Here is an afternoon in a new world, in a same-old same-old world—in a world where Wei Wuxian is alive, which still feels like it falls somewhere between clerical error and sinister plot, and is also two times cursed, which seems about right, really. Here is a street and a conversation and a piece of concern spoken aloud that twinges through Wei Wuxian as uncomfortably as all these dark pieces of magic. No, don’t be concerned—we were having so much fun—
“How do I prove I’m fine?” he asks, mischief dancing in his very heart despite it all. That part feels pretty good. “Should I strip and let you see?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and just like that, Wei Wuxian has lost the script entirely.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says, faltering as Lan Zhan’s hand catches at his elbow. He grasps for a response, any response, words that can meet the bright intensity of Lan Zhan’s eyes on his. “You said you trusted me, remember—”
Lan Zhan’s expression flickers. His fingers tighten. His mouth tightens.
“Don’t be foolish,” he says, voice low. “Wei Ying. You are not such a foolish person.”
The world moves around the points of Lan Zhan’s fingers on Wei Wuxian’s arm. Is this how it’s going to be, then? Lan Wangji, the beautiful Hanguang-Jun, lays hands on the terrifying Yiling patriarch, and everything slows—? How many times is it going to happen? What a joke—
Wei Wuxian can only laugh, and pretend ease. “Your grip’s too tight,” he says.
Lan Zhan makes a sound which from anyone else would be noncommittal, but it’s always a mistake to think Lan Zhan is less than committed to whatever he decides to get himself into, isn’t it. How troublesome. But his grip does, at least, loosen.
“An inn, first,” he says, letting his hand fall away.
“You’re not serious,” Wei Wuxian says. Laughs again, stuttering.
Lan Zhan, clearly, sees no need to dignify this with a response.
“Really, I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian protests, trailing after him, even as the part of his mind that can see himself doing the stupid thing but can’t stop it happening points out that if Lan Zhan really does examine the state of his body then the lie will be entirely too obvious.
His arm aches. His leg burns. Fuck everything.
But the day is clear and bright and not such a bad thing to be alive in and Lan Zhan’s impossible grace is hypnotic and—really, it’s not like Wei Wuxian has much to lose. So this bit of dignity is going out the window if he doesn’t put his foot down hard. Should he put his foot down hard?
Probably not. It might fall off, and he’s definitely going to need it.
Here is a room, clean and well-kept. No dust dances in the last of the sun. The sound of the town around them is quieted, held at a distance by a courtyard. Market stalls close for the evening, goods packed away. Others open. A woman laughs, joy unrestrained, from the room below. They have been here before, he and Lan Zhan, in this inn—Wei Wuxian turns the blade of that thought, with some effort. The rest of their company. Their ease. What followed.
Lan Zhan slides the doors closed. He covers the window. All things beyond them fall away.
“Show me, Wei Ying,” he says, and he doesn’t even have enough mercy to make it sound like an order.
“Yeah, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, settling on a pouting tone. “You really won’t cut me any slack, will you. Such a cruel man.”
Lan Zhan just looks at him, eyes gentle enough in his still face to make Wei Wuxian feel a little bad, at least for half a breath.
He turns his own gaze away. He sets his hands to his belt. At the edge of his vision, something moves a little too sharply.
Lan Zhan’s hands cover his own.
Is there a tremor in them?
Yes—just a little. Just barely.
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protests, not at the touch but the unsteadiness. Lan Zhan can’t be unsteady. Not because of something maybe slightly stupid he did to himself. That doesn’t seem fair. “Don’t look like that.”
Lan Zhan’s hands fall away again. He doesn’t move back. Just watches how Wei Wuxian loosens laces, slides off layers, down to his inner robe, nothing below it. Reaches out again only then.
Wei Wuxian lets his hands fall to his sides. Lan Zhan’s knuckles brush the skin of his good thigh as that layer is twitched aside, to the knee, then higher. The ties slip loose entirely. Both their breath catches at once. Lan Zhan’s hand fists in fabric.
“So much,” he says, looking at the dark spread of magic which stretches, on one leg, nearly up to Wei Wuxian’s hip. “And your arm?”
“The same as it was,” Wei Wuxian says. “Promise.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes slide from his hip towards his arm. Catch somewhere around his heart. Ah, Lan Zhan is branded, Wei Wuxian remembers with an unnameable flutter under his ribs. Just there, just where Wei Wuxian himself—
“You said your body would burn the rest of that curse out,” Lan Zhan says, without lifting his gaze.
“It should have,” Wei Wuxian says. “I wasn’t lying, Lan Zhan.” He touches his own arm uneasily. Wonders if maybe his various ailments aren’t playing nicely together. Typical.
And then Lan Zhan kneels, and Wei Wuxian, abruptly, knows just how the scene looks—his open robe, Lan Zhan’s hand on his hip—
“Don’t,” he says, throat tight at the thought of Lan Zhan realising it too, of Lan Zhan’s embarrassment, what look might be on his face before he turned it away. “Wait, wait, I don’t mean—just let me sit.”
Lan Zhan looks up at him through the dark sweep of his lashes. His eyes track Wei Wuxian as he steps back. Sits.
His hands, when he reaches out again, are cool on Wei Wuxian’s hot cracked skin. His power laps through Wei Wuxian’s leg in slow blue waves.
His fingers are so tense. Wei Wuxian knows bone and sinew, the way bodies hold together and come apart below the skin. He looks at Lan Zhan’s hands and sees those delicate lines stretched tight. He has the reckless urge to take hold of them and smooth them out.
Ah, well. He’s never been a healer.
“Stubborn thing,” Lan Zhan says to himself, and Wei Wuxian feels caught out, unsure in what. Ah, but he’s talking about the magic, which hasn’t receded through any of his efforts. That’s all. “Wei Ying, am I hurting you?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says, truthfully.
Lan Zhan measures that truth. Ducks his head, the minutest movement. “But it does hurt.”
Wei Wuxian treats this with the shrug it deserves.
“It’s stopped spreading,” he says instead.
“I’m going to buy medicine,” Lan Zhan says—Lan Zhan, who cannot know the resonance of those words. “Just wait—Wei Ying?”
“Send for it instead,” Wei Wuxian says. “Pay someone from the inn. They’ll do anything for Hanguang-Jun.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan repeats, softer. “What is it?”
Wei Wuxian’s nails are digging into the delicate fabric of Lan Zhan’s sleeve, snagging at it. He lets go quickly. He feels, for a moment, quite as insane as Mo Xuanyu was said to be, or as the Yiling Patriarch. He is unravelled in time. He is too bare. He is not bare enough, because Lan Zhan can’t know all of this simply by looking at him, and he’d really rather let Lan Zhan sort out the mess of his thoughts and tell him what was what than try to do it himself.
“Don’t hide from me,” Lan Zhan says. “There is no need. There never was.”
His fingers brush Wei Wuxian’s hair back from his face, graze over his cheekbone. He pulls Wei Wuxian’s robe closed and smooths out its front, delicately fussy in his movements. His eyes are on his own hands, and not—
“I just remembered something,” Wei Wuxian says. “From a long time ago. That’s all.”
But he has a sense of near-memory, too—or perhaps near-understanding. Of something disturbing the water of his mind. Don’t hide from me. The tightness of fingers. The tremble of lips. The violent grave-deep certainty that if Lan Zhan leaves him he will die, which has none of the feeling of prescience and all of the feeling of memory relived, without any of its context. A mirage, of some sort. A fragment of some other thing or place.
There is a way that Lan Zhan looks at him which makes him feel that something ought to be slotting into place in his mind—
“What did you remember?” Lan Zhan asks.
Opening his mouth to see what will come out, Wei Wuxian finds truth. The way that it rained. Heavy boots on paving slabs, sheathed weapons clanking. His sleeping sister abandoned.
Another inn, waiting to be met. Blood and fire.
It doesn’t in any way add up to an explanation, not really. There are vast silences at the core of it—hah! But Lan Zhan takes it in. The parts of it which have floated to the surface, which spill out.
“Don’t think I’ve gone around worrying all this time,” he says, at Lan Zhan’s expression. “No, really! I don’t know why, just now . . .”
He catches at Lan Zhan’s hand after all, impulsive. Rubs his thumbs across it until the joints loosen, watching it uncurl into his touch with satisfaction.
He only looks up when Lan Zhan makes a quiet slightly stifled noise, wondering why—catches up with his own body—sees, just for a moment—
They watch each other, frozen. Lan Zhan is flushed so delicately pink—but he meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes—he doesn’t turn away—doesn’t even remove his hand. Not even that.
“Wei Ying,” he says, and it both is and isn’t a question.
“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says. “You—”
—want me. It can’t be right. Not Hanguang-Jun.
But the flick of Lan Zhan’s eyelashes says—
Their joined hands twist together, clumsy. Lan Zhan swallows hard. There is something desperate in his eyes, something closer to wild than Wei Wuxian has ever seen on him, outside of those very worst times. No cliff-edge here, he thinks, flippant to a fault, and then feels just how untrue that is.
Oh, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—you already knew, going to your knees like that—
The feeling that surges in Wei Wuxian is a strange and protective one. “Lan Zhan,” he breathes, and thinks, a little wild himself, that he’d be willing to fight absolutely anyone who dared to make Lan Zhan feel badly about this desire, incomprehensible as it is. And oh, Lan Zhan is trembling a little between Wei Wuxian’s hands. Wei Wuxian is probably going to have to start by kicking his own ass. What’s new there.
But the world still exists. A knock at the door, a tray of food brought in. Lan Zhan, standing to receive it, murmurs the request for medicine. Money changes hands. He looks so exquisitely poised. As though he wasn’t, just moments before—
So many things feel like a dream to Wei Wuxian these days.
His leg doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get worse. Lan Zhan feeds him power. Feeds him medicinal tea which makes Wei Wuxian think of dim dusty places that want him dead, but in a nice way. He makes it his business to be a gossip while he’s being forced to rest, which he’s very good at. He tries to work out what the fuck he feels about anything that’s happening to him, which he isn’t.
A day of inaction. Two. He climbs the walls. He makes demands. None of the demands are even in the general region of kiss me, although the words have taken root in his mind, are presenting themselves to him over and over for consideration. Is this something I’m feeling?
Am I just curious about what it is to be wanted—?
He sits on the bed, leg stretched out across Lan Zhan’s lap.
“Your spiritual energy is,” Lan Zhan begins, a question in the words.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “This body’s like that. It already was before this curse. It’s not a big deal.”
Now there are more questions in Lan Zhan’s face.
“Don’t look like that,” Wei Wuxian protests, in what has become a familiar refrain. “I can manage it. I’m more worried about the other thing. Just sitting around here while it gets impatient. We should move on.”
They both glance to his arm. To the pouch Lan Zhan keeps close, its occupant too growing more impatient by the day.
“Not if walking will do more damage,” Lan Zhan says sternly.
“Get a wheelbarrow!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, remembering those fondly murderous dark places again. “I used to make—ah, never mind that. But I’ll be the pile of vegetables and you can cart me around like a farmer. Then people will really have something to stare at.”
Lan Zhan gives him a very long look, and Wei Wuxian finds he’s biting his own lip against laughter—and then he sees how Lan Zhan’s eyes go to his mouth—
Kiss me, he thinks, and laughter escapes him, uncontrollable, not because the idea of asking Lan Zhan to kiss him is absurd so much as because it not being absurd is the most absurd thing possible.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says in gasps, into the back of his hand. “Look, you see, I’m obviously fine.”
“I don’t see,” Lan Zhan says, with complete serenity, and digs his fingers into damaged flesh in a way that makes Wei Wuxian yelp and try to twist away—but Lan Zhan’s other hand is very tight indeed on his thigh.
Something comes loose.
Pain wells, a surge that punches through the every day limits of well, something always hurts—
“What,” Wei Wuxian gasps. “What—fuck—“
Lan Zhan holds out his hand.
A fragment of something lies on his fingers, pale and resentful. Wei Wuxian squints at it, focuses past the throb of his leg. A lost thing, a broken thing, following along on the tails of another’s power—nothing that had been in Jin Ling’s body, surely—something in the forest—?
“Could have just asked for my attention,” he mutters, well aware that he’s being snide to a piece of dead magic and entirely beyond caring—and, meeting Lan Zhan’s slightly startled expression: “What?”
Lan Zhan dismisses the question. Not quite a shake of the head, even. The implication of one, as he hands Wei Wuxian this find and runs his fingertips over Wei Wuxian’s leg, checking for anything more. He’s so very attentive, isn’t he. That slight furrowing of brows. The seriousness of his mouth—distinguishable, somehow, from a dozen other inflections. In only a more or less standard amount of pain again, Wei Wuxian can appreciate it. Can wonder what it would actually feel like, to have Lan Zhan’s fingers on him without that air of concern—to have them drawn over ordinary, feeling skin.
No use, no use. Not right now. At any moment Lan Zhan will probably do something necessary and sharp again, and he really doesn’t need to keep mixing his own private signals like this.
He slides his focus carefully back, away from Lan Zhan, to what exactly it is that he holds. What are you, my friend—what are you?
The glassy quality of hard-burnt bone or of fine porcelain. It would chime against itself, given a companion. Is meant to, perhaps—? A hole through it—one surface curved and carved, another shorn flat—a bead, broken?
Another twist of Lan Zhan’s fingers, and he nearly drops it in the process of his reflexive flinch.
Lan Zhan hands him its companion.
They chime against each other. Wei Wuxian laughs softly, and holds them deliberately separate. No, he doesn’t care for them at all, whatever they are.
“Ouch, Lan Zhan,” he protests at the third burst of pain. “I’ve really had way more fun than this in bed.”
Lan Zhan looks at him, and it’s a question again, but Wei Wuxian has hit the point of feeling notably less in control of his mouth than usual, and opts, cautiously, to experiment with not opening it.
“I believe that was all of it,” Lan Zhan says, after a moment. He’s reaching for salve, spreads it carefully over Wei Wuxian’s leg. Yes, he really is very attentive. So proper in it. And still walking some deeply improper line. It’s fascinating. “Do you know what it is?”
“Hmm,” he says. Frowns. He should, he thinks. But . . .
“We’ll look into it,” Lan Zhan says, as Wei Wuxian drops the beads into a pouch, suppressing them.
That we has no right to sit so warmly in Wei Wuxian’s chest. Yes, we, you idiot. You’re already working together.
Kiss me, he thinks, experimentally, and he doesn’t know how he looked as he thought it, but he hears Lan Zhan’s breath—catch. Just slightly.
They look at each other. The pain recedes. Keeps receding.
Ah. Yeah. That still feels nice. Lan Zhan’s hand, just there, above his knee, cool with power—a soft echo of cold springs and mountain air. And if he let the power seep away, leaving just warm skin? Slid it upward?
He tips his head back and suppresses whatever noise his throat wants to uncage. Closes his eyes. Unfortunately, he can feel his leg rather better now.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, and then nothing else. The pressure of his hand eases—he’s going to pull it away—stand up and do something infuriatingly sensible.
“Don’t go,” Wei Wuxian blurts, which is exactly why he was trying out not speaking, and why he absolutely should have stuck to it.
Lan Zhan’s hand pauses. His fingertips stay pressed to Wei Wuxian’s thigh. His hand is so still that Wei Wuxian’s breathing creates a little drag of skin on skin, his body shifting against that static point.
“Is something wrong?” Lan Zhan asks. Tension in his face, in his words, in his body.
Oh, what the fuck, Wei Wuxian thinks, and pushes himself up all in an awkward rush into Lan Zhan’s lap, and—doesn’t kiss him, hesitancy catching him again. Lan Zhan’s lips are parted slightly, his eyes wide. Wei Wuxian isn’t comfortable, precisely, still hurt as he is, however much they’ve managed to improve things. But shifting away again seems like an idiot move when staying where he is means can see the slightest movements of Lan Zhan’s eyes—feel his breathing. Against his mouth. Against his chest.
It makes Wei Wuxian want—
Under his fingers, Lan Zhan’s lips are very soft.
Lan Zhan’s whole body shudders, a single hard tremor. He makes a soft stricken noise.
“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian says. He lets his fingers trail down, over jaw, over throat, to the notch between collar bones, just above the perfectly smooth fold of Lan Zhan’s robes. “It’s alright, Lan Zhan. Do whatever.”
He thinks of being thrown down onto the bed. He thinks of being held in place. He thinks of hunger. He thinks of not needing to think.
“Get off me,” Lan Zhan says. Sharp as a slap.
Which of them looks more horrified, in the ringing silence?
“Don’t be foolish,” Lan Zhan says, softer, and pushes Wei Wuxian gently away, and stands. “We should eat.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, reaching for the rest of his clothes, and thinks: how fucked up am I, exactly? Pretending it could just be that easy.
Here is an evening meant for rest: a window pushed open to let in fresh air. Good food, strong wine. Melancholy memories strung like beads along the thread of Wei Wuxian’s thoughts, chiming softly together.
A drink for all the people he can never meet again. A drink for every bridge cast down behind him. A drink for lost things.
How impossible the world is to know.
Lan Zhan takes the wine, and pours it, and drinks, and it happens both very fast and very slowly—and Wei Wuxian, staring at him, feels maybe six distinct impulses to reaction, which means, predictably, that he ends up laughing in disbelief even as he thinks: well, that’s definitely my fault.
It becomes one of the stranger nights of his life.
Lan Zhan, drunk and at best tenuously connected to anything like inhibition, still doesn’t kiss him.
“But you’re thinking about kissing me,” Wei Wuxian says, a little bit petulantly, as he pours water, Lan Zhan having been herded back to their room at last. Somewhere, some chickens are having at least as weird a night as Wei Wuxian is. For Wen Ning, at least, it probably hasn’t even made his top ten weirdest nights. Poor kid.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. His blush isn’t the delicate thing Wei Wuxian put on his face the other day. Rather it takes up most of his face, including his ears. It spreads down his neck. “I’m always thinking about kissing Wei Ying.”
“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian says. The way Lan Zhan says his name shivers through him. Burns silver. “Less thinking, Lan Zhan! More doing!”
But it’s a strictly theoretical protest, to Wei Wuxian’s deep personal regret. Lan Zhan is absolutely at the stage of being drunk where he can’t remember how to use a cup, let alone his own limbs. And, after all, Wei Wuxian swore to himself—nobody is allowed to make Lan Zhan feel ashamed of wanting what he wants. He should be nice. He’s just not very good at it, that’s the problem.
He does his best. Tucks Lan Zhan into bed, feeling absurdly unqualified.
“I am still thinking about kissing you,” Lan Zhan says, and falls asleep.
“Great,” Wei Wuxian mutters. “Great. That’s so helpful.”
But Lan Zhan’s face is sweetly soft in rest, and Wei Wuxian really can’t be that mad about it.
And then there is the sick horror of Yi City.
There are people who allow things to remain unspoken, until it’s too late to speak at all. Every part of it is too cruel, the whole business saw-toothed and rusty and slick with darkness. This is not the memory of the Burial Mounds as his reluctant friends, but of the Burial Mounds that grasped at him with clawed unloving hands. He wrenches the memory down. It resurfaces. He wrenches it down.
Shorn-through bone beads long to chime in a pouch at his belt. Dead things, a dead city. Is he only surrounded by things and people looking for home? They should know better than to try and use him to find it, if so. His homes burn. They bleed. They lock themselves against him.
This mood doesn’t suit him.
He wrenches it down.
He can feel, though, how the anxiety of that place has a hold on Lan Zhan, poised as he is throughout. How it lingers in him. Past battles and burials and exhumations. While they sit to eat, outside the walls but in sight of them, because Lan Zhan insists that he can see how Wei Wuxian is swaying on his feet—or implies it strongly.
He is, truly, mostly healed now. But he’s also—yes, admit it—beyond exhausted. That must be why he can’t get Song Lan’s face out of his head. His gratitude. To have such a fragment left to him, of someone beloved.
What fragment of me were you looking for, Lan Zhan—?
An uneasy juxtaposition.
He thinks of the dangers of things unsaid, things undone. But he doesn’t want Lan Zhan to kiss him here. Not so close to corpse powder and grief. Not even if he knew how to make it happen. So they eat, subdued. They lay out the pieces of bone. They try them, this way and that. Coax at them with inquiry, nudge with talismans.
There is something about these I should remember, he thinks, over and over. There is something familiar. But he can’t grasp it. Bad memory indeed.
Memory, memory. A child runs through a town, begging for toys. Hardly more than a child himself he paints a lantern, and Lan Zhan looks at him and—
That man holds so much softness, doesn’t he. So much more than Wei Wuxian ever could. Enough softness to let him want someone like Wei Wuxian—although it’s possible, horrifyingly, that he doesn’t want to want him. Get off me, he said—
They buy a lantern, painted with a rabbit. Wei Wuxian’s heart hammers stupidly in his chest, and he thinks of the soft body of one of the real white rabbits in his hands, the frantic pace of its pulse. He thinks of all the things he might have already been saying, without knowing it, in that dream of a life.
He wants, wants, wants to be kissed. He’s decided. He’s sure. Oh, does he ever want to be kissed—he’s never wanted to be kissed like this. He’s never been consumed with the idea. Distracted by it. He’s been curious. He’s teased. Implied. None of that is anything like watching the movement of Lan Zhan’s lips as he speaks and barely hearing the words they form.
But what exactly would he even do with himself, if he asked and then—
The world continues and continues and his mind keeps pace but his emotions lag, still caught in fondness as they speak with Lan Xichen, still frustrated as he makes his way upstairs. He forgets to grow even briefly shaky over being known until Lan Zhan has appeared holding wine—how often now he brings Wei Wuxian wine. Wei Wuxian sits, and watches the self-evident air with which Lan Zhan serves him. A respectful politeness and an intimate domesticity at once. As though for him it really is this easy, as though he couldn’t possibly want more than to sit across a table from Wei Wuxian in stillness.
Lan Xichen comes and leaves. It scratches at Wei Wuxian’s mind a little, how obvious it seems to Zewu-Jun that if Wei Wuxian is in the world then he will be found beside Hanguang-Jun. Of his quiet reproach, he seems to have reserved none for that.
Wei Wuxian lays out the beads again on the table between them, in the wake of Lan Xichen’s departure. He traces his finger over them. For all they were making a mess of his leg, isolated like this they don’t hold much of a sense of malice, although they’re not exactly going to win any prizes for friendliness either. They should be brown, he thinks, from nowhere. That’s one of the things that’s stopping him from placing them. They’re the wrong colour, turned funereal. He frowns, leans closer. Taps the table beside them thoughtfully. Who are you, who are you . . . ? If he could just make out the pattern on them better, where the surface is intact, then maybe . . .
He glances up, meaning to ask for Lan Zhan’s opinion. But Lan Zhan is looking at him.
“What?” he asks.“I guess I look like I’m—oh.”
That isn’t an expression of judgement. Of slight confusion, maybe, but also—
“You look intent,” Lan Zhan says. He looks down at his own hands. “It’s good to see.”
“Good,” Wei Wuxian echos slowly.
Lan Zhan looks back up at him, eyes only, head still bowed. Through those lashes. Oh, not fair.
“Good,” he agrees. Hesitates. “More than that.”
Wei Wuxian very deliberately puts each bead back in the pouch, and puts the pouch back in its place. He tries to think. About anything—about the schemes they’re caught in—about any of the things that’re happening outside them—about Lan Zhan. To really think, instead of letting the flip of his stomach disorient him.
Things left unsaid, and regrets, he thinks. Song Lan’s retreating back, alone. Lan Zhan searching and searching.
Oh, he should know better than this, his mind decides, sharp. But his heart doesn’t know better. It resists and kicks.
“Wei Ying—?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Why don’t you just kiss me?” Wei Wuxian blurts. “You want to. Why don’t you?”
Lan Zhan stills. Did Wei Wuxian think he sat in stillness before? He becomes a statue now.
“Do you wish me to?” he asks, so quietly that Wei Wuxian’s blood in his veins nearly drowns it.
“Didn’t I just say so?”
Lan Zhan’s face does something subtle and terrifying, like he’s just understood an aspect of Wei Wuxian that Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he could happily have gone two or three lifetimes without anyone knowing.
“No,” he says, and for a moment breathing is impossible. And then he says: “You didn’t.”
This is a high edge. Or this is deep water. Wei Wuxian is unbalanced, fumbling.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, haltingly, as though they’re the only words he knows which matter.
An empty cup clatters from the edge of the table, caught by the sweep of Lan Zhan’s sleeve as he moves, hurried—and that, more than anything—that improbable carelessness—tells Wei Wuxian that they are two living bodies in a room, wanting each other—
“You shouldn’t,” he says, breathless in the shocking circle of Lan Zhan’s arms, plunged below the surface of the clean soap and incense smell of him. Drowning. Terrified, not for himself but— “You shouldn’t want me. You can’t. People don’t. Lan Zhan. I’m no kind of person to—think about your—”
He is shocked into silence.
Lan Zhan’s lips are hot and soft and barely, barely, barely there—he presses close and holds himself so delicately in check, breath shivering, eyes closed—and when he breathes out, Wei Wuxian breathes in—drowning, drowning, drowning.
Nothing for him to do but break against Lan Zhan. A noise that belongs to some wounded wild thing, which maybe he is after all. Every meagre part of his spirit surges.
Lan Zhan’s hand buries itself in his hair.
For a moment, the way he deepens the kiss is tentative—tilting Wei Wuxian’s head to allow it, leaning, fumbling—they shudder together, twin gasps lost in each other’s throats—and then Wei Wuxian opens helplessly—kindles—he is full of old dry brush, sixteen years dead, and it only takes the lightning-strike brilliance of Lan Zhan’s touch to turn him into a thing of fire and smoke.
He clings, his hands fisted in the front of Lan Zhan’s robes. He feels unlike himself. He feels perfectly and completely himself. There’s no air. There’s air for the first time since the fall.
I’m meant to be able to make a joke, he thinks hazily. But Lan Zhan holds him with all of his quiet beautiful strength—and all Wei Wuxian can do, humiliatingly, is sob with what is mostly relief, and let Lan Zhan swallow his sobs down.
Lan Zhan’s mouth leaves his with another little gasp, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t hold in his own protest if he had wanted to, already anticipating the cold separation of bodies. But Lan Zhan only folds him close, pulls them together, tucks Wei Wuxian’s head against his shoulder. Strokes shaking fingers slowly over his scalp.
Wei Wuxian is still burning, hot with need. He breathes every breath in little half-sobs.
He’s getting the shoulder of Lan Zhan’s robes wet. They’re already pulled askew, the layers lying unevenly against his cheek, and now he’s crying on them because—because what?
If it just hadn’t happened like that, he thinks. If Lan Zhan just hadn’t begun by seeing him. By laying bare one of his most treasured conceits. Ah, well, Lan Zhan can see another part of him now, then—the hungry unbalanced part he always warned Wei Wuxian about, manifesting. The part that shakes itself to pieces when it gets too close to satisfaction. Food in the teeth of dogs.
“Shall I play for you?” Lan Zhan asks, low and serious, as though he too isn’t strung out with desire, guqin-taut. Wei Wuxian can feel it, the ligament strings of him. His body has asked a different question altogether, shivers with it. And it’s all so stupidly much, Lan Zhan is so stupidly himself, that Wei Wuxian’s helpless gasping sobs become helpless gasping laughter, and he shakes harder, and he forgets, for a hysterically blissful moment, what exactly he was thinking about at all.
There was only ever one answer to the question of Lan Zhan’s body pressed to his, and the part of him that remains in control at the heart of this burning storm finds it. Passes it back to Lan Zhan in a hard kiss, teeth on lips, his arms tight around Lan Zhan’s neck.
Roughness, finally, quiets him.
He tastes blood on his lip, and it doesn’t entirely matter whose it is. It’s real, harsh, sweetly undeniable.
Lan Zhan’s thumb smooths it away. He looks at Wei Wuxian. He could nearly be calm, but his eyes have turned so dark, and the colour is so very high in his cheeks—as high as if he were drunk.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “You like kissing me.”
“And Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks. It shouldn’t be possible for him to be so stern, tangled together with Wei Wuxian like this, every part of his clothes but his headband a mess. Wei Wuxian reaches up to touch it. Pushes it gently with a fingertip. Just slightly crooked. So.
He could swear Lan Zhan smiles. Just a little.
“I might think it was acceptable,” he says, playing with a hint of Lan Zhan’s voice, because he doubts his own would hold, and he doesn’t need another round of excessive—everything. “Do it again. To see.”
Lan Zhan’s fingers are warm against the underside of his jaw, and relentlessly firm in guiding his head back. Oh, Lan Zhan, noticing right away what calmed him—
His fingertips dig in lightly, and then more firmly. Catch Wei Wuxian, tell him where he’s meant to be.
His mouth is soft, and something like tender, his movements slow and deliberate. And still his kiss demands. Deepens. Lan Zhan’s attention is devouring, and Wei Wuxian opens to it. Offers, to be taken. Here is a brush of lips that shoots sparks along his limbs, that flares new awareness to life in his hands and his feet. Here, and his chest tightens painfully only to be loosened again by heat. Lan Zhan touches a hand to Wei Wuxian’s waist and Wei Wuxian aches, a specific ache, twisting between his legs. Hardening him. It pushes his hips reflexively forward, seeking. Lan Zhan’s teeth scrape over his lip, and this time the jolting seeking feeling is whole-body.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan breathes, brushing a shaky kiss to the corner of his mouth as punctuation. “May I take you to bed?”
“So formal,” Wei Wuxian complains, to buy space, to settle the wild fluttering of his soul. No settling his body, which rocks in tiny urgent movements against Lan Zhan’s. He lets it. Lan Zhan, hand on the hollow of his spine, guides him a little, encourages him to settle his weight so— a little hiss of breath as their cocks press together, even with layers and layers between. Hardness to hardness.
But beyond that, Lan Zhan only watches him. Waits.
“Lan Zhan can have me on the floor right now,” Wei Wuxian says. “If it pleases him.”
Don’t make me say it more properly than that—please, Lan Zhan—
Lan Zhan’s gaze is heavy on him. Wei Wuxian sees understanding find him again, which is perhaps even more terrifying than the alternative, but also hot and perfect and an improbable gift from the world and maybe the heavens.
Wei Wuxian gives him a lopsided smile. Slides a hand between them. Touches his fingers to the outline of Lan Zhan’s cock. Feels it twitch.
“Lan Zhan could have me anywhere,” he says quietly, burning again. “Whenever he cared to.”
“That might be often,” Lan Zhan says, very carefully. “In many places.”
And Wei Wuxian has to kiss him. Has no answer but that, again. Isn’t Lan Zhan meant to be the one who struggles to speak?
He is pressed down onto the floor. Lan Zhan’s pale robes frame them, filter the light. Lan Zhan’s hair spills forward—the dark winter waters of the Cloud Recesses tumble into a pool around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. Lan Zhan rolls his hips down, drags body against body. Covers Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his own to muffle Wei Wuxian’s strangled cry.
He holds himself up on one hand. With one hand, undoes belts and laces and ties. Parts layers. Wei Wuxian’s clothing is mercifully compliant, because Wei Wuxian himself doesn’t feel in much of a state to do more than pant with arousal. To chase Lan Zhan’s lips when he draws away.
Footsteps in the hall. Hanguang-Jun—the rap of knuckles on wood.
Wei Wuxian tips his head back against the floor with a heavy thud which makes Lan Zhan wince.
“We are busy, Sizhui,” he calls. He sits back, looks down at Wei Wuxian, who feels more exposed in the open tangle of his robes than he would were he entirely naked. They share a silent prayer for patience. “Is it urgent?”
Silence for a beat. Mercifully, Sizhui is too well-raised to open the door without permission. “No, I just—your lantern.”
“Take care of it for me until tomorrow,” Lan Zhan says. Pulls himself to his feet. Wei Wuxian counts carefully to ten in his head instead of crying out in protest, and pulls out a pair of talismans, crumpled and warm from the hurried press of bodies—flings them, with perhaps unnecessary force, at doors and window, where they stick, shivering irritably.
Lan Zhan picks up the cup he overbalanced, and places it very exactly on its tray. He collects those belongings which Wei Wuxian has managed to scatter around the table and puts them neatly away.
Wei Wuxian slowly catches his breath, although he’d very much prefer not to have the chance. Is this it? Spell broken, time to cover himself and laugh it off—?
Lan Zhan leans over him, holds out a hand. A small smile, but a definite one.
“It should be the bed after all,” he says, and then Wei Wuxian is laughing again, yes, feeling Lan Zhan’s strength as he’s hauled up, and it isn’t the uneven laughter he’d been anticipating. Lan Zhan is just—funny.
Lanterns burn evenly. The cold silver of Lan Zhan’s hairpiece burnishes, warms. He slides the pins from it. Lifts it loose. The neat cross-folded sections of his hair that twist around it slide free, frame his face more intimately, stroke his cheeks.
He looked like this when Wei Wuxian awoke in the Cloud Recesses.
His expression looked like this, even. So carefully still, but softened, a yearning pinned delicately there—waiting, too, to be unfastened. To slip loose into desire.
Wei Wuxian didn’t understand it, then. He gets it, maybe, now.
“You’re being so rigid again,” he says, stepping close. Feels the slow drag of Lan Zhan’s gaze across his bare skin, downward. Bites the inside of his lip, briefly. Swallows. “Are you afraid to damage your clothes if you rush? Because I already made a mess of your outer robe—right here.”
“Perhaps I am enjoying the anticipation,” Lan Zhan says, and it’s such a wild thrill to know this man well enough to tell when he’s being entirely full of shit. It’s such a thrill to know he isn’t the only one feeling almost too much to be able to act.
“Not enough days?” Wei Wuxian asks, smile sly, fingers shivering against fabric. “Should I give you a—“
Ah, and there’s motion—there’s Lan Zhan, his Lan Zhan, decisive once he’s found his moment—their fingers catch against each other in the rush to remove his clothes—his mouth is frantic, kissing Wei Wuxian on the jaw, the cheek, the lips. He crushes their bodies together and the hot shock of it staggers Wei Wuxian, makes him stumble back, hitting his legs against the edge of the bed.
How might he have imagined Lan Zhan would be, in this? It’s been a lifetime and more since Wei Wuxian was foolish enough to find him unfeeling. But he might have imagined—say—a deliberate restraint held throughout. An unyielding precision which could not be provoked into open passion. Ah, but he’s always been able to provoke Lan Zhan . . .
Lan Zhan grasps for him and it’s more than open passion—say desperation. Say need. His hands are so tight in Wei Wuxian’s hair that it hurts, and he kisses him so hard that Wei Wuxian might forget how to breathe, and Wei Wuxian urges him on, grabs at him in turn. They don’t so much sink onto the bed as collapse, wood protesting sharply, neatly folded bedding not entirely cushioning Wei Wuxian’s back, but why should he care about that? No reason at all, when he’s pushing the last of Lan Zhan’s clothes carelessly off his arms and kicking them away onto the floor and Lan Zhan isn’t even pretending to protest.
Scar tissue is startling under his fingers. He’s seen it, oh, yes. But where it looks like a series of harsh lines crossing the skin of Lan Zhan’s back, to the touch it feels—torn, mangled. He must feel it all the time. It must tug and resist. Grow painful in dry air.
“Please,” Lan Zhan says, seeing Wei Wuxian’s face, whatever of his protective fury is visible there. “Please do not ask me. Not tonight. I—I cannot—“
Wei Wuxian flicks his eyes down in acknowledgement, flattens his palms against that precious once-broken skin. Parts his lips, begging silently to be kissed.
Hanguang-Jun, too beautiful to be true, scars and all—too aloof to be touched by the world even as he descends into it in chaos, no dust so impertinent as to cling to the hem of his robes—kisses Wei Wuxian’s twice-dead mouth, as though it could be everything he needs. The dull thick taste of the grave doesn’t lie between them. How can it not lie between them? But their kisses have only been wine-sweet, tea-bitter—are now not even that—taste of nothing but themselves. For years, Wei Wuxian’s life was thick with bone dust and dry blood—was that the dream, or is this? Has every part of him been a strange dream since that first shattering fall, when only the resentful dead were there to catch him—?
But Lan Zhan bites sharply on his lip and Wei Wuxian is thrown back into himself, into time and place and reality. Sobs into Lan Zhan’s mouth in gratitude, relief, need. To make space for Lan Zhan between his legs is worlds easier than remembering how to breathe—and then Lan Zhan’s knuckles stroke over his cock and he isn’t thinking any more, only choking on a cry, digging his fingers reflexively into Lan Zhan’s shoulders, pushing up into that touch. Lan Zhan’s other hand is under his head before he can crack it against the frame of the bed, cradling him. Wei Wuxian turns his head, presses his cheek into Lan Zhan’s wrist, where his pulse beats heavily. He shudders. Nips lightly, kisses the red mark he leaves.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, in such a small and awestruck voice, as though Wei Wuxian had been the one to touch him, and that makes Wei Wuxian remember he can.
Lan Zhan’s pulse feels even heavier against Wei Wuxian’s palm, through the delicate flushed skin of his cock, and Lan Zhan gasps, slumps forward, presses his face to Wei Wuxian’s neck as they touch each other. Bites kisses into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Twists his hand hard in Wei Wuxian’s hair. Wei Wuxian is made only of the places Lan Zhan touches. He is a series of anchor-points. There’s nothing else.
And then what there is becomes questions and answers, a touch and a nod, hips canted and a soft gasp. Wei Wuxian begs with his body, please, please, demand things. Lan Zhan’s oil-slick fingers feel strange and intrusive—and then they feel strange and intrusive and perfect—and pleasure is a flood is a sudden storm is an inferno is a landslide—
Lan Zhan makes small wordless noises of comfort against Wei Wuxian’s skin, but Wei Wuxian, stomach smeared with his own come, insides pulsing around Lan Zhan’s fingers, isn’t ready for comfort. Wraps his shaking legs around Lan Zhan. He can feel how much Lan Zhan wants him, how he’s holding himself, how he breathes. Just have me, Lan Zhan. Come on. Come on.
Lan Zhan’s hand is tight on his hip, and Wei Wuxian gasps, grabs for Lan Zhan as he loosens his hold—presses him back, fingers over fingers. Squeezes. Mouths fragments of what he wants, half-voiced. And Lan Zhan understands. Becomes immovable. Keeps Wei Wuxian fixed in place as he sinks inside him, as Wei Wuxian’s body jolts helplessly, so raw with sensation that his mind blurs. And against it all, there’s Lan Zhan’s mouth, which finds his—kisses him with a stuttering sweet care that he cannot just then remember to doubt that he deserves. He can only gasp Lan Zhan’s name, let it spill into endearment, into nonsense. Let all his words break into half-sobs as pleasure rises in him again, slower but not less overwhelming under the harsh pace of their movements. The bruising force of it all, all for him, to make him feel good . . . Lan Zhan shakes against him, and then it’s hard to tell which pieces of unsteadiness belong to who, and then Lan Zhan has stilled with a soft choked moan that manages, somehow, to cut through every one of Wei Wuxian’s cries.
They settle together. Wei Wuxian strokes his hands over Lan Zhan’s back, then wraps his arms around him, and closes his eyes, and re-learns at length how to breathe in this body of his, which feels sore and cared for and more alive than it ever has. Holds these still moments before his ordinary restlessness finds him again. It will—it always does. He may not have been touched by other hands before, but some things he does know. No lasting drowsy calm for him in the wake of pleasure.
Lan Zhan sighs against his neck, and Wei Wuxian feels so achingly and unbearably protective of him, of his warm and loose-limbed vulnerability as he lies tangled together on a bed with none other than the Yiling patriarch.
I wonder if there have been other people, he thinks idly. I hope there have been. I hope they were good to him. Poor solemn Lan Zhan, always seeming so lonely . . .
But it’s hard to imagine—even knowing how attentively Lan Zhan loves, knowing the skill with which he can take a person to just the place they need to be. With which he can take Wei Wuxian apart.
There’s already heat to the flash of memory. Lan Zhan’s fingers curling inside him, and the exact way Lan Zhan’s breath caught as they did.
He smiles to himself. Tucks Lan Zhan’s hair back from his face, smooths the backs of his fingers down Lan Zhan’s cheek. He knows, truly, that he’s no sort of man to take care of anyone. But if he can’t imagine who else Lan Zhan would allow, then maybe it’s alright, all the same, for him to be here.
“You said,” Lan Zhan murmurs, “that I could have you anywhere. Whenever I want.”
He did say that. Meant it.
“Too much?” he asks. “I’m a shameless creature, you know.”
Lan Zhan is silent, still. The whole building feels very quiet around them.
“No,” Lan Zhan says, at last. “Not too much. You are never too much.”
A hand laid over vibrating strings to quiet their unease.
Wei Wuxian exhales slowly. Still, still, still he has no script for this.
“That’s nice of you, Lan Zhan,” he says. “If untrue. I thought you didn’t lie.”
“There’s no lie,” Lan Zhan says. He reaches between them, lays his hand over Wei Wuxian’s heart. “You are never too much.”
“Nobody else would agree, you know,” Wei Wuxian says, as kindly as he can. Takes Lan Zhan’s hand. Kisses the knuckles.
“There is no other opinion I care to consider,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian feels for an uncertain moment that he could cry—has no idea what emotion would lie behind the tears.
“You should,” he says.
Lan Zhan kisses him, and all his reasons fall, for the moment, away.
Morning comes with diffuse light—clouds or mist flattening shadows, dulling. There is an argument happening somewhere—in the courtyard—familiar voices. Jin Ling really is just like his uncle, isn’t he—Wei Wuxian can’t hear the words, but he knows the tone. Knows the expression that goes with it.
The children’s problems will have to stay their problems, for now. He really doesn’t have the energy for it. They’re so—young. Make him think of too many lost things at once, when he’d rather think about, honestly, anything else.
His body hasn’t stopped feeling strange and new. His bruises are tender under his searching fingers in a way that makes him feel—is protected a strange feeling? Is protective?
Lan Zhan is already up, moving around the room. Wei Wuxian opens his eyes to slits, watches through his lashes as Lan Zhan moves in and out of his field of vision. Sees his hands as he bends down to pick up some fallen piece of clothing—ah, Wei Wuxian’s inner robe. Sees how he smooths the fabric carefully, as though it were worth anything like as much as his own.
Remembers with his whole body a hand drawn down his side, a soothing noise made against his throat. The bite of nails. A fullness.
Swallows and, shifting, sees Lan Zhan’s face. Sees how it’s softened, looking at something of Wei Wuxian’s.
Ah, he really shouldn’t let Lan Zhan attach himself like that—
But maybe he’s a little selfish.
“Hello,” he says, finding his throat scratchy after—how long did they spend in bed together, before they slept? Half the night.
Lan Zhan’s expression softens still further. Wei Wuxian’s chest feels over-full—feels like it’s opening and opening inside him, strange worlds beneath the arches of his ribs.
Yeah, a little selfish.
“I’ll call for water for a bath,” he says, pulling himself up out of the bed and taking his robe, and Lan Zhan nods, still wearing that soft smile, and Wei Wuxian’s mouth responds so easily that he barely notices it.
In all honesty, he felt a little bad, during the night, watching Lan Zhan sleep—feels sure it would have suited his fastidiousness better to bathe before and after, to have clean bedding and all the rest. Felt sure he’d wake to find Lan Zhan already perfectly composed again, maybe even a little stiff. But here he is, wearing only one layer, hair still gathered and pinned for sleep. Wei Wuxian’s hands placed it so. There are scratches on his neck—another hot jolt of memory. Scrabbling frantically to pull Lan Zhan in for a kiss—
“Ah,” he says, reaching out, ghosting his fingers over them. “These will show. I’m sorry.”
Lan Zhan swallows, and Wei Wuxian feels it against his fingertips. “I don’t mind,” he says.
“I do,” Wei Wuxian says. “How am I going to think straight? It’s not fair.”
Lan Zhan’s expression is amused, now, although the tips of his ears are just slightly, slightly pink. This is so reckless. It’s so stupidly reckless. The next generation of cultivators spent the night before arguing about the precise degree of Wei Wuxian’s villainy, which is fine, until someone figures out who exactly he is, and connects that fact to the particulars of his already idiosyncratic relationship with Hanguang-Jun, and Lan Zhan’s life goes to shit. Wei Wuxian is both a horror story to tell children and a pawn in an unknown but undeniably high-stakes plot, and here he is, all the same . . .
Attempt the impossible, huh, he thinks, with a twist of sudden painful longing for a time when those words belonged to him, just as something breaks in the courtyard, and Jin Ling says, entirely loud enough to be audible: “That was your fault.”
He drops his forehead against Lan Zhan’s shoulder with a gentle thud, huffing laughter, startled out of creeping melancholy. The world is the world, after all, he thinks. It continues.
Lan Zhan’s fingers are gentle in his hair.
Jin Ling is on his mind, all the same. Although the Lan sect juniors remain at the inn over the following days to investigate some local disturbances, Jin Ling departs, returning to the tower around which it seems likely this whole mess turns. There is a still space where he was at the tables where the juniors gather, a place in their conversations.
Wei Wuxian remembers the atmosphere of Jinlin Tower only as oppressive, in showy finery or in despair. Rather the cool stillness of Cloud Recesses, fifty thousand rules, meditation in a fucking cold spring—although the company he’s keeping may have skewed his opinion. There is no glad memory to be had from the lands of the Lanling Jin sect, though, is there? At best, there are moments of bitter satisfaction. Or: bitter satisfaction is the best he has retained. He’s been told often enough lately that his memory is bad—
All the same, all the same. He can wish to find the world better than he left it, but if it was better, there’d be no need for him to act as someone’s knife. If there was nothing wrong at the heart of Lanling, would he have been levelled at it? And there Jin Ling is, just a bratty sometimes-almost-cute kid to whom Wei Wuxian has done more harm than he can ever hope to balance out. Better if the boy had gone to Lotus Pier, kept annoying Jiang Cheng. But it’s not Jiang Chang’s title that he’s going to inherit. His protection is—
“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says, with a start, to an empty room. “Wait, wait. Protection. Shit.”
Lan Zhan’s hand on his shoulder startles him—a little jump of surprise at having been too absorbed to hear him approach, a quick flaring warmth at his closeness.
“Ah, you’re back,” Wei Wuxian says, and scrambles up, only realises as he moves that one of his feet is a little numb from not sitting properly—stumbles, happily, into Lan Zhan’s arms, with a laugh. “Lan Zhan! I’ve worked part of it out.”
Lan Zhan looks at him with an answering warmth. “I’m back,” he agrees. Glances to Wei Wuxian’s forehead, and reaches up to wipe it with the inside of his sleeve. A smear of ink comes away.
“Your sleeve,” Wei Wuxian says, surprised all over again. “Hmm, you’ve never had such messy robes as you do now, have you. And you still look more composed than any of the rest of us at our best. You really are so merciless. Not letting anyone compare.”
Lan Zhan just kisses him, softly but maybe less fleeting than either of them intended.
“Did the hunt go well?” Wei Wuxian asks, into Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “Sit, Wei Ying. You haven’t eaten.”
“You don’t know that,” says Wei Wuxian, who hasn’t. False petulance, lower lip out. “Maybe I know how to look after myself.”
Stacks of texts on the table, hastily procured against the credit which is Lan Zhan’s good name and on the strength of the helpful works he’s done in the town together with the juniors. Wei Wuxian’s notes are a scrawl, ink spidering. Pieces of paper are crumpled. There’s a small sketch of Lan Zhan holding a rabbit, which he can’t entirely remember making but clearly did—Lan Zhan has plucked it from the middle of the mess and tucked it away between layers of clothing before Wei Wuxian can even begin to protest.
“Fine, fine,” Wei Wuxian mutters, and can feel without looking that Lan Zhan is smiling. He drops himself to sit again, rolls up scrolls, closes books, stacks them to one side. His brush, dropped as he stood, has smeared ink on the table, almost invisible against dark lacquer.
There is already a tray of food. Lan Zhan lays it out. Serves him—a bowl of rice, fragrant pork. Wine. Wei Wuxian leans his elbow on the table, his chin on his hand. Studies Lan Zhan’s calm face, the way his body becomes easy in its motions. As though this is all he wants to be doing.
Ah, imagine a life like this. A simple house and a simple rhythm to all days. To work and rest and eat together. Cultivation partners, unconcerned with sects and plots and other lives. Bed partners . . .
He stretches out his leg under the low table to let his foot nudge against Lan Zhan’s shin, without intent beyond fascination with how much Lan Zhan will allow. Lan Zhan’s eyes shift, but that’s all—they keep eating.
Lan Zhan collects the bowls. Sets them aside. He really does like doing this, doesn’t he? It’s sweet. A little bit hot, maybe.
Now throw me down on the floor again, he thinks, smiling to himself. But it’s a fleeting thought, most of his mind still calculating—pulling at ten threads at once, looking for the key which will show him how fragments should align.
“So,” he says, patting his stack of scrolls and papers. “I recognised those beads. I guess you’re right—my memory must be shitty. It’s nothing in here,” he adds, as Lan Zhan reaches for the topmost scroll. “It’s—this is going to sound weird.”
Lan Zhan gives him a level look.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What doesn’t. Sure. But—I made these. Or I made the originals.”
He tosses the pouch to Lan Zhan, who catches it deftly, opens it.
“What I’ve been trying to figure out,” Wei Wuxian says, “is how a present I meant to give Jin Ling when he was a baby is haunting me.”
He knows he kept his tone light. That’s the performance he’s best at. And still, understanding snaps into place on Lan Zhan’s face. Becomes, all too quickly, pain.
Lan Zhan wrote the letter. Wei Wuxian walked the Qiongqi pass, and played the tune that called forth the knife that is Wen Ning, and broke his own family.
These beads splintered in Jin Zixun’s hand, that day. No wonder he’d lost control, right? That act alone had sharpened his grief. Had told him who he could not, ever again, be.
“Showing up when I pulled a curse from Jin Ling makes a kind of sense,” he says, looking at the bead fragments rather than at Lan Zhan’s face. “But I don’t get the how. And if I don’t get the how, I don’t get what I need to do. If I need to do anything.”
“What was the gift?” Lan Zhan asks.
“Protection,” Wei Wuxian says. Sinks his head more heavily onto his hand. “Keeping small evil things off him. It was a bracelet. I worked so hard on it . . . ah, Jin sect is so tiresome.”
Lan Zhan makes a soft noise of agreement, which coaxes Wei Wuxian’s mouth back into a smile. He rocks his weight back, forward again. Exhales loudly.
“What do you think, Lan Zhan?” he asks. Looks sidelong up at his face at last. The years of wear which show there, in the smallest details. A change behind the eyes. “Do I need to make it again?”
“I don’t know,” Lan Zhan murmurs. “Wei Ying. You feel guilt.”
“Of course I feel guilt,” Wei Wuxian says. “I killed—”
“Yes. But—for that, too? A gift not given?”
Wei Wuxian lets his face answer for him, writes his dissatisfaction bold across it.
“It was too strong a curse for a trinket to block,” he says, all the same.
Lan Zhan inclines his head doubtfully.
“I know. I’m being stupid.”
“You are not .”
“It’s such a petty failure,” Wei Wuxian says. Rocks back again, balances with his hands on the floor behind him. Tips his head back. “Nothing to cry about.”
He wonders if the implication is right—that in his strange remade life, his guilt can dream things into the world—make them material, make them wound not the mind but the body. Well, if so, this small thing will be the least of his worries, symbolic though it may be. But so many things could have happened, in the meeting between himself and Jin Ling and the curse mark of a resentful weapon, played out in a forest where the air felt strange, made of itself a maze. He hasn’t anything like a proper library to work with here, and his magic has always broken rules. All he can do is spin theories, and pull at the threads, and spin once again, until he has enough to weave with.
“Your spiritual energy is still no stronger,” Lan Zhan says, across his thoughts. “It worries me.”
Wei Wuxian swallows.
“You can’t talk about all of your scars,” he says softly. “Think of that as one of mine. Lan Zhan, I can’t. Not now.”
Lan Zhan’s silence indicates some sort of acceptance, however reluctant.
“Let’s talk of better things,” Wei Wuxian says. “Sizhui—he did well again today?”
Lan Zhan’s quiet pride as he talks about the day warms him. Lan Zhan’s pleasure at Wei Wuxian’s interest in his charge. He thinks of Lan Zhan watching this child grow, and the thought is sweet and is bitter. There was an afternoon when he pretended for a few hours that Lan Zhan with A-Yuan on his knee was something he would get to see, over and over, knowing even as he thought it that it was false without yet truly understanding. But oh, the hours had been golden. He steals a little more of that dream now. Wonders if perhaps he and Lan Zhan might be able to build and grow—despite all failures and all loss—
After all, he walks through these days with the taste of Lan Zhan’s skin lingering on his tongue. Lan Zhan has bitten love into the soft insides of his thighs, pressed it into the arches of his hips. He cinches his belt and he feels it. He walks and he feels it. Lan Zhan lays his fingers to Wei Wuxian’s wrist and although leather and cloth separate them the previous night’s sweet ache pulses in Wei Wuxian’s skin. His body is awake. He feels how it wants, demands of him, turns him towards Lan Zhan. He feels like it must be visible to the world—can’t understand how it’s possible that none of the juniors look at him differently. That nobody in the town looks at him and sees him in a new way.
This is the sum total of the reactions they have received:
The slight widening of Sizhui’s eyes at Lan Zhan that first morning, maybe at his neck or maybe at the lateness of the hour; Lan Jingyi’s mouth opening on a question as he looked between them and then promptly closing as Sizhui’s elbow found his ribs; one deeply apologetic complaint about noise, last night, considerably milder than the sort he could once have provoked by getting into a playful argument with Jiang Cheng. As the noise in question had been Wei Wuxian falling from the bed and then laughing far too hard about it, counting this seemed like a borderline case. But he had been naked at the time.
Lan Zhan has taken him to bed each night. The world has continued, even as Wei Wuxian comes gently apart again. They do the impossible. Over and over.
“We should travel tomorrow,” Lan Zhan says. They’re lying together, sweat cooling. Wei Wuxian can feel that the ribbon in his hair has snagged around itself, is tugging uncomfortably at one point on his scalp. Even Lan Zhan’s hair is looking a little messy, the pins that keep it sectioned having slipped under Wei Wuxian’s desperate hands. He had gathered it away from his face when Wei Wuxian turned demanding. It hadn’t lasted.
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian says happily. “You tell me that after you’ve made me sore.” He shifts his legs, parts them a little, just to see how Lan Zhan flushes at the reminder.
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer—just brushes his lips against the corner of Wei Wuxian’s jaw. He knows it’ll make Wei Wuxian shiver.
Wei Wuxian shivers.
“Who knew you liked to tease so much,” he says. Hooks his leg over Lan Zhan’s hip. “Nobody would believe me. Ah, you’re right, though. We need to keep moving. No need to make ourselves this easy to find.”
It shouldn’t feel strange. Moving on is what they do. But this room has become something so particular, its own closed circle, and Wei Wuxian can’t help an uneasy feeling from weaving itself between his ribs. He’s captured something precious here that can’t possibly survive crossing the threshold. Just another handful of stolen hours.
He sighs. A small childish performance. “At least comb my hair for me,” he says. “You’ve made such a mess . I’ll never be mistaken for respectable now.”
Lan Zhan kisses him instead, and buries his beautiful fine fingers in the tangle of Wei Wuxian’s hair. Makes the state of it, over another span of the evening, considerably worse.
But here: past the hour when Lan Zhan should sleep, and instead he kneels behind Wei Wuxian as Wei Wuxian reads, and teases the ribbon free from his hair. Very carefully unties it altogether, so that the whole of it cascades around his hands, the ponytail gone.
The backs of his fingers brush Wei Wuxian’s neck.
There are so many ways for Lan Zhan to make him shiver. His body has no restraint. Wants none. Wants to be held back only by Lan Zhan’s hands.
It’s a long slow process, fixing the mess of knots, and under Lan Zhan’s hands a peaceful one, where Wei Wuxian himself might yank and tug. Lan Zhan corrects Wei Wuxian’s posture with firm hands every time he begins to slump and fidget, and his body has a number of unrestrained feelings about that, as well. He’s so very used to kneeling, and so very unused to kneeling feeling like this.
“Have you found anything?” Lan Zhan asks, and Wei Wuxian, who had forgotten everything except hands in his hair, startles slightly.
“No,” he admits. “I probably won’t. Making up magic as I go along was a terrible idea. Nobody can tell me what I did.”
A wise lack of response.
“I’ll buy a carving knife in the morning,” he says. Closes his eyes. Lan Zhan is working oil into his hair, the scent green and soothing and familiar—the smell of Lan Zhan’s own hair—so different from his senior sister’s—a world away from childhood and from those other hands working other oils into his tangled hair, under sun, over water—listening to the constant clucking of the river current against the stilts of the houses and docks, and to the distant sound of running feet, and the creak of painters where the boats lay waiting.
He opens his eyes, blinks away the sting of memory. How unfair of it, to find him like this, in the middle of pleasure.
A carving knife. He can find some suitable wood as they travel, although nothing will carry the strange intention of the Burial Mounds’ trees.
When did he become such a nostalgic person?
Lan Zhan carefully separates and binds his hair for him. Knows just where to part it and where to tie it off. Of course he does.
Coils it for protection. His fingers stroke Wei Wuxian’s neck more deliberately as he fastens it in place.
“A tease,” Wei Wuxian says. “Let me do yours?”
Here are roads damp with the memory of rain. The way is good, easily walked, and the land is neatly laid out in fields to their right, thinly forested to their left. Everything smells of clean decay, of leaves becoming soil, of the secretive things that grow under that slowly settling carpet of mulch. Although Wei Wuxian wanders in and out of those bright quiet woods, travelling five steps to every one of Lan Zhan’s, he finds no fallen wood suitable for his working—it breaks off green and oozing, and doesn’t dry out where it lies, only softens slowly down.
He’s always the one who needs rest first. Even if he could walk with Lan Zhan’s measured steps, he would be the one who needed to rest first. Better to have obviously wasted energy and grow visibly tired like that, habit tells him, than to give people space to wonder why—
“Will you tell me why your body’s spiritual energy is low?” Lan Zhan asks, as they sit below the trees, a meal newly finished, undergrowth shielding them from view.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head—more thoughtful than flatly denying, although he’s not fully certain he could even make his mouth form the words to explain. With the intimacy they’ve shared, he wondered if Lan Zhan might just have—worked it out. Saved him the trouble. Ah, why can’t laziness pay off from time to time—?
“Will you tell me why you’re covered in scars?” he replies.
A look exchanged, wry.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “I figured.”
Lan Zhan inclines his head.
“I do not mind you knowing,” he says, in a strange mirror of Wei Wuxian’s own thoughts. “But I—cannot speak it. I don’t know how.”
Private griefs, carried too long in silence. Lan Zhan has carried these marks for far longer than Wei Wuxian has been walking around hollow, he supposes, when you adjust for all those absent dead years.
And that brand—
“Write me a letter, then,” Wei Wuxian says, the impulsive flare of a terrible idea getting entirely away from him for one crucial moment. There it is, that part of his brain which sees a problem and reflexively tries to solve it—which usually manages to create five more problems in the process. “No, no, don’t do that. We can’t just—there are probably things better not written. Never mind. I don’t know why I said that.”
Lan Zhan is looking down the cloth which held his food, or just—looking down. Not unhappily, but possibly considering, as Wei Wuxian considered before.
Wei Wuxian nudges him with his foot.
“Let’s walk on,” he says. “I’m good to go.”
But you should kiss me first—
They had kissed that morning, while Wei Wuxian still felt soft and warm from sleep. Lan Zhan tied Wei Wuxian’s ribbon in his hair, and dressed him, and it had left Wei Wuxian taut, a drawn bowstring not released—and Lan Zhan had said, low against his ear— not yet, Wei Ying. And it had been a promise.
He’s still taut with it.
“Not yet,” Lan Zhan says, now, and kneels over Wei Wuxian, white robes pressed into the dirt, and kisses him. As though he had heard at least this one thought.
Tree bark scratches at Wei Wuxian’s back as he arches into it.
“You should stand,” Lan Zhan says, sitting back. His lips are red and wet and fascinating, and Wei Wuxian ignores his words, surges forward to taste his mouth again—is permitted—for a moment. “Up,” Lan Zhan insists, parting them with a hand fisted in the back of Wei Wuxian’s robes.
He stands, a little unsteadily. Expects that Lan Zhan will follow, will push him against the tree and make him feel surrounded and perfectly overcome by all Lan Zhan’s beautiful strength.
Lan Zhan remains kneeling. Looks up at him, bright eyes through dark lashes.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks—whispers. Catches the edge of memory—his robes open, Lan Zhan kneeling before him—his sudden shock of understanding, this is what it looks like we’re doing—
Was Lan Zhan fantasising about kneeling for him then? That specific act?
He bites his lip. Oh, Lan Zhan really is too much.
Voices rise and fall a group of travellers pass on the road, seen only as a hint of movement between leaves, all detail lost. Lan Zhan leans his forehead against Wei Wuxian’s hip.
“May I?” he asks, quiet words buried in cloth.
Wei Wuxian runs tentative fingers over his hair, the twist of it where it’s arranged around curling silver. “Silence me,” he says. “Or you know I’ll just—run my mouth. Make someone come looking.”
“Wei Ying has more restraint than he likes to pretend,” Lan Zhan says, and does not silence him. Looks up at him, waiting to see if he’ll be pushed.
Wei Wuxian gives him a little nod of acceptance. “Another time, though,” he says. “Maybe I can annoy Lan Zhan into shutting my mouth for me.”
Lan Zhan’s fingers curl against his thigh. Yes. Another time.
“I can’t believe you,” Wei Wuxian says softly. Admiring, aroused. Embarrassingly, a little choked up, even as Lan Zhan’s hands loosen fastenings and fold robes neatly aside. His breath hitches as Lan Zhan’s fingers find bare skin. “You’re really going to—here—”
He can feel how deliberately Lan Zhan exhales. The suppressed tremor in it.
Lan Zhan’s lips are hot on the skin of his thigh.
Wei Wuxian claps a hand over his own mouth. Gasps into it, the gasp threaded with laughter, with aroused hysterics, his whole body giddy with the discovery of this side of Lan Zhan, with nobody would believe me and whoever said I was the daring one. Reaches out with his other hand, brushes fingertips over Lan Zhan’s lips—gasps again as Lan Zhan tilts his head to kiss them. Gasps harder at the scrape of Lan Zhan’s teeth.
“You’re being so indecent,” he says, into his hand. “Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, I want you—I’m serious, I won’t be able to keep quiet, someone will hear—”
He clamps his hand harder to his mouth, muffling a cry as Lan Zhan’s lips, slightly parted, brush the head of his cock. Only that, only such a slight touch—but it looks so obscene, Hanguang-Jun so flushed and so avid, lips already kissed soft and now—in his flawless robes, as elegant on his knees in a forest as he would be in presenting himself to sect leaders or in meditation or in battle—it’s too much. He’s really too much, this man. That he wants Wei Wuxian is unimaginable.
His lips brush over Wei Wuxian’s cock again. He brushes kisses over it, eyes fluttering closed.
“Look at me,” Wei Wuxian breathes, voice cracking, and it’s a mistake, or it’s the best thing he’s ever said, or it’s both. Lan Zhan looking up at him like this makes him tremble. Makes Lan Zhan’s hand tighten against his leg.
Lan Zhan keeps his eyes open.
He swallows, and Wei Wuxian follows the movement of his throat with helpless wonder. Watches the way his lips part unsteadily, in the moment just before he takes Wei Wuxian into his mouth. Bites his lip at the tiny breath Lan Zhan takes, the way he can feel it against his skin.
“You’re ruining me,” he says, into his hand—takes his own shaky breath, which turns wild as the heat of Lan Zhan’s mouth surrounds him—bites into the heel of his palm, pants, feels dizzily how his hips keep jerking minutely no matter how he tries to restrain himself from thrusting into Lan Zhan’s mouth.
Lan Zhan’s hands go to his hips. Press him hard against the tree, pinning him. No mercy to him. Oh, thank fuck, no mercy at all—Wei Wuxian bucks into his grip, moans at the strength which keeps it from turning into any sort of movement at all. Which makes sure he can just feel. Let go, Lan Zhan’s hands on him say—and if Lan Zhan denied him silence this time, at least he takes away Wei Wuxian’s control like this instead.
“Definitely ruining me,” he mumbles. Brushes his knuckles over Lan Zhan’s temple, lets them catch on pale blue ribbon—and Lan Zhan moans around him, eyes falling shut again, and takes him deeper, leans his whole body into Wei Wuxian’s. Presses against his legs. Hungry.
“Ah, ah,” Wei Wuxian manages. “I’m not going to last—hey—”
Lan Zhan looks up at him again, just for a moment, eyes hooded. It should be absurd—it is absurd—he’s always known sex was basically ridiculous—but he never knew it was also going to be—and he really should have—after all, Lan Zhan is so—
And Lan Zhan swallows deliberately around him, looking at him, mouth stretched so obscenely—with the woods swaying quietly around them, the flutter of wings as a bird takes flight—
Release finds him in another brilliant avalanche. Will it ever stop shocking him? He hopes not—
Lan Zhan watches him shake. Moves one hand from Wei Wuxian’s hips and wipes his mouth on the back of his wrist—and something about that little gesture is so wrenchingly appealing, makes Wei Wuxian’s chest feel overfull—he’s so sweet and so filthy and Wei Wuxian has never ached for a person more. He’s laughing as Lan Zhan stands and gathers him close, laughs harder at how boneless he feels, how he’d stagger if it wasn’t for Lan Zhan’s arms.
Lan Zhan kisses his laughter away with his mouth still tasting of Wei Wuxian’s pleasure. Holds him until he quiets and steadies.
“Let me,” Wei Wuxian says, at length, drawing fingers down Lan Zhan’s chest.
Lan Zhan catches his hand. “There’s no need,” he says.
Wei Wuxian blinks at him, cocks his head. “It’s not about need.”
Lan Zhan just gives him a look which might be sheepish—is definitely a little wild at the edges, in a near-unreadable Lan Zhan sort of way. Draws their joined hands down, and presses Wei Wuxian’s hand between his legs after all, and lets him feel—
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Just from having me in your mouth? Lan Zhan—”
“I find you very beautiful,” Lan Zhan says quietly. “Perhaps especially like this. Wei Ying . . .”
“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian says, seeing traces of anxiety in Lan Zhan’s eyes. “It’s—stupidly hot, actually. Huh. You keep surprising me. I’m not trying to tease you. It’s just—ah, it’s all—it’s so much. You make me feel so much. I love it.”
Lan Zhan’s gaze flickers, comes back filled with—well—call it affection. Call it something heavier than affection. Wei Wuxian allows himself to bask in it, his body still alive with the aftermath of release, as Lan Zhan fixes his clothes for him, smooths them both down until he himself looks entirely proper and Wei Wuxian looks only ordinarily disreputable.
“How are your robes not more stained?” Wei Wuxian mutters, looking Lan Zhan over as Lan Zhan carefully pulls a piece of bark out of Wei Wuxian’s hair.
“They are thoroughly stained,” Lan Zhan says, and there’s a delayed moment before Wei Wuxian’s mind connects the pieces of that one and then another before he registers that Lan Zhan means to make him laugh with it, in which space his face must look incredible, because Lan Zhan’s smile is visible on his lips and not just in his eyes—is soft and sweet and not like he’s making fun of Wei Wuxian at all.
Wei Wuxian squirms a little, deep in his gut, at that smile. Always does, shocked and happy and uneasy in his happiness.
But Lan Zhan wanting him has survived the threshold after all, and that’s—that’s really something. He can hold that, and endure kindness. Hold it without being pierced.
In a modest inn, Wei Wuxian wakes to the stillness of an empty room. The quality of the light says the sun must be high. He scrunches his eyes closed, turns his face into the pillow, which smells of Lan Zhan. All of him smells of Lan Zhan these days. He’s never been that possessive, he thinks, but maybe there’s something to being possessed . . .
There is a letter on the table.
He frowns at it as he gets up, pulling his robes on. Yes, there is one rabbit-kick moment of fear—to be left in the night with a few pretty words—wouldn’t he deserve it—? All he has ever done in his life is leave people—
But Lan Zhan’s ink block and brushes sit neatly at the end of the table, their owner only temporarily retreated.
He touches his fingers to the closed scroll of the letter. Slides them over its surface, as delicate as old skin. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, what have you left me—?
He opens it with the care of dissection, an exact fingernail to unseal it, a deliberate unrolling. Exactness, in truth, feels like the only way to do it at all.
Few words. Wei Wuxian traces each character with the tip of a finger just to have a little of that elegance in his own hand. Leans on the table, studies it. I am not ashamed of anything which is worthy of being said to Wei Ying. Any of my feelings may be written. I shall write them.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says to the empty air. Such an obstinate man. His chest is hot, and then his throat is hot too—the feeling presses up behind his eyes. He blinks it down. He’s smiling, despite himself—foolishly, brightly. It won’t do. He shouldn’t let Lan Zhan do this to both of them—write intimate things that Wei Wuxian will never be able to bring himself to destroy. Expose himself to the constant danger of having those words in the world, kept pressed against Wei Wuxian’s heart.
But oh, here’s the problem: he wants Lan Zhan’s words close to his heart, now they’ve been offered, almost more than he can bear.
He tucks the letter inside his robe. Sighs.
He really is in love with Lan Zhan, huh? Better not think about it. Lan Zhan is on some errand—he’ll return soon—Wei Wuxian should get breakfast and also get his shit together.
Going downstairs helps. Means he puts on his easy public face, relaxes his shoulders, tucks the visible and distinctly frayed edges of himself away. He speaks to the innkeeper's wife about the town, wheedles a little extra of what she judges to be her best food out of her. Nobody threatens him with emotional honesty or makes his chest constrict painfully with desire, which is a nice change of pace.
He definitely also got given the good tea, he notices, as he carries his prizes back upstairs—although whether that’s a result of his exceptional personal charm or the fact that he’s travelling in the company of the great Hanguang-Jun is up for grabs.
On the table is an uneven cloth bundle which wasn’t there before.
The room is otherwise untouched, and still empty. People really have to stop doing this.
It’s not Lan Zhan’s work. The cloth is dark, and not entirely clean, and besides, Lan Zhan would have found some ludicrously neat way of packing—whatever it is.
He feels it out, testing its intent with talismans, and finds it familiar. Uneasily, improbably.
“Wen Ning?” he calls, experimentally. “I know you’re there.”
Feeling for the traces of him, Wei Wuxian knows that he’s right—that Wen Ning has been here. But there’s no answer.
“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Hope he’s not mad at me.”
But he can’t be that mad. Not if he’s worked out what Wei Wuxian has been hunting after with growing dissatisfaction, and paid a visit to a truly shitty place in order to get hold of it.
What a strange shadow he is, Wei Wuxian thinks, with a different ache in his chest, an older one, a different kind of love. Someone should love that kid properly. Love him in a way that gives him a life, not just service.
Never mind. Think more on it later. Tomorrow is uncertain; eat well today—
But those words are a string of memories in themselves. A fight at a dinner table. A toast at a banquet. Senior sister peeling lotus seeds in her lap, passing them to him with a secretive smile as he planned a childish adventure with Jiang Cheng. A clean wet dawn among broad green leaves, long ago, long ago . . .
The food really is good for how simple the inn is, and the tea better, although Lan Zhan would be a more fully appreciative audience for it. Hopefully he’s already had some.
And then there’s just the bundle, pushed to the side while he ate. He pushes away his dishes, wipes off his hands. Pulls it to him, and opens it.
Lays a finger against one of the twisted pieces of wood—objectively terrible for carving, bad tempered as anything. Rubs back and forth, feeling its odd grain. Grave-fed.
“Hello, old friend,” he says.
He’s still sitting looking at it, thoughtful, following its energy and seeing how it can be worked, when Lan Zhan returns.
“I have so many benefactors,” he says, once Lan Zhan is satisfied that he has been sufficiently kissed. “I wake up each day to love letters and presents and the fact that I have a body. Does nobody remember that I’m evil? What must I do?”
“There is nothing to be done,” Lan Zhan says, straightening and beginning to pack away their belongings. “Wei Ying can only accept that he is valued.”
Wei Wuxian feels a certain amount of doubt on that point, although it’s not exactly incorrect. He has plenty of opinions about the ways in which he is valuable.
“Loved, even,” Lan Zhan says, before he can think of a way to put any of them, as though it’s nothing at all to name it. He blinks down at Wei Wuxian. Offers him a hand and pulls him up—Wei Wuxian will never stop enjoying that. Their palms braced together. How easy it is to press himself right up against Lan Zhan as he lands on his feet. “I should like to leave now. There is some trouble on the south road.”
“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’re going to tell me that and then just—drag me out hunting? Lan Zhan!”
Lan Zhan looks at him. As always, really looks at him. Sees.
“No, you’re right,” Wei Wuxian says, because the alternative feels exhausting and probably involves one of them crying and Lan Zhan getting the last pointed stare anyway. There’s a Lan precept against arguing with your family, and he’s beginning to see the point of that one in particular, for all he’s spent most of his life flaunting it dramatically, all the way into death and back out again. “Hah. You keep being right. It can’t be good for you. Let’s go.”
Loved, even, he thinks, as they walk down the stairs and out into the street. As they pass between market stalls and through the town gates. Loved, is it? What a strange taste that word has today. Loved.
He works as they travel. Finds the shapes of beads as they sit by the side of the road on a pale afternoon. Carves lines under the steady light of an expensive candle, with Lan Zhan lying peacefully against his back, asleep. This is all a dream, he thinks, still, again. I’m sleeping as peacefully as this man I love, except deep in the quiet of the grave. But splinters bite him, demanding their blood dues, and his body is living enough to pay them. The knife gives his fingers new grooves and planes. His skin blisters and toughens.
Is this what I’m meant to be doing? he asks his ghosts. But tonight, where they used to scream, to bully and beg and demand, there’s only distant murmuring. The only one of his own half-dead things with words for him these days is Wen Ning, and Wen Ning brought him this offering. So he works. Ah, there, he thinks. Turns a bead in the light. Yes, that’s good. He’s still got it.
Until it’s an afternoon in a new month, in the growing clawed shadow of Jinlin tower, and the final bead slots into place.
Lan Zhan takes it between his hands with unnecessary but touching care. He studies the work. All this time he has watched Wei Wuxian, even as Wei Wuxian complained of the distraction. But he has never looked more closely than Wei Wuxian has casually offered.
He strokes his thumbs over it now, cradles it in blue light, his spirit too reaching for it.
“It’s powerful work,” he says.
“I guess I’ve learned a few things somehow,” Wei Wuxian says. “It is pretty good, right?”
Lan Zhan nods.
“Not sure I can give it to him in a way that’ll make him use it.”
“But you’re going to try.”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. Blows his hair out of his face, then laughs and bats at Lan Zhan’s hand as Lan Zhan tries to tuck it back for him. Gets a look which does quite a good impression of severity. Submits.
“Of course,” he says. “I’m obnoxious like that. I’ll protect that little brat whether he likes it or not.”
He reclaims the bracelet, tucks it safely away. Behind him, the presence of the tower feels like a weight bearing down on his shoulders.
“It is good,” Lan Zhan says, “for children to know they are loved. Sometimes I think many of us must forget how it felt.”
So many words, Wei Wuxian nearly exclaims, caught up in the game of being the worst. But Lan Zhan’s tone—and his expression—
Oh, Wei Wuxian thinks, instead.
“Don’t think he wants to be loved by the Yiling Patriarch,” he says. “But—yeah. You’re right, Lan Zhan. What brought that on?”
Lan Zhan hesitates. Begins, Wei Wuxian thinks, to speak—
But they are meeting Zewu-Jun here, and so: he arrives.
“I will tell you,” Lan Zhan says quietly, as Lan Xichen’s face brightens to see them. “In a letter.”
In the space between them, concealed by the fall of his robes, his little finger catches Wei Wuxian’s, and Wei Wuxian, entirely stunned by the force of Lan Zhan’s affection, so easily given again, barely remembers to disentangle himself in time to offer courtesy.
“Your mask,” Lan Zhan says.
“Kiss me first,” Wei Wuxian says, “and I won’t mind it.” He points to his cheekbone, where the mask will cover.
Lan Zhan obliges, and Wei Wuxian allows himself a satisfied little noise. Lan Zhan kisses him again, on the brow. The bridge of his nose.
Wei Wuxian laughs, bubbly with nerves and with want, entirely absurd. “You’ll drive me out of my mind,” he says. Makes a muffled noise as Lan Zhan’s mouth covers his. “Oh. In all the wrong ways. I’m meant to be playing a lunatic, Lan Zhan. Spending the whole night wanting you to force me against a wall is too normal—anyone would—”
Lan Zhan kisses him once more, sweetly. Lifts the mask to Wei Wuxian’s face and ties it in place for him, fussing over the fall of his hair.
“I don’t like this place,” Wei Wuxian says. Wraps his arms around himself, sighs as Lan Zhan leans against him.
“It’s going to be a disaster.”
“Now you’re just trying to mess with me,” Wei Wuxian says, accusatory but also laughing. It’s so very easy for Lan Zhan to mess with him. It’s wonderful. Despite everything, it’s wonderful. All his fear for Lan Zhan, for reputations and for hearts—never mind it, he thinks. I can panic later. I’m good at that.
“I will be with you,” Lan Zhan says, “no matter the kind of disaster.”
“You shouldn’t,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan, you really shouldn’t. You’ll make me think I can keep you.”
“Good,” Lan Zhan says, and turns, and Wei Wuxian has to chase after him, out into the streets, to fall in step behind Lan Xichen, whose heart they’re going to break—
Here is a tower, looking down at its lands. There is darkness in it, Wei Wuxian supposes. A mimicry of his own power. Weaker than he was. Not less dangerous. But still, he decides. Still. You’re not fucking special.
And you can’t have any more of what’s mine.
Magic is warm against his chest, and quiet in the pouch at his waist. Lan Zhan meets his eyes.
His body remembers to breathe.