeking out, and Wei Wuxian gasps when he notices.

“Lan Zhan, your smiling face is so beautiful!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, before cupping Lan Wangji’s face and darting in to press a quick kiss to his mouth. “I’ll make you happy every single day from now on, so that you smile every day! Lan Zhan. My Lan Zhan. My most beloved.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. He would say yes to anything, if it meant never being apart from Wei Wuxian. He presses his cheek against Wei Wuxian’s palms like a cat, and smiles wider, which prompts a sound of dismay from Wei Wuxian. Maybe Wei Wuxian won’t be the only one with aching cheeks later today.

“Ah, but what if someone else sees your beautiful smile and falls in love with you as well? Will I have to challenge my competitors to duels? Fight them off with a stick to protect you?” Wei Wuxian asks, over-dramatic.

Using his gaze to express just how ridiculous he thinks Wei Wuxian is being, Lan Wangji says, “I don’t want anyone else. Only Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian squawks, hands flapping. “You can’t just say things like that! My heart can’t take the strain. If it explodes, will you take responsibility?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods seriously, as he presses a kiss to the tiny beauty mark below Wei Wuxian’s lips, the one he has imagined laying his lips against countless times. “My heart belongs to you, and no one else. (我的心非你莫属。)”

Wei Wuxian smiles widely, so wide that he has to bite his lip to temper his joy, and all that does is make Lan Wangji want to lean over and kiss him again, right over the teeth mark in the middle of his lower lip. He does. That, of course, makes Wei Wuxian laugh, which means that Lan Wangji is obligated to kiss him again. Lan Wangji has always adored Wei Wuxian’s laughter and the way it brightens up the corners of a dreary room. To be able to kiss Wei Wuxian as he laughs, the sound tangled between their tongues, is a privilege Lan Wangji never imagined he would hold.

They sit there, mouths moving against each other for what feels like an eternity. Lan Wangji doesn’t know how much time passes before he manages to surface from their kiss. When he does, he’s breathing hard like he just ran a mile, and Wei Wuxian looks the same way. His eyes drink in the mesmerizing sight before him: Wei Wuxian’s face is flushed, his lips swollen and flushed an attractive bayberry-red. From the way Wei Wuxian is devouring Lan Wangji with his eyes, Lan Wangji imagines he looks much the same. A small part of Lan Wangji still feels like he is waiting to be awoken from the most wonderful dream. He can’t quite believe that what he’d dreamt of for such a long time has finally come true.

“Do you know how long I’ve been thinking about kissing you?” Lan Wangji asks Wei Wuxian.

“How long?”

The desire probably only surfaced in earnest after Lan Xichen’s parting words during the discussion conference in the summer, which would work out to… “Months. Since we came back from Lanling.”

“What? That’s forever!” Wei Wuxian gasps, pleased.

“And you? When did you know you liked me?” Lan Wangji asks.

Wei Wuxian scrunches his brow in thought before he says, “God. I feel like I liked you for a really long time but I only just realized it recently. We’re such idiots! We both like each other but just couldn’t find the courage to let the other person know. We could have been doing this like, six months ago!”

Lan Wangji twirls his finger around a lock of Wei Wuxian’s hair lazily as he replies, “That’s alright. We’re here now. We won’t waste any time.”

It is imperative that they make up for lost time, and so Lan Wangji leans in again to peck first the left corner of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, then his cheek. With an appreciative hum, Wei Wuxian winds his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and peppers Lan Wangji’s face with kisses as well, slow and languid in his movements. First, Lan Wangji’s forehead. Then, right on the bridge of his nose, before detouring to kiss along his hairline and finally ending up at Lan Wangji’s mouth again.

With the topic of lost time on his mind, Lan Wangji now realizes that without his brother’s last-minute letter, he probably wouldn’t be here, sitting next to Wei Wuxian and kissing him. The fact that their relationship has progressed to the next step, and that both of them are on the same page with regards to their feelings for each other is due in large part to Lan Xichen’s encouragement. Finding out about how Lan Xichen has been, quite essentially, Lan Wangji’s long-distance relationship coach will probably tickle Wei Wuxian, so Lan Wangji extricates himself from their kiss a little reluctantly and says, “It was my brother who encouraged me to confess to you.”

“Oh? I’ll have to thank him, then,” Wei Wuxian says, just as amused as Lan Wangji imagined he would be.

“Mn. Xiongzhang knows that I have feelings for you. He advised me to talk to you and make my opinion on the betrothal clear, so that we won’t have any surprises when the elders meet up again to discuss it.”

Their engagement as it stands now is a provisional one, based off a verbal agreement between their respective elders. This entire year had been a trial run of sorts, to see whether Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had compatible personalities and could get along without driving one another crazy. Beyond their own two sects, none of the other major or minor sects knew of this betrothal. As long as both sides were amenable to continuing the engagement, the next step was formalizing it. Announcements would need to be sent out to inform sect leaders about the impending matrimonial ties that would link the Lan sect and the Jiang sect, and perhaps an engagement ceremony would have to be organized. Lan Wangji can’t wait for all of it to take place, so that everyone knows that he is promised to Wei Wuxian.

His small reverie of how his and Wei Wuxian’s engagement ceremony might look like is interrupted by Wei Wuxian, who says, “Don’t worry. When we get back, I’ll let Uncle Jiang know that I’m one hundred percent in favor of our betrothal. You’ll let your uncle know as well, right? He won’t have any objections?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head no. His uncle can hardly decline an offer by the Jiangs to formalize the betrothal when he himself was the one who first suggested it. Although Lan Wangji foresees his uncle having some reservations about his choice of candidate when he witnesses Wei Wuxian’s exuberance on a firsthand basis for a prolonged period, he is confident that with sufficient time, Lan Qiren will be won over by Wei Wuxian’s countless merits. Besides, Lan Wangji has Lan Xichen on his side, and his brother is already fond of Wei Wuxian. There is nothing that can stand in the way of Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen’s combined efforts, even their own uncle. Lan Qiren will either be won over, or worn down.

A look of relief on his face, Wei Wuxian confesses, “To be entirely honest, I asked shi-jie and Jiang Cheng for advice before deciding to confess to you as well. Shi-jie gave me a lot of good advice, but I was still unsure after talking to her, so I went to look for Jiang Cheng. He asked me if I would be fine with it if you got married to someone else, and I realized that I wasn’t.” He pulls a cheeky face, nose all scrunched up, before declaring, “I’m going to follow you around until you tire of me, Lan Zhan!”

“I’ll never tire of you,” Lan Wangji says, meaning every word.

Hearing this makes Wei Wuxian squeak again, the apples of his cheeks turning red with embarrassment in combination with their previous exertions, and Lan Wangji’s heart does an overjoyed leap in his chest. He’s the one making Wei Wuxian sow happy. Him, Lan Wangji. He wants to do this forever: say sappy things to Wei Wuxian and make him blush, kiss him until he’s breathless, marry him one day in front of everyone they know.

When he recovers from Lan Wangji’s words, Wei Wuxian’s gaze darts up to Lan Wangji’s forehead, and he says, “Oh, your forehead ribbon! It’s crooked, let me straighten it for you–” Wei Wuxian’s hands reach out before halting. “Oh, sorry. I shouldn’t touch it, right?”

“No, it’s alright. You may touch it,” Lan Wangji replies without hesitation.

He’d already made up his mind about this three weeks ago, standing at the threshold of his bedroom and watching Wei Wuxian’s walk away from him. At that time, Lan Wangji had regretted not telling Wei Wuxian that he consented to Wei Wuxian touching his forehead ribbon. Wei Wuxian knows what the ribbon symbolizes; his mind holds onto the smallest of details, and Lan Wangji had told him about it back in the first few weeks of their acquaintance. If Lan Wangji had reached out back then, and guided Wei Wuxian’s hands back to his forehead ribbon, would they have realized that they loved each other earlier?

As Wei Wuxian realizes the gravity of Lan Wangji granting him permission to touch his forehead ribbon, his eyes widen. A brilliant smile blooms on his face, and he nods, fingers gently adjusting the ribbon until it lies in its proper position. Wei Wuxian does it reverently, with solemnity and awe in his eyes. Once finished, he leans back. “There. All done.”

“Thank you, Wei Ying.”

Spotting a fallen leaf caught in Wei Wuxian’s ponytail, Lan Wangji extricates it from the inky black strands of Wei Wuxian’s hair carefully. Remembering how he had noted that the two beech trees above them had intertwined branches when they first sat down, Lan Wangji says, “It is fitting that we chose these two trees to sit under.”

On high, we'd be two love-birds flying wing to wing; On earth, two trees with branches twined from spring to spring, (在天愿作比翼鸟,在地愿为连理枝). So went a poem that Lan Wangji had chanced upon in the Library Pavilion once. Biyiniao, or love-birds, were mythical birds with only one eye and one wing. In order to take flight, they had to find their perfect match, and hence they were symbols of romantic love. Just the same way that biyiniao signified love, so did trees that had grown entwined together, which were also called husband and wife trees or lianlizhi. They were usually personifications of tragic lovers who were torn apart, their everlasting devotion to each other manifested through the way the branches of two trees reached out for one another and merged into one entity. How serendipitous then, that the two of them had picked this spot to confess to each other. It was just like them, to accidentally stumble on such a romantic location, just like the way Lan Wangji had bungled giving a comb to Wei Wuxian, and how he had deliberated for such a long time on how to tell Wei Wuxian about his feelings, when Wei Wuxian had actually been doing so much deliberation of his own about the very same thing.

Lan Wangji explains all this to Wei Wuxian, who chuckles and says, “I guess it was fate that we stopped here. I’ve got to remember this spot. This is where you confessed to me!”

“Aren’t you the one who confessed first?” Lan Wangji asks, tone wry as he teases his love.

Huffing, Wei Wuxian says, “Okay, fine. It’s where we both confessed to each other.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods. It doesn’t really matter to him who said it first, since they’re both here now: Lan Wangji loves Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian loves Lan Wangji, and they’re going to be happily married someday far off into the future. For now though, Lan Wangji tugs Wei Wuxian closer to kiss the annoyance off his face, laughing softly.

Sometime later when Lan Wangji finally pulls away from Wei Wuxian’s lips, he realizes that the hour is getting late. The sky above is pale blue, heralding the arrival of sunset. Coming to the same realization, Wei Wuxian groans and buries his forehead in the crook of Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “Ugh. Now we have to hurry if we want to make it back in time for dinner.”

They hurry. Well, they try to. It’s really not Lan Wangji’s fault that Wei Wuxian looks so enticing that they have to take a few breaks for Lan Wangji to push him up against a tree and ravish his lips the same way Lan Wangji had dreamt of. Not one to be outdone, Wei Wuxian returns the favor for Lan Wangji as well, running his fingers through Lan Wangji’s hair and messing up his forehead ribbon two more times.

Finally, after much delay they reach the willow tree where they had left their small rowboat. Wei Wuxian is positively glowing with pleasure as he skips gaily over to the boat and plops himself in first.

“It’s only fair that I row for the return trip. Sit down, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji does, and Wei Wuxian gets the boat moving as he chatters.

“Since we’re running late, let’s just take the boat straight back to Lotus Pier. I know the owner of the boat, he won’t mind if we return it to him tomorrow morning. If I row fast enough, we should be able to make it back in time for dinner!” Wei Wuxian says, his arms working to drag the oars through water as he carries them home-wards. Lan Wangji has never been anything but punctual for everything in his life so far, but for once, he wants to be tardy.

“No, row slowly,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian’s boat-rowing rhythm gets thrown off as he looks at Lan Wangji, confused. Lan Wangji clarifies, ears burning, “I don’t want to go back just yet. There are too many people in Lotus Pier. I won’t be able to kiss you whenever I want.”

Looking impossibly charmed, Wei Wuxian leans forward to kiss Lan Wangji on the nose, before starting up his rowing once more. “You could always come to my room. Or I can go to yours! There are lots of private corners all around Lotus Pier, Lan Zhan. We just have to find them.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. He spends the rest of the boat ride staring at Wei Wuxian: how his winter-pale skin is burnished by sunset glow so it looks all tanned and golden, the same way it looks in the summertime. The ease with which he maneuvers their boat, hands confidently handling the oars like being on water is second-nature to him. Every time Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji looking at him, he smiles back, his eyes happy crescents and his red lips curled with uncomplicated joy. Eyes blinking slowly as he takes in the wonderful sight before him, Lan Wangji thinks, Surely someone will be able to tell what happened today. Surely, all it takes is one look at how kiss-swollen Wei Wuxian’s lips are, and anyone with eyes will be able to tell that Lan Wangji has tasted them for himself.

Sooner than he expects, they arrive back in Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian ties off the boat with practiced hands, and holds a hand out for Lan Wangji to grab as he disembarks. When Lan Wangji steps onto the wooden boardwalk, Wei Wuxian keeps their hands entwined, and takes a step closer to Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan, you said just now that Lotus Pier is too crowded. Does this mean that you’d prefer if we don’t kiss in front of other people?” Wei Wuxian asks, worrying his lip.

Ears reddening, Lan Wangji nods. The thought of doing something so intimate with Wei Wuxian in front of an audience makes Lan Wangji uncomfortable. When it is just the two of them, Lan Wangji is more than willing to lavish his affections on Wei Wuxian, but doing so in public and letting others witness their private interactions discomfits him. It is in Lan Wangji’s nature, as well as the way he had been brought up, to keep affections between a couple away from others’ eyes. Perhaps with time Lan Wangji will become less prudish and reserved, but for now, he rather prefers for their kissing to take place behind closed doors, or at the very least in private corners.

“Alright. Are you okay with holding hands in front of others, then?” Wei Wuxian asks.

En.” Lan Wangji squeezes Wei Wuxian’s palm.

“Hugs?” Wei Wuxian asks next.

“Sometimes.”

Sharing an embrace with Wei Wuxian when they were in the company of their peers felt alright to Lan Wangji, but the thought of doing so in front of their elders made him cringe a little inside. Lan Wangji could imagine how purple his uncle’s face would get if he witnessed any public displays of affection in the halls of the Cloud Recesses, not to mention how awkward the situation would become if someone like Madam Yu caught the two of them canoodling. (Canoodling. He could barely believe that he was using such a word. Before Lan Wangji met Wei Wuxian, he had never even heard of the word canoodle. How love changed a man.)

“Okay. Then I’ll ask beforehand.” Wei Wuxian’s eyes dart around to confirm that nobody is around. “Could I have one last kiss before dinner?”

Smiling gently, Lan Wangji acquiesces, capturing Wei Wuxian’s lips one final time. As they part, Wei Wuxian’s teeth accidentally scrape against Lan Wangji’s lip, and a frisson runs down his spine. But before Lan Wangji can lean in again, the dinner gong sounds. The rude interruption brings a look of utter disappointment to both of their faces, and they stare into each other’s eyes for a moment in silent commiseration, but there’s nothing for it. If they don’t make a move now, they truly will be late, and Lan Wangji doesn’t want this perfect day to be marred by a telling off from Madam Yu.

He and Wei Wuxian rush hand-in-hand down the halls of Lotus Pier in the direction of the dining hall, and with every footfall and every heartbeat, all Lan Wangji can hear in his mind is I love him, I love him, I love him.

Chapter Text

The evening of their last day at Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji go to the Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty to see one final sunset together. All the preparations have been made for their journey east-wards to the Cloud Recesses, and tomorrow morning the entire entourage of Lan and Jiang sect disciples will set off for their week-long journey. Everything that Lan Wangji might miss about Lotus Pier, he has already said goodbye to: his room where he and Wei Wuxian have spent many an afternoon chatting, the Jiang sect training master who has imparted invaluable skills to him, as well as the countless staff at Lotus Pier who have taken care of the Lan sect disciples like their own. Even the food isn’t left out. (The most important part of Lotus Pier, of course, is coming along with Lan Wangji to the Cloud Recesses, and so thankfully Lan Wangji does not need to say goodbye to Wei Wuxian.)

He, Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli have spent the better part of today traipsing all over the marketplace to have a final taste of their favorite foods before leaving Yunmeng. Their merry group of four sit down at countless eateries and eat their fill of delicacies: Jiang Wanyin slurps down a bowl of dandan noodles with great relish while Jiang Yanli nibbles on roasted sweet potatoes contently, and Lan Wangji loads himself up with lotus paste buns for breakfast as Wei Wuxian snacks on his favorite scallion pancakes, before they all detour for some mapo tofu.

During the course of their food journey, Lan Wangji holds hands with Wei Wuxian as they stroll down alleyways, relishing the fact that he’s allowed to touch Wei Wuxian so liberally in public. When Wei Wuxian gets some sauce on the corner of his mouth as he’s scarfing down his mapo tofu, Lan Wangji even wipes it off with his thumb in full view of everyone else at their table. To his credit, Jiang Wanyin doesn’t even pretend to retch when he witnesses it, which bodes well for the future of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s relationship. At the very least, now Lan Wangji knows that he’ll face no opposition from Jiang Wanyin, despite his noisy complaints about how his eyes are getting scarred every time he sees Wei Wuxian with an arm around Lan Wangji’s waist. (It turns out that there is quite a lot of overlap with regard to the secret spots around Lotus Pier that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin both know about. Thankfully, the one time Jiang Wanyin had walked in on them, all he and Wei Wuxian had been doing was embracing.)

In all honesty, there is little difference in the way that others treat Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian after they’ve affirmed their feelings for each other. It turns out, they’ve been acting like a couple the entire time without quite realizing it themselves, which is rather foolish in retrospect. Why had Lan Wangji ever doubted that Wei Wuxian would reciprocate his feelings? While they had garnered a few double-takes one afternoon when Wei Wuxian laid his head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder in full sight of the Lan sect disciples, by the second day the curious looks fade off. Jiang Yanli as well is remarkably accepting, always smiling indulgently whenever she sees them walking side-by-side in the halls of Lotus Pier. Even Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu look on with approval. After they had returned from the willow grove, Wei Wuxian had made it his priority to speak to Sect Leader Jiang and inform him about his enthusiastic consent to the betrothal. From what Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji, the talk had gone over smoothly, and everything is going remarkably well, as far as Lan Wangji can tell. He can only hope that things will be the same when they reach the Cloud Recesses.

In preparation for their departure, Lan Wangji has also had to pack up all the belongings he has accumulated during his time at Yunmeng. One by one, he carefully stows away the mementos of his time here. The golden gingko leaf from the day of Wei Wuxian’s birthday, now faded to brown, gets tucked between the pages of Lan Wangji’s personal copy of the Lan sect rules, its edges wavy from having been saturated with tea accidentally spilled by Wei Wuxian. A leaf from the entwined beech trees, the very same one that Lan Wangji had disentangled from Wei Wuxian’s hair after the confession, is also pressed between the book’s pages for safe-keeping. To all this, he adds the red sash from Lunar New Year, curled up into a little bundle, as well as a painting of himself playing the guqin that Wei Wuxian had gifted him sometime during autumn.

It had taken a while, but now all of Lan Wangji’s luggage sits in his room, packed and prepared for the journey. Even the flasks of chili oil that Lan Wangji had purchased for Wei Wuxian have been readied, tucked into a qiankun pouch and awaiting only a single word from Wei Wuxian’s lips for their chance to shine. Besides that, Lan Wangji has also prepared another surprise for Wei Wuxian: when Lan Wangji passes by Caiyi Town on their way to the Cloud Recesses, he will entrust some lotus roots to a farmer there. With any luck, the lotus plants will thrive in Gusu’s climate and Jiang Yanli will have a plentiful supply of lotus roots with which to cook soup with during their year at the Cloud Recesses.

For now though, Lan Wangji brings his attention back to the present moment: the play of sunset glow against the natural scenery of Lotus Pier before his eyes, and physical sensation of Wei Wuxian plastered against his back, solid and comforting. As ever, the sunset is a beautiful sight: as the sun inches down towards the river, the sky turns from orange to red to purple, colors melting into one another lazily. The surface of the water reflects the streaky colors painted across the horizon, the image interrupted only by a few boats floating in the distance.

Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian start out standing at the banister of the pavilion side-by-side, but as the shadows of dusk creep closer towards them, Wei Wuxian moves behind Lan Wangji, snaking his arms around his waist in a back hug and settling in close as he hums with satisfaction.

“You know, Lan Zhan, I’ve seen a lot of sunsets in my lifetime. But I only found out today that the most beautiful sunsets are the ones that I see over your shoulder,” Wei Wuxian says, his chin tucked over Lan Wangji’s shoulder as he hugs him from behind.

A huff of air escapes Lan Wangji’s mouth as he glances downwards, embarrassed. Ever since they had sorted out their feelings, Wei Wuxian has taken to saying the absolute mushiest things whenever the two of them are in private, all in a bid to make Lan Wangji blush. Most of the time, he succeeds, because Lan Wangji has a terribly low tolerance for compliments, having been brought up in the austere Cloud Recesses. One day though, Lan Wangji will beat Wei Wuxian at his own game, and stun him into silence with a shameless remark. One day. For now, Lan Wangji lays his forearms over Wei Wuxian’s, and laces their fingers together, running his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s bony knuckles.

The lines of their bodies are pressed flush together, and against the sensitive skin at the back of his neck, Lan Wangji can feel the huff of Wei Wuxian’s exhales as he breathes. Wei Wuxian’s presence is warm and welcome behind Lan Wangji, and he wants to stay like this forever. It’s only been a mere week since their confession, and so Lan Wangji has yet to get used to such intimate physical contact with Wei Wuxian. He can feel the tips of his ears slowly growing red, and when Wei Wuxian notices, he giggles and kisses the shell of Lan Wangji’s right ear. It only reddens further.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, helpless. It’s the only response Lan Wangji can muster, when his stomach is all aflutter with how close their bodies are and how he can feel Wei Wuxian’s hair tickling his cheek as his breath blows against the sensitive skin of his neck. He doesn’t know if he wants Wei Wuxian to stop or continue.

Emboldened, Wei Wuxian buries his nose in Lan Wangji’s hair, breathes in and sighs, “Mm. Lan Zhan’s smell. I love it so much. Like sandalwood and mist and old books all mixed together.”

The two of them stand there for a long time until the sun finishes its descent, and darkness settles cool and quiet all around them. Even without a view to admire, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian stay at the pavilion, simply enjoying their shared embrace. Gazing at the slowly rippling river before him, Lan Wangji ponders about the things awaiting he and Wei Wuxian in the Cloud Recesses. It will be an entirely new environment, with different responsibilities weighing on both of them: lessons, meeting Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji’s miscellaneous duties as the Lan sect discipline master. Lan Wangji can’t help but think that they will have less time for each other, and the nature of their relationship will change. Some of Lan Wangji’s worry probably manifests itself as tension in his body, because Wei Wuxian adjusts his arms, wrapping them more loosely around Lan Wangji’s waist, and pops his head from out behind Lan Wangji’s shoulder to look at his face.

“What’s wrong, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, looking mildly concerned.

“I’m a little worried about what will happen when we reach Gusu,” Lan Wangji admits.

Better to air his concerns with Wei Wuxian now, rather than keep mum about them. Look at what their lack of communication had brought them: six months of wasted time where Lan Wangji could have had Wei Wuxian in his arms, sweet and smiling, falling more in love with each other every day.

“Which part worries you, specifically? I told you, I’ll be on my very best behavior and leave a good impression on your uncle, so you don’t have to fret!” Wei Wuxian reassures him.

Lan Wangji doesn’t want anything to disturb their incipient, fragile romance, which is still taking its first few tottering baby steps. Adding a few thousand Lan sect rules into the mix, along with Lan Wangji’s uncle, who can be overbearing to those who are unused to him, seems like a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, Wei Wuxian probably won’t even be able to eat well in the Cloud Recesses, what with the blandness of the Lan sect’s cuisine.

“Wei Ying, you might hate the Cloud Recesses. The food won’t be to your liking, and there are rules for every possible situation you can think of. You’ll find it stifling.”

“You don’t know that yet. The Cloud Recesses sound like a beautiful place. The food isn’t that important really, as long as I’m not starving I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m looking forward to seeing the Jingshi for myself, and meeting your brother again! Wouldn’t that be nice? You’ve already gotten close to shi-jie and Jiang Cheng, so now it’s my turn to understand more about your upbringing.”

Wei Wuxian’s optimism brings some cheer to Lan Wangji, but then again, perhaps the only reason why he is so enthusiastic is because he’s never actually seen the Cloud Recesses for himself. Lan Wangji has spent his entire life there. He’s worried that Wei Wuxian’s easygoing and capricious nature will be stifled by the rules and schedules of the Cloud Recesses. Worse, he’s worried that Wei Wuxian will pretend that all is fine to spare Lan Wangji’s feelings, and eventually get crushed by boredom and draconian rules. He doesn’t want that for Wei Wuxian, for Lan Wangji’s favorite part of him to be grinded down into dust by the rigor of his home.

Tilting his face to look at Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji says, “Wei Ying. If you hate it there you must tell me. We’ll just live somewhere else in the future.”

“What? No, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Look at me, I’ve survived years under the Purple Spider. I’m not going to suddenly roll over and die just because of a couple of rules, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes.

Lan Wangji repeats, insistent, “Wei Ying. Promise me you’ll be honest with me. I don’t want to tie down the person I love like my father did. (我不想像我爹一样把我心爱的人捆绑起来)”

“Lan Zhan, you would never! Okay, I promise to tell you if I hate it there. But I really don’t think it’ll be as bad as you expect. From all the stories that you’ve told me about the Cloud Recesses, it may be a place with a ton of rules, but it also sounds like there’s a lot of unexpected beauty to be discovered as well. It may be unfamiliar to me initially, but I’ll adapt to it, just the same way that you adapted to Yunmeng. And you’ll be there, won’t you? So that automatically makes it my favorite place in the world! He who loves the tree loves its branches as well (爱屋及乌). How could I dislike the place that my Lan Zhan calls home?

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods, heartened by Wei Wuxian’s words.

Everything would be fine. Even if they weren’t, Lan Wangji would be right there beside Wei Wuxian, putting everything to rights again.

 

 

All too soon and yet not fast enough, the next morning dawns and it is time to say farewell to Lotus Pier once and for all. Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli, as well as the Lan and Jiang sect disciples of the same age who will also be attending the lectures at the Cloud Recesses, gather at the main hall to bid goodbye to Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu. Scattered groups of disciples stand around the courtyard, caught up in their own conversations as they say their goodbyes to friends and family. After the four of them greet Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu inside the main hall, Madam Yu begins listing out her exhortations.

“It’s cold in the Cloud Recesses, so make sure you dress warmly. Keep an eye on the disciples, and don’t let them go too wild. Remember that you’re going there to study, first and foremost. A-Li, you’re the oldest and most responsible, so make sure those two keep out of trouble,” Madam Yu says, gesturing at Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin, before turning to address them. “A-Cheng, Grand Master Lan is an excellent teacher. I look forward to seeing how much you’ll improve under his tutelage, and if you dare fail your exams, don’t bother coming back home. And you, Wei Wuxian. Do not get on Lan Qiren’s nerves. If your betrothal with Second Young Master Lan gets dissolved, you’ll only have yourself to blame.”

After Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli all chorus “yes, I understand” in a suitably obedient manner, Sect Leader Jiang steps up to speak.

“Your first time away from home will be an exciting experience. I trust all of you not to make too many bad decisions, hm?” Sect Leader Jiang says wryly, eyeing Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian. He cups Jiang Yanli’s face, before clapping his hands on Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “Learn as much as you can, and make new friends from the other sects. Take good care of yourselves and of each other, and if there’s ever any trouble you need only write back home. I wish all of you a smooth journey and a good year at Gusu.”

“We will, Die,” Jiang Yanli says. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian quickly chime in their agreement as well.

Seeing the lull in the conversation, Lan Wangji takes the chance to speak. Although shortly afterwards he would be leading the Lan sect disciples in thanking Sect Leader Jiang for his warm reception during the course of this year, it would be a largely ceremonial gesture conducted in full view of everyone. If Lan Wangji wishes to fully express his gratefulness to the Jiangs, he will have to do it now.

Bowing towards the couple, Lan Wangji says, “Sect Leader Jiang, Madam Yu. I would like to extend my gratitude to both of you as well as the entirety of Lotus Pier for your warm reception of the Lan sect disciples. Not only that, but for also allowing me into your family. The Cloud Recesses will be sure to extend the same hospitality to all members of the Jiang sect while they are within our walls.”

“You’re very welcome, Second Young Master Lan,” Sect Leader Jiang says with a smile on his face. “You and the Lan sect disciples have been perfect guests. I can only hope that our disciples will not cause Grand Master Lan too much trouble during their stay at Gusu. I must say, I am relieved that you and A-Xian ended up getting along so well. I look forward to forging closer ties between our two sects in the future.”

After Sect Leader Jiang finishes speaking, he and Madam Yu nod in Lan Wangji’s direction, and their group of six moves outside to the courtyard. While Lan Wangji gathers the Lan sect disciples into a neat formation, Jiang Wanyin does the same for those from the Jiang sect. In no time at all, there are two small contingents of disciples occupying the courtyard, one clad in white and the other in blue and purple. Both the contingents face Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu, who are standing at the front of the main hall.

At the head of the Lan sect contingent, Lan Wangji bows in unison with the other disciples and speaks as their representative to thank Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu. “The Gusu Lan sect thanks Sect Leader Jiang for his hospitality. We humble disciples have learnt much in the halls of Lotus Pier, and our sect looks forward to furthering ties between us and the Jiang sect.”

Sect Leader Jiang bows in response, the angle of his bow perfectly calibrated to show the exact amount of regard that Lan Wangji should be accorded, both as someone younger than him but also a representative of the Lan sect. “It was our pleasure, Second Young Master Lan. Please express my thanks to Grand Master Lan for allowing disciples from the Jiang sect to become guest disciples at the Cloud Recesses.”

Next, Jiang Wanyin speaks. Standing at the head of the Jiang contingent and flanked by Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian, he says, “Die, Niang, we shall be leaving Lotus Pier and heading to the Cloud Recesses for the guest discipleship. We, the disciples of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, will do our utmost to uphold our principles and our reputation, and return in one year’s time having grown wiser and stronger.”

Nodding, Sect Leader Jiang says, “Take good care of yourselves. Write often, and do the Jiang sect proud.”

The Jiang sect disciples bow in unison towards Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu, and with that, their farewells are complete. All the disciples begin to file out of the courtyard in an orderly manner, their belongings already waiting at Lotus Wharf where they will embark on the first leg of their journey towards Gusu on boat.

From the Yunmeng side of the courtyard, Wei Wuxian smiles at Lan Wangji and drifts towards him, like there is an invisible rope tied between them. Their hands find one another’s, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji step out of Lotus Pier side-by-side and hand-in-hand.

 

 

Their journey to Gusu goes by more quickly and pleasantly than Lan Wangji expects. The pace their party sets is leisurely: after some discussion they had decided to reach the Cloud Recesses a week before the lectures are due to begin in order to allow for some sight-seeing and sufficient time to settle in. The springtime weather is agreeable as well, making their travels enjoyable, and their crew of Lan and Jiang sect disciples makes good time, often settling into their inn rooms while there is still daylight left.

Most of their travel is via boat: they wind their way down the Yangtze River, taking the scenic route and stopping wherever looks most convenient or comfortable. When Jiang Yanli isn’t too worn out from travelling, she joins them in exploring whichever town it is that they’ve decided to lodge in for the night. If not, Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin, along with any disciples who wish to come along, go for a tour of the surroundings, trying out local specialties and visiting picturesque spots.

On one of their shopping trips, Wei Wuxian buys a new hair ornament (冠, guan) for himself, a simple metal number that curves around his topknot neatly, understated and refined in place of the red ribbon that usually fastens his ponytail. With a grin, Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji that he intends to wear his new hair ornament at the Cloud Recesses: “Wearing a red ribbon in a sea of white is like drawing a target on my back, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, wagging his finger. “No. I, Wei Wuxian, will be fading into the background and being a perfect student this year, I swear!”

In response, Lan Wangji can only smile. No matter what Wei Wuxian wears, be they rags or just plain white robes, Lan Wangji’s eyes would still be drawn to him always. Lan Wangji savors every moment they spend together during the trip, eager to spend as much time with Wei Wuxian as he can before responsibilities conspire to fill up his hours when they reach the Cloud Recesses. The two of them walk hand-in-hand through crowded lanes, flitting from stall to booth to shop according to Wei Wuxian’s whims. At scenic sites, they pick quiet spots to sit down and talk as they take in the surroundings.

Quite a number of grannies gush to them about young love and how beautiful a couple they make, and the very first time they hear this, Lan Wangji has to bashfully murmur his thanks as Wei Wuxian stands beside him, red-faced and stunned. After a few times however, Wei Wuxian takes to simply hooking his arm around Lan Wangji’s, if they are not already holding hands, and announcing proudly to everyone within a ten foot radius that Lan Wangji is his fiancé. At these moments, Lan Wangji is all at once embarrassed, yet unspeakably pleased that Wei Wuxian is going about declaring their future marital status to complete strangers.

Somewhere around their fifth day of travel, they cross the Yunmeng-Gusu border, and on the sixth day, they finally leave their boats behind at Yijiang City and complete the rest of the journey towards the Cloud Recesses on foot. As they are approaching from the west, Biling Lake is the last thing that stands between them and Caiyi Town, which is right at the foot of the Jade Mountain where the Cloud Recesses are situated. Hence, the final part of their journey is a peaceful boat ride across Biling Lake.

Staring out across the placid cerulean surface of the lake, Lan Wangji can’t help but think of how he had felt a year ago, taking the first step of his journey away from the Cloud Recesses. The entire trip to Yunmeng, Lan Wangji had been filled with a sort of low-grade dread at having to spend an entire year’s time in the company of strangers. Now, on the route back home with more friends than he ever imagined he could possibly make and a fiancé whom he loves, Lan Wangji feels like he is returning home an utterly changed person, with treasures untold.

It is easy enough to charter a few boats, the Lan sect disciple uniform being terribly recognizable so close to the Cloud Recesses, and in a matter of minutes everyone is on-board. Quite naturally, Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian and the Jiang siblings share one boat, and Lan Wangji points out items of interest as they pass by: the mountain abutting the lake where one can find scholar’s rocks (太湖石) made of beautifully pockmarked limestone which are ideal as garden centerpieces, the small peninsula that is said to resemble a turtle’s head (鼋头渚), and the red-bellied kingfishers that swoop across the surface of the lake, the startling streaks of bright blue painted on their backs coruscating with their movements.

As their boat glides leisurely across the glassy surface of the lake, Jade Mountain comes into view. Having grown up here, the mountain’s verdant slopes and lush greenery are as familiar to Lan Wangji as the lines on the back of his hand, and a pang of longing subsides at the sight. He is finally home.

Using Bichen’s pommel, Lan Wangji gestures at a glint of dark blue visible between the thickets of trees on the mountain. The sight of the Cloud Recesses, tucked away in the heart of the Jade Mountain, is one for sore eyes. “At the peak of the Jade Mountain lies the Cloud Recesses. Do you see the rooftops?”

“Ah yes, I do!” Jiang Yanli agrees, her eyes riveted on the peak of the mountain as she tries to make out more buildings. “Gusu truly is as beautiful as the poems and paintings depicted (如诗如画), Second Young Master Lan.”

“Remind me, Lan Zhan. Exactly how many steps are there in the path that leads to the Cloud Recesses?” Wei Wuxian asks as he cranes his neck upwards.

“Roughly a thousand.”

One thousand, two hundred and eight steps, to be precise, but Lan Wangji hardly thinks those extra two hundred steps will make Wei Wuxian feel any better, so he rounds down.

From across the boat, Wei Wuxian’s gaze finds Jiang Wanyin’s, and they groan in unison. “That’s too many steps!” “A thousand!?”

Exchanging a look of amusement with Jiang Yanli at their dramatics, Lan Wangji engages her in a conversation about the scenery, and they tune out Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin’s kvetching about the absolutely unwarranted altitude of the Cloud Recesses as background noise.

By the time the bow of their boat hits the wooden pier of Caiyi Town, it is late evening, the pearlescent moon hanging in the pale blue sky accompanied by a few dabs of cottony white. It’s too late to do any of the sightseeing that Lan Wangji promised Wei Wuxian they would do, and so Lan Wangji gathers the Lan sect disciples and presents them with a choice: ascend the mountain tonight, or stay in Caiyi Town for one more day to accompany the Jiang sect disciples as they explore. Unanimously, the homesick Lan sect disciples choose to return home, which is how it comes about that Lan Wangji is the only figure in white who checks into an inn with the Jiang sect disciples that night.

Dinner at the inn is a boisterous affair, the Jiang sect disciples calling out to each other from their different tables and passing dishes around for everyone to try. Lan Wangji introduces Wei Wuxian and the Jiang siblings to the specialties of Caiyi Town: a seafood omelet made with white bait and white shrimp freshly-caught from Biling Lake, and a dish called squirrel fish, made by deboning perch before deep-frying it and covering it in a sweet and sour sauce (松鼠桂鱼). He warns them that the dishes in the Cloud Recesses will not be half as flavorful as the ones they are eating now, which earns him some disappointed sighs.

A good half of the meal is spent staring at Wei Wuxian: every time Wei Wuxian places some food in Lan Wangji’s bowl for him, or nudges his foot against Lan Wangji’s under the table, Lan Wangji finds his gaze drawn irresistibly to Wei Wuxian’s lovable face like the tide towards the moon. Somehow, whenever Lan Wangji looks in Wei Wuxian’s direction, Wei Wuxian is always already looking back at him, his lips curved in a smile.

When the waiter comes around to clear their dishes at the end of the meal, Wei Wuxian finds out that there is Emperor’s Smile for sale. He turns to Jiang Wanyin, already grinning. “Did you hear that? Jiang Cheng, our chance to try Emperor’s Smile has finally come! Let’s order some and bring it up to our rooms. Ooh, do you think we’d be able to bring a couple jugs into the Cloud Recesses? Lan Zhan, do you want some?”

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji says automatically. Almost immediately, he comes to regret his words, because Wei Wuxian’s face falls and his excitement visibly deflates. That absolutely won’t do: Wei Wuxian should be happy at all times, as far as actually possible, so Lan Wangji continues, “… But we are not in the Cloud Recesses yet.”

“Yes!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, punching the air. “So you’re alright with drinking?”

“Mn, as long as you do not sneak any alcohol into the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji says. After all, if Wei Wuxian were discovered to be smuggling alcohol of all things past the gates of the Cloud Recesses, that would quite literally be the worst impression that Lan Qiren could have of Lan Wangji’s fiancé. He further clarifies, “I will not be drinking.”

“Okay. Are you sure?” Wei Wuxian asks, placing a hand on Lan Wangji’s knee. “If you’re worried about doing something silly when you’re drunk, I’ll take care of you, Lan Zhan.”

Still, Lan Wangji shakes his head. He is still learning how to navigate the grey zones between the black and white lines set out by the Lan sect precepts. Perhaps one day, he will be as adept as Lan Xichen is at embodying the spirit of the Lan sect while making full use of loopholes to indulge his own desires. For now though, Lan Wangji will abstain.

After dinner, the four of them relocate to the room that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are sharing with a few bottles of Emperor’s Smile. Lan Wangji goes along half out of curiosity, eager to see what Wei Wuxian looks like flushed with drink, and half out of responsibility, so that he can take care of Wei Wuxian if anything happens. Between the two of them, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin polish off three bottles of Emperor’s Smile, drinking enough to get tipsy but not drunk. Even Jiang Yanli joins in the fun, accepting one small cup and drinking it politely behind her sleeve. When offered a chance to smell the alcohol, Lan Wangji takes one sniff of Wei Wuxian’s wine cup, wrinkles his nose, and returns the cup to Wei Wuxian, who throws his head back with a laugh.

For the most part, even when mildly inebriated Wei Wuxian acts the same way he does when he is sober, save for a tendency to use far more idioms. He bickers with Jiang Wanyin the same amount, but Jiang Yanli just lets them run wild, giggling at their antics. All of it reminds Lan Wangji of the night before the Lunar New Year, where all four of them had stayed up together in Jiang Wanyin’s room. He watches on, silently amused as Wei Wuxian first extolls the virtues of Emperor’s Smile, then tussles with Jiang Wanyin over some inconsequential issue or other.

At the end of his bout with Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian ends up petulantly holding his pillow and a corner of his blanket and marching over to Lan Wangji’s side. “You’re the worst, Jiang Cheng! I’m going to sleep in Lan Zhan’s room tonight, at least he’s always on my side.”

Hearing this, Lan Wangji’s eyes widen. Finding time to be together with Wei Wuxian in private during their journey to Gusu has been difficult, to say the least. They’ve been stuck in the middle of an entire group of people who are subtly (the Lans) and not-so-subtly (the Jiangs) keeping a very interested eye on their every movement, and so Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian have had to make do with chaste kisses on the cheek or quick hugs before bedtime. Yesterday, they had volunteered to bring up the rear of their party just so they could walk a short distance away from the others, holding hands and talking softly. If he and Wei Wuxian shared a room, Lan Wangji could brush his hair for him before bed, and wake up to Wei Wuxian’s face first thing in the morning. His heartbeat speeds up involuntarily at the idea.

“No way,” Jiang Wanyin says, already walking towards Wei Wuxian with intent in his eyes.

“I just want to have a sleepover in Lan Zhan’s room!” Wei Wuxian whines, making grabby hands at Lan Wangji as Jiang Wanyin begins to haul Wei Wuxian back towards his own bed by the neck of his robes. It is a close call between Lan Wangji’s protectiveness and his propriety: he nearly reaches out to snag Wei Wuxian’s ankle, but ultimately his good sense wins out. The image that appears in Lan Wangji’s mind is absolutely mortifying: the three of them, nearly full-grown men, playing tug-of-war and dragging each other around on the floor of an inn room.

Niang would have my hide if she found out the two of you were sharing a room. You’re betrothed, not married. Who knows what sort of trouble you’d get up to.” Jiang Wanyin stomps as he painstakingly drags Wei Wuxian inch-by-inch across the floor.

Wei Wuxian gasps, scandalized. “Jiang Cheng! We weren’t planning on doing anything salacious! You have such a dirty mind, oh little brother of mine. Me and Lan Zhan shared a room on that night hunt just fine.”

“Yeah, but that was before all this,” Jiang Wanyin says, finger jabbing accusatorily between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian to indicate their current closeness. “Anyway, I’m a light sleeper, so don’t you dare sneak out in the middle of the night, Wei Wuxian. Jie agrees with me. Right, Jie?”

Still seated peacefully at the table scattered with empty Emperor’s Smile bottles, Jiang Yanli says, “A-Cheng is right, A-Xian.

“Ugh, fine! At least let me say goodnight to Lan Zhan then!” Wei Wuxian says, wriggling his way out of Jiang Wanyin’s grasp and throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s arms. “Jiang Cheng, this is your warning to close your eyes.”

Looking incredibly long-suffering, Jiang Wanyin actually does follow Wei Wuxian’s recommendation, rolling his eyes before covering them with his hand. Sitting at the table, Jiang Yanli follows suit, turning away to give them some privacy. When Lan Wangji looks back at Wei Wuxian, his face is very close to Lan Wangji’s, his eyes bright and a smile quirking his lips.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says softly, only loud enough for both of them to hear. He settles his hands on Wei Wuxian’s back.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian parrots back, curling his arms loosely around Lan Wangji’s neck. Lan Wangji’s name sounds so good coming out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and his hands feel like they were made to cradle Lan Wangji’s neck. Voice hushed, Wei Wuxian continues, “Tsk. My plan didn’t work. I really wanted to have a sleepover in your room tonight. Goodnight, Lan Zhan. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Wei Ying.”

Lan Wangji leans in to kiss Wei Wuxian, just a quick light pressure against his lips. However tempted he is to linger, Lan Wangji abstains due to the presence of Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli. When he pulls back, Lan Wangji can taste the dregs of Wei Wuxian’s Emperor’s Smile against his own mouth, warming him from inside-out. No matter that Lan Wangji had resolved not to imbibe tonight, it seemed like he had ultimately tasted alcohol after all. Wei Wuxian was always doing that to him: he made Lan Wangji want to break all the rules he had been brought up to hold as sacred, just to get one more smile, one more laugh, one more kiss out of Wei Wuxian.

They pull apart before Jiang Wanyin’s patience runs out, and Lan Wangji says his goodnights to the Jiang siblings as well, walking Jiang Yanli back to her room before finally returning to his own. Even though his room is too quiet and empty, somehow Lan Wangji manages to fall asleep, warmed by the fact that Wei Wuxian is sleeping just two doors down.

 

 

The next day, Lan Wangji acts as a tour-guide for the Jiang sect disciples, showing them around Caiyi Town. They wind their way across the city, first on foot, in order to appreciate the architecture of the countless bridges scattered all over the town, and then in a canal-boat, gliding along tree-covered courses as vendors hawk their wares from their own boats. Afterwards, Lan Wangji brings them to see a few gardens, as well as a seven-story pagoda (云岩寺塔) that are quite well-known around these parts, then finally a marketplace where exquisite bolts of silk, the local specialty, are sold. All of this takes up the entire morning, and after a quick lunch at the inn, Lan Wangji wraps up his brief tour of Caiyi Town, and everyone returns to their inn rooms to make their final preparations before going up to the Cloud Recesses.

Having already finished packing all the belongings he had taken out the night before, Lan Wangji is done in a matter of minutes. In the middle of pondering whether it would be terribly rude to invite himself to Wei Wuxian’s room and offer to help him pack, a knock comes on Lan Wangji’s door.

It’s Jiang Wanyin, already dressed in his white guest disciples robes and with his belongings slung across his shoulder.

“Lan Wangji, are you done with your packing?”

A nod.

“Good. Wei Wuxian needs your help with something.” Jiang Wanyin jerks his head in the direction of the room he shared with Wei Wuxian, an exasperated expression on his face. “Don’t take too long.” With that, Jiang Wanyin walks down the stairs to the first floor of the inn, presumably to make the payment for their rooms.

Curiosity hastens Lan Wangji’s steps as he moves down the corridor and knocks on Wei Wuxian’s door. What could Wei Wuxian need his help with? “Wei Ying. It’s me.”

Upon hearing Wei Wuxian’s cheerful come in, Lan Wangji opens the door, and is promptly struck dumb by the sight that greets him.

Logically, of course, Lan Wangji knows that Wei Wuxian is going to be wearing the guest disciple uniform that all Jiang sect disciples are wearing. Seeing it for himself though, is quite another thing. The uniform looks stunning on Wei Wuxian, all pure-white flowing lines embellished with blue: a nine-petalled lotus on each of Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and a belt fastened across his slim waist. His hair is done up in a top-knot instead of his usual ponytail, and although Lan Wangji misses the sight of that familiar red ribbon, he cannot deny that the simple helix-shaped guan made of metal that Wei Wuxian is wearing suits him just as well. White is a good color on Wei Wuxian: it makes him look brighter and more youthful, and, most importantly, white is the color of the Lan sect. The sight of Wei Wuxian clad in pure white Gusu Lan robes is innately satisfying to Lan Wangji, and his eyes trace Wei Wuxian’s figure up and down to drink the sight in. It feels like laying a concrete claim on Wei Wuxian, proclaiming to the world that Wei Wuxian is his and his alone. The only way it could be improved would be if Wei Wuxian had a filigreed ribbon fastened around his forehead to signify his status as a Lan sect member.

“Well, how do I look?” Wei Wuxian says, holding his arms out and turning in a circle so that Lan Wangji can see him from every angle. His robes flare around him like the petals of a flower, settling gently back down when he falls still. Wei Wuxian clasps his hands together and smiles eagerly, waiting for Lan Wangji to give his verdict.

“Beautiful.”

“Just beautiful?” Wei Wuxian teases, tilting his head flirtatiously.

A moment’s consideration, then Lan Wangji amends, “Exceedingly beautiful.”

That earns him a full-bellied laugh and a tinge of red on the apples of Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, then Wei Wuxian beckons Lan Wangji closer. “Lan Zhan, will you help me check whether my hair ornament is in the proper place? Everything else, too. I want to look smart when I reach the gates of the Cloud Recesses later.”

Humming in agreement, Lan Wangji starts at the top. He smooths down a few unruly flyaways near the crown of Wei Wuxian’s head, before drawing a lock of Wei Wuxian’s inky hair in front of his shoulder and kissing it. As Wei Wuxian chuckles, Lan Wangji runs his hands down the already smooth lines of Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, skimming down the rest of his arms. Lan Wangji’s hands end up on Wei Wuxian’s waist, and Lan Wangji adjusts his belt by just a fraction of an inch, mostly just as an excuse to linger. Finally, Lan Wangji draws his palms slowly along Wei Wuxian’s chest, ensuring that the two front panels of his robes lie flat and even. His inspection concluded, Lan Wangji draws Wei Wuxian into an embrace, careful not to mess up any part of his outfit.

“Perfect,” Lan Wangji declares, as he tucks his chin over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, relaxing into the hug.

With a contented sigh, Wei Wuxian does the same, leaning his head against Lan Wangji’s as his arms tighten around Lan Wangji’s waist. “I feel like I haven’t been able to properly spend time with you all week, Lan Zhan.” From his tone, Lan Wangji can tell that Wei Wuxian is making the face he always makes when he’s whiny: nose scrunched and mouth a petulant line.

“We were together the entire morning.” Like a very welcome limpet, Wei Wuxian had stuck to Lan Wangji’s side all day – all week, really – as Lan Wangji had done his level best as a tour guide, trying not to make his introduction of each location sound like one of his uncle’s lectures. Lan Wangji is not above admitting that the sight of Wei Wuxian’s smiles and nods had been incredibly encouraging whenever Lan Wangji thought he was losing everyone’s attention with his monotone recitation.

“Yeah, but there were so many people around us. I barely managed to hold your hand!” That is an exaggeration: there had been a very precious ten-minute period where Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had managed to sneak away while the rest were admiring a series of scholar’s rocks in a garden, all so Lan Wangji could lead Wei Wuxian to one of his favorite spots. They had spent their well-deserved time together sitting in a pavilion outfitted with moon gates in each of its four walls, representing each of the four seasons (梧竹幽居亭). “Good thing I managed to guilt Jiang Cheng into letting us have a few minutes alone right now.”

Laughing slightly, Lan Wangji turns his head and presses a kiss to Wei Wuxian’s head. “I know where we can go in the Cloud Recesses to be alone.” Over the years, Lan Wangji had done his fair share of night patrols, and as such he knew all the spots which were frequented, as well as those which were actually private. Finally, his knowledge would come to good use.

The two of them chat softly as they bask in each other’s presence, making full use of their time together. The warm spicy smell of Wei Wuxian’s hair fills Lan Wangji’s nose, and he nuzzles closer, keen to feel the pleasant softness of Wei Wuxian’s body against his own. Along his back, Lan Wangji can feel Wei Wuxian fiddling with the ends of his forehead ribbon as he talks, an outlet for his expressive hands. They trade a few lazy kisses, Lan Wangji drawing back with a hiss from the first one because Wei Wuxian’s mouth is still spicy from lunch. This makes Wei Wuxian laugh until he tears up, and after a while, Lan Wangji decides to just lean into the burning sensation on his lips, and resumes their kissing. With a little more conditioning of this sort, Lan Wangji thinks he could come to appreciate spice in his food.

All too soon, their time runs out and they have to draw apart. Craning his head out of the window, Wei Wuxian says, “I think I see shi-jie downstairs. We’d best go down as well.”

After one last lingering kiss, they do, and after meeting the rest of the group, head off in the direction of the Jade Mountain. When they reach the foot of the mountain leading to the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian groans, draping himself against Lan Wangji.

“A thousand steps. I can’t believe there are so many, my legs will fall off before I step foot into the Cloud Recesses. Lan Zhan, will you carry me if my legs are too weak?”

Wei Wuxian leans against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, making doe eyes at him. It’s terribly effective: his lips look red and bitten, and although anyone not in the know would simply attribute it to the chili oil Wei Wuxian had with his lunch, an echoing tinge of spicy heat still remains at the tip of Lan Wangji’s tongue to remind him of the role he played in getting Wei Wuxian’s lips to look that way. If Wei Wuxian remains this captivating the entire year, Lan Wangji is going to be hard-pressed to pay an iota of attention to his uncle’s lectures.

Dragging his eyes from Wei Wuxian’s face, Lan Wangji gazes at the carved stone steps before him. Here at the base of the mountain, they are merely overgrown with greenery, but as they ascend the mountain, the steps will become lacquered with moss, the Cloud Recesses’ signature mist leaving a fine layer of moisture everywhere it touches. On their way up, they will pass by burbling brooks and little ephemeral ponds, even a waterfall, before finally, finally, laying their eyes on the gates of the Cloud Recesses.

Lan Wangji has never looked upon the steps leading to the Cloud Recesses with dread, simply because to him, it has always signified that he would reach home at the end of those steps. How has his home changed in a year, Lan Wangji wonders. He couldn’t wait to show Wei Wuxian the wonders of the Cloud Recesses, the same way he had shown Lan Wangji the splendors of Lotus Pier. There are a million things that he wants to do with Wei Wuxian: drink tea with him and Lan Xichen, kiss him in the Jingshi, bring him to the gentian cottage where his mother had lived.

Turning to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji says, “Mn. If Wei Ying gets tired I’ll piggyback you.”

Lan Wangji laces his fingers together with Wei Wuxian’s. He smiles at him, and Wei Wuxian smiles back, bright and perfect, and they take their first step towards the Cloud Recesses together.

 

 

The steps stretching up and out in front of Nie Huaisang at the foot of the Jade Mountain look endless. It takes fifteen days to travel from Qinghe to Gusu, and every step along the way, Nie Huaisang bemoans his fate. Why, oh why hadn’t he stolen the invitation from the Cloud Recesses from his brother’s office and sent his regrets saying that no, unfortunately Young Master Nie would not be available for the entire year, apologies in advance and thanks for the invitation, etc. cetera? Or maybe he should have faked catching the stomach bug that was making the rounds in the Unclean Realm. With his acting skills, Nie Huaisang could probably have stretched it out to an entire month, and if he missed the first month of lessons he probably had a good enough case for skipping the entire year, right?

As he trudges up the thousands of stairs that will bring him and his small entourage (including Meng Yao, because apparently his dage thinks he needs someone to supervise him) to the gates of the Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang wallows in despair. This year is going to be the absolute worst: shitty food, lessons every single day that he can’t even pretend to forget about, and to top it all off, a mountain of sect rules that he’s expected to adhere to if he doesn’t want to earn the wrath of the Second Jade of Lan, Lan Wangji.

While his dage was pretty close to Lan Xichen, Nie Huaisang had never had the – pleasure seemed like the wrong word, maybe privilege? – of meeting Lan Wangji. He had never tagged along on any of Lan Xichen’s frequent trips to Qinghe, nor had he turned up alongside his uncle for any for the discussion conferences held in the Unclean Realm. As such, all Nie Huaisang knows about Lan Wangji is secondhand information. The blacksmith’s son, who has a cousin of a cousin who is a disciple under the Lan sect, tells him of Lan Wangji’s legendary uptightness. San-shixiong, who went to the Cloud Recesses as a guest disciples three years ago for the last round of lectures, still keeps in touch with his friends in the Lan sect, and he informs Nie Huaisang that the two Jades of Lan are like night and day: where Lan Xichen was usually willing to close one eye and let things slide, provided that an offense wasn’t too serious, Lan Wangji took after his uncle. His manner was severe and strict, and whoever was caught by him unavoidably had to carry out a punishment.

Nie Huaisang’s dage is summarily unhelpful: “Wangji is quiet. Doesn’t talk much. His sword fighting is unparalleled though, I’ve seen him duel with Xichen. You should learn from him and finally take your sabre training seriously, Huaisang–” aaand that’s where Nie Huaisang tunes out the same old nagging that he’s heard a million times, so he doesn’t manage to gather any more information on Lan Wangji. (At the very end of the lecture though, Nie Huaisang does check back in to make sure that he’s nodding in all the right places and so his dage won’t suspect that all his words are going into one ear and coming right out of the other one. Nie Huaisang nods dutifully at his dage’s closing remarks: “Grand Master Lan is a miracle worker. I can only pray that you’ll actually learn something while you’re at the Cloud Recesses,” and “Please, for the love of God. Do not embarrass me in front of Xichen’s uncle,” delivered with a sigh while Nie Mingjue pinches the bridge of his nose, before he finally waves Nie Huaisang off.)

All of which is to say that Nie Huaisang absolutely dreads this guest discipleship.

There are a few bright spots, however. The natural scenery at the Cloud Recesses is supposed to be unparalleled. Maybe Nie Huaisang will manage to find some time in between his lessons to render a few drawings of Gusu’s mountains to contribute to his fan collection. He’s already managed to find the most beautiful canary on his way here, and the little darling chirps at him from its cage. As long as Nie Huaisang takes good care of it, he can add this orange-featured beauty to the small menagerie that he’s starting when he goes back home to Qinghe. Not to mention, the other disciples this year are supposed to be an interesting bunch. Nie Huaisang has heard tale that all the large sects are sending their children to be taught by Lan Qiren this year, even the reclusive Wen sect! Nie Huaisang feels his mood brighten at the thought of his potential classmates.

Huffing and puffing, Nie Huaisang finally reaches the top of the steps. Was it quite necessary for the Lan sect residence to be built at the top of a mountain? Although Nie Huaisang has to admit that the misty environs are rather mysterious and beautiful, couldn’t the Lan sect have settled for headquarters built at ground-level like the rest of them? The Unclean Realm is perfectly serviceable, and doesn’t require a two hour vertical journey via winding staircase to visit.

At the gate, Nie Huaisang says hello to the two Lan sect disciples standing guard and produces his invitation. They inspect it, then step aside to allow their entourage to pass. Taking a fortifying breath, Nie Huaisang steps into the confines of the Cloud Recesses.

Another Lan sect disciple appears to guide them to their living quarters, and as he leads the way into the Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang takes everything in with wide eyes. The Cloud Recesses is stunning, all lacquered wood and white stone gardens, wreathed in mist and draped in pale blue. The cirrus cloud crest of the Lan sect is subtly woven into the furnishings everywhere: draperies, sliding screens, even the windows. There is a reverent air of tranquility about the place, a hushed scholarly atmosphere along the silent wooden beams and quiet stone paths that Nie Huaisang passes. That is, until the peace is shattered by the boisterous sound of laughter. When Nie Huaisang looks towards the source of the noise, he finds two strangers, who look to be about the same age as he is.

With a not-inconsiderable amount of disbelief, Nie Huaisang looks on as one of the boys gambols – there’s really no better word that Nie Huaisang can use – through the previously silent wooden hallway of the Cloud Recesses. The boy is dressed in white guest disciple robes, his shoulders emblazoned with the blue nine-petalled lotus of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. The Jiang sect disciple has a hand circling the wrist of the other boy he’s walking with, his eyes bright with mirth as he beams at his companion, with absolutely no thoughts spared for the rules he’s breaking.

Following along in the Jiang sect disciple’s exuberant wake at a rather more sedate pace is his companion, a boy garbed in pure white robes, and Nie Huaisang notes with surprise that he has a forehead ribbon complete with filigree, meaning he is a member of the direct Lan sect bloodline. Even though he has a stern expression, Nie Huaisang can see the familial resemblance between the boy and Lan Xichen, and to a lesser extent, Lan Qiren. This can only mean one thing: the boy accompanying the Jiang sect disciple is Lan Wangji. What is truly alarming, however, is how Lan Wangji is almost smiling at the Yunmeng Jiang disciple, and how he allows him to continue making a racket. Was this truly the straight-laced disciplinarian Nie Huaisang had heard so many precautionary tales about? Not only is there no trace of irritation on his face, Nie Huaisang can almost swear that Lan Wangji’s eyes are soft with fondness as he gazes at the noisy Jiang sect disciple.

A quick glance at the nonchalant face of the Lan sect disciple guiding Nie Huaisang tells him that this is a common sight in the Cloud Recesses, and he looks back towards the mismatched couple, just in time to hear their conversation.

“Lan Zhan, the library was so much fun! Where shall we go next? The back of the mountain, maybe? Ah, also, do you think we should have dinner with shi-jie and Jiang Cheng later?” the Jiang sect disciple chatters on, utterly oblivious to the fact that the entire Nie contingent is staring at him gobsmacked.

“Mn.” Somehow, using just one syllable Lan Wangji manages to convey both his agreement and satisfaction. Judging by the Jiang sect disciple’s continued prattling, he fully comprehends the oceans of meaning contained in Lan Wangji’s reply, and the sound of them conversing continues until it fades away into the distance.

Perhaps he’s miscalculated. This year will be an interesting one, Nie Huaisang thinks.