“Welcome, Uncle,” Wangji says as Lan Qiren walks the final few steps to the jingshi. Beside him, Wei Wuxian bows politely.
“Good evening, Grandmaster,” he murmurs, voice far quieter than Lan Qiren is used to hearing. He raises an eyebrow but returns their greetings, permitting himself to clasp Wangji’s shoulder briefly as they usher him into the jingshi. He had already informed Wangji he did not mean this to be a discussion in Wangji’s capacity as Chief Cultivator, and the atmosphere is more informal than his meetings with his nephew have been in months.
(Wei Wuxian would beg to differ. Loudly. And possibly with several helpful diagrams illustrating why even family dinners amongst the Lans are in No Way, Shape, or Form relaxed and informal. But he had promised his husband he would be on his absolute best behavior.)
He is offered the seat of honor at their small table, and Wei Wuxian is the one to pour tea for both him and Wangji, his movements as flawlessly graceful as any aristocrat. Lan Qiren can admit he had been fearful Wei Wuxian would embarrass and shame them at the many—many—formal banquets Wangji had to attend as Excellency, but Wei Wuxian has impeccable manners when he chooses to. Only when he chooses to, granted. Fortunately, he seems to have deemed events at which his behavior will reflect on Gusu Lan as a whole, and Wangji in particular, just such occasions.
They drink their tea in silence—comfortable silence for him and Wangji, familiar and fitting as a well-broken in pair of shoes—but Lan Qiren does not miss the way Wei Wuxian’s sharp eyes dart between him and Wangji. The way his spine is straight as an arrow, shoulders slightly hunched as though he’s braced for a blow. He does not remark upon it in the hopes that Wei Wuxian will eventually settle down, and a moment later there is a quiet knock at the door.
Wei Wuxian springs up as though he’s been launched by a slingshot and hurries over to open the door to a pair of servants carrying two large, covered trays. He chatters at them for a moment, asking after children and spouses, and Lan Qiren feels a jolt of surprise as the servants answer with genuine smiles and warm looks. He hadn’t realized Wei Wuxian has become so familiar with members of the staff at the Cloud Recesses.
Wangji rises as Wei Wuxian takes one of the trays, and glides over to take it as Wei Wuxian passes it back without looking. Wei Wuxian takes the other with polite thanks, and the servants bow respectfully to Lan Qiren, Wangji, and Wei Wuxian before exiting. Lan Qiren finds himself watching as the two efficiently lay out the meal—bean curd and steamed root vegetables, bowls of rice and freshly-made noodles, mushrooms and winter greens cooked in a rich broth.
They move around each other without thought, without needing to speak. Wei Wuxian collects their plates and begins filling them, politely asking after Lan Qiren’s favorites. Wangji goes to gather a small crock from a cabinet on the wall. Wei Wuxian grins up at his husband as the crock is deposited on the table and the lid removed, revealing a thick sauce that smells strongly of ginger, garlic, vinegar, and chilis. A lot of chilis. Lan Qiren doesn’t want to think about how many spices must have gone into the mixture to produce that shade of red. Wei Wuxian’s grin widens in delight and Wangji’s eyes go soft and fond, his lips tilting upwards in the bare hint of a smile.
“Ah! Sizhui brought me more of that dipping sauce?”
“Mn. Assigned a patrol in the area. Jingyi insisted they stop at the inn and buy some.”
Wei Wuxian mimes wiping a tear from his eyes. “Such good boys we have! Such kind, thoughtful boys!”
“Indeed,” Wangji says, and the soft look does not leave his eyes.
Lan Qiren busies himself with his tea and so nearly misses the way Wangji brushes his hand over one of Wei Wuxian’s as he moves around his husband to take his seat. It’s a quick, barely-there motion, the lightest slide of his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s knuckles, but some tension Lan Qiren hadn’t even noticed seeps out of Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. When he offers Lan Qiren the first of the dishes, he does so with a smile that almost looks genuine.
Lan Qiren thinks to return it for a moment…but then he can only watch in horrified fascination as Wei Wuxian reaches for his chili sauce, scooping out a dollop nearly the size of a hen’s egg and stirring it into his own plate of perfectly-cooked bean curd and vegetables. He is vaguely surprised the food does not immediately start hissing from the sheer amount of spice. He can smell the heat in the sauce.
Wangji just looks besotted and indulgent.
Quiet descends over the table as they eat—as properly and appropriately quiet as any meal Lan Qiren has taken in the dining hall. He is used to watching Wei Wuxian fairly vibrate in his seat when he and Wangji eat with the disciples, as though all the words that usually spill from that chattering mouth are physically knocking against his teeth to get out. Now, though, he keeps his eyes on Wangji, and the two seem to be having a full-blown conversation made up entirely of Wangji’s micro-expressions and Wei Wuxian’s far-more-exaggerated reactions to them.
He has known for years the depths of Wangji’s devotion to this man. If pressed, he knows he would have to admit that he has little reason to doubt Wei Wuxian’s devotion to his nephew runs just as deep. It may have taken him longer to realize and understand his feelings, but Lan Qiren had been able to take some small comfort in the fact that Wangji’s love was at least returned in equal measure. Watching the two of them now—away from the ever-watchful eyes of the Lan disciples, absent the trappings of Wangji’s duties as Chief Cultivator—Lan Qiren cannot help but be surprised by the ease between them. The comfort.
The privacy screens have been set up to completely conceal their sleeping space, but the rest of the jingshi is open to observation. Everywhere Lan Qiren looks, there is evidence of a complete melding of two lives. Half-finished talisman designs in Wei Wuxian’s truly terrible calligraphy sit in a pile next to Wangji’s neatly-ordered reports and paperwork. Shelves that have only ever held a few books of poetry and music theory are now crowded with texts on a wild array of subjects that only Wei Wuxian’s magpie-like mind would alight on. Wei Wuxian’s ghost flute sits innocuously on a stand next to Wangji’s guqin, its polished surface gleaming.
He had feared…oh how he had feared Wangji would follow down the same path his father had. Would throw himself headlong into a love fashioned out of fire, fueled by all the passion that could run in a Lan’s heart. And like fire, it would consume him, leave him a hollowed-out husk. A prisoner to a love that had withered into something dark and poisonous, something that could never be healthy. Such had been the fate of Wangji’s parents.
But Lan Wangji is not his father. And Wei Wuxian’s character, Lan Qiren is realizing, bears little resemblance to Wangji’s mother.
There are the beginnings of a life in the jingshi. The foundations of a home. And Wangji and Wei Wuxian move around each other like they have lived together their entire lives. Like their own bodies are just extensions of each other. Lan Qiren knows his nephew’s marriage does not lack…passion.
If nothing else, the sheer number of red-faced disciples who have come to him the morning after their patrol shifts and tried to find a way to tactfully ask him to remind his nephew to check the strength of the jingshi’s privacy wards would clue him in to that fact.
He watches Wei Wuxian refill Wangji’s teacup and spoon the choicest bits of Wangji’s preferred dishes into his bowl before Wangji can do it himself, his mouth quirked into a half-smile that is a thousand times softer than his usual grin. He is pleased to see that his nephew’s marriage also does not lack warmth. Care. Trust and gentleness. When the meal is finished, Wangji and Wei Wuxian work together to clear the dishes away. More tea is poured, dishes of peanuts and dried fruit are offered (and politely declined), and Lan Qiren finally has no more excuses to put off the conversation he has been bracing himself for. In all honesty, he has been bracing himself for it since Lan Sizhui had first convinced him to listen in on Wei Wuxian and the novices.
“What did you wish to speak about, Uncle?” Wangji asks finally. Wei Wuxian plasters what Lan Qiren is sure he thinks is an expression of polite interest on his face. In truth he looks almost as pained as Lan Qiren feels.
But. He has decided on a course of action. For his sake, for his nephew’s sake, for the sake of the sect’s novice disciples…and even for Wei Wuxian’s sake…he must forge ahead. Lan Guihong is right. It is time they were all allowed to move forward.
“You know Lan Guihong’s health will likely remain fragile for several months. Perhaps for the rest of his life,” he begins. This is not news to Wangji, of course. Lan Guihong is beloved by many in the sect—the whole of the Cloud Recesses has followed the head healer’s reports with much interest. As expected, Wangji nods. “He and I have decided it is time he step down as the primary instructor for our novice class.”
“I will be sorry to see Teacher Lan retire,” Wangji says sincerely. “But of course, his health and comfort must come first. I presume Lan Fang will be taking over?”
“No, actually. Lan Fang is an excellent instructor…but Lan Guihong and I believe, and Lan Fang agrees, that his talents are best utilized where he is.”
Wangji’s brow furrows minutely. “You—wish me to recall one of our senior teachers?” he hazards finally.
Lan Qiren has been many things in his life, but a coward is not one of them. Enough of this.
“I do not,” he says shortly. “We…no, I believe I have already found a suitable replacement. If he is willing.”
Wangji is staring at him, that small furrow still between his brows. And then his whole face smooths, emotion flickering lightning-fast through his eyes. Once, he might have been able to read them all. Once he had been nearly as good at deciphering Wangji’s thoughts as Xichen is. He is not anymore, but he can still see the confusion that shines in his nephew’s eyes, followed by realization, and finally…hope?
Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, glances between the two of them, his mouth pulling into a frown as he comes to his own conclusions. Perhaps Lan Qiren will not have to actually say it out loud, after all.
“Wait...you want Lan Zhan to take over the class? With all his duties?” Wei Wuxian asks incredulously.
Lan Qiren sighs. “Do not be ridiculous, Wei Wuxian.”
Incredibly, Wei Wuxian only looks more confused. “Who then? You can’t possibly mean any of the juniors—I mean, our Sizhui would be wonderful in any capacity, naturally, but he’s far too young! Your Lan juniors are the best of the best, to be sure, but even their maturity has limits!”
For the second time in as many days, Lan Qiren is struck with the feeling that were he even a little less disciplined, his jaw would be hanging by its hinges. “You cannot possibly be this dense,” he says, before he thinks the better of it.
Wangji and Wei Wuxian speak at the same time, Wangji laying a quieting hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Wei Wuxian subsides, still looking mulish, indignant, and Lan Qiren passes a hand over his face. He is going to have to say it.
“You, Wei Wuxian. Myself, Lan Guihong, and Lan Fang all believe that you would be able to take over Lan Guihong’s duties.”
There is dead silence in the jingshi.
“If you are willing,” Lan Qiren continues, and reaches for his teacup the way a drowning man might reach for a lifeline. He takes a sip, and then another, his eyes fixed on the rim of the cup with dogged determination.
The silence continues. When Lan Qiren finally dares to look up, Wangji is simply sitting with his hands neatly folded in his lap. A smile adorns his face—a real, true smile, the kind Lan Qiren has not seen so openly in years. It has been far longer since such an expression was directed at him. Wangji meets his gaze squarely, that same hope lighting them. Hope, and happiness, and a warm gratitude that loosens something in Lan Qiren’s chest. Wei Wuxian…
Wei Wuxian is gaping at him. And he is certainly not disciplined enough to keep his jaw from dropping.
“I…you…me? You want me to take over the novice class? The novices?”
“Did you not enjoy working with them last week?” Wangji asks, reaching across the small distance between them to take his husband’s hand.
“What? Yes…yes, of course, they’re wonderful kids. But Lan Zhan! I can’t just—I mean…” Wei Wuxian snaps his mouth closed so hard his teeth click audibly, and takes a deep breath. “Master Lan, you hate me.”
The way he says it pulls Lan Qiren up short.
There is no anger in Wei Wuxian’s voice. Neither is there sadness, nor even resignation. He says it so simply. As though Lan Qiren’s hatred is something he should take as his due…is simply a fact. The sky is blue, water is wet, Wei Wuxian is hated by the man who raised his husband from childhood. A year ago, it might even have been true.
A year ago, he did not know the things he does now. He had not seen the things he has seen, and listened to the people he’s listened to over the past few days.
One must always strive for honesty in all things. Most particularly with oneself. “I do not care for you. Not in the way that I always thought I would care for the person my nephew chose to spend his life with.” He sets his teacup down carefully, more for the few seconds it gives him to gather his thoughts than any fear of breaking it. “But I cannot lay the blame for that entirely at your feet.”
Wei Wuxian startles at that, meeting Lan Qiren’s eyes in shock. He squares his shoulders, his grip on Wangji’s hand tightening. “You are well within your rights to hate me,” he says, still in that same even, factual tone. It is perhaps the most serious he has ever seen the man—there is no hint of laughter in his face, now.
They sit there, the three of them, the weight of the past pressing down on them, and Lan Qiren suddenly sees all the ways that this can go stretching out before him. All the ways he can simply withdraw from this, and let things go back to the way they’ve been for the past year. But he can also see all the ways that they can go forward. The ways they can finally, finally drain wounds that have been festering for decades.
“I do not hate you, Wei Wuxian.” He cannot hate someone that Wangji loves so dearly. That Lan Sizhui loves so dearly. Not and still be worthy of their love in return. “And I do not wish to be at odds with you.”
Wei Wuxian barks out a disbelieving laugh. “So you decided to ask me to teach your junior…er…juniors?”
“I decided to ask you to teach the novice class because you are the best person we can currently ask.” It only stings a little to admit that truth out loud. He may be getting better at this. “The children are already fond of you. Lan Fang and Lan Sizhui cannot find fault with your instructional abilities. If you do not wish to—”
“I…I didn’t say that,” Wei Wuxian interrupts, and there is something as fragile as spun glass in his voice. “But...”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says finally, drawing Wei Wuxian’s attention to him. He holds his husband’s gaze for a moment, and another silent conversation unfolds between the two of them. After a moment, Wei Wuxian dips his head, closing his eyes briefly.
“If you are sure, Master Lan…then, yes.” His voice goes quiet, hesitant in a way that Lan Qiren has never heard from him before. “This one would be honored to take over the novice class.”
Lan Qiren lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he’s been holding, suddenly as tired as if he’s been doing sword drills all day. He feels wrung out, his nerves scraped raw—and yet there is something inside him that feels suddenly lighter.
“Excellent,” he says, and finds that he means it. “Then I will expect you at the healer’s pavilion during tomorrow’s study period so that you may be formally introduced to Lan Guihong. He will consult with you during the transition, help make sure everything goes smoothly. If all goes well, you may begin next week. Do keep in mind that classes in the Cloud Recesses begin at seven.” There is much to discuss, and even more to arrange, but he has taken enough of their time for the evening. No doubt they will have much to discuss between themselves.
They both rise to see him out when he takes his leave. He does not think he is imagining that Wangji bids him good night more warmly than he has in months. Wei Wuxian bows to him respectfully, but pauses as he straightens.
“Master Lan,” he says, and Lan Qiren never thought he might actually miss the impertinence Wei Wuxian usually addresses him with. But this seriousness does not quite suit him, all the more so because Lan Qiren suspects the reasons behind it are extremely complicated…and painful. “Thank you for this opportunity. For trusting me with it. I will endeavor to be worthy of that trust.”
Lan Qiren rather thinks this is as close to a peace offering as either of them are capable of at this point in time. He nods. “See that you do,” he says. With only a fraction of his usual brusqueness.
He turns and begins walking up the path that will take him back to his own quarters, his breath frosting in the air, fresh snow crunching under his boots, his heart feeling less burdened than it has in years.
“Wait, classes start at what time?!” Wei Wuxian’s voice suddenly rings out in the evening stillness of the Cloud Recesses, indignation and dismay dripping from every word.
And if Lan Qiren chuckles to himself as he keeps walking, well. That’s no one’s business but his own.