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the spice of life

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1.

 

It begins, as many things do, during a routine night hunt. Wei Wuxian is the leading senior, but he’s hanging back with Little Apple, absentmindedly spinning Chenqing in one hand and scratching the donkey’s ears, perhaps a bit roughly, with the other. There are a handful of Lan disciples ahead, Jin Ling with some Jin disciples, and Ouyang Zizhen. Wei Wuxian would rank them in precisely that order in terms of his confidence in their exorcism abilities.

 

The group of teenagers are walking briskly, eyes peeled to their Compasses of Evil, and Wei Wuxian hopes they would notice their target if it appeared next to them. It’s a crisp autumn day, and with every strong wind, maple leaves fall around them in shades of sunlight from dawn to dusk. A breeze from the other direction shifts the falling leaves, and it reminds Wei Wuxian of shaking a bottle of chili oil - his condiment of choice that few understood - and watching the variety of pepper seeds move with the center of gravity.

 

“Wei-qianbei! We found the ghoul!” It’s Lan Jingyi shouting from a distance away in his usual un-Lan-like manner. Lan Sizhui is standing next to him with perfect posture and pointing something out to the other disciples. He looks every bit the head disciple of the Lan sect, pronounced by the golden clouds sewn into his forehead ribbon.

 

“Okay, you know what to do right? Call me if you need me!”

 

“You’re not even going to come with us?” Jin Ling has a deep groove in his brow, and Wei Wuxian hopes his nephew’s golden core is strong, or he will wear those wrinkles everyday while his friends maintain their youth. “Aren’t you supposed to teach us? And if we’re too busy fighting the ghoul, how are we supposed to call you exactly?”

 

“Excellent point, Sect Leader Jin! Why, this one did not know how much you valued his teaching!” Wei Wuxian laughs and Jin Ling mutters angrily under his breath before leaving the clearing with the others.

 

By the time a stick of incense would have turned to ash, Wei Wuxian has cycled through a few of his favorite songs. Other than Chenqing, the forest is quiet. He hopes the juniors are faring well, otherwise Lan Qiren would forbid him from tagging along on their night hunts in the future, and Wei Wuxian really couldn’t risk the elder’s already low opinion of him. Moreover, there’s only so much that Lan Wangji could defend him from before the council of Lan elders, who also thought little of him.

 

There’s a faint whistle and the sound of branches cracking. “Wei-qianbei! Watch out!”

 

There’s a flash of ogre green, and Wei Wuxian feels a hand at his chest and is knocked onto his back - damn his low spiritual energy! He sees a semicircle of disciples jump up with their swords, and Lan Sizhui lands the finishing blow. The ghoul struggles, falls over, and half the disciples erupt in a loud cheer while the other half - mostly those dressed in gold - rush over to where someone is bent on the ground. The build is familiar, all lean lines in a body not yet fully grown, and a vermilion mark pressed onto his crown. Damn.

 

“Sect Leader Jin! Hold on, we’ll get you to a doctor!”

 

There are four parallel gashes exposing pale skin with blood gushing from each laceration. Jin Ling, to his credit, doesn’t even whimper, and is clenching his jaw so tight that he can’t respond to any questions from the other juniors.

 

“Jin Ling! Are you ok?” Wei Wuxian rushes to the front and kneels to look closer. He’s learned a few things from his two very eventful lives, including a bit of medical knowledge for dire situations like these.

 

Jin Ling is glaring at him, but the expression is anger laced with pain. “This is your fault! You should have been there with us!” He emits a short groan and snaps his mouth shut again.

 

Wei Wuxian carefully cuts the leg of the trouser off. “Don’t be so dramatic, Jin Ling. These aren’t as deep as they look.” He pours some water over the wound and Jin Ling hisses. “Besides! Aren’t you the one who knocked me out of the way? Such filial piety! Does anyone have ointment on them?”

 

The other disciples do a show of patting themselves down and searching their pouches, but eventually they all shake their heads. “Wei-qianbei, we used them up in the last two hunts. We haven’t been able to restock yet,” Lan Sizhui says apologetically.

 

“No worries, A-Yuan. I just figured that would be better than what I’m about to do.” Wei Wuxian ignores Jin Ling’s murderous glare and reaches into his qiankun pouch for a vial of reddish powder. “It’ll hurt first, but then the pain will recede, okay?”

 

“No! Don’t just pour some random powder on me - ” Jin Ling hisses louder as Wei Wuxian sprinkles it onto the very raw wounds of his calf. The powder turns crimson as it mixes with the blood, and after a few moments, Jin Ling opens his eyes, the line of tension along his forehead relaxed. “It - it actually - what did you do?”

 

“Ah, you noble sects never learn what we mediocre people know well,” Wei Wuxian quips delightfully as he binds Jin Ling’s leg tight. “This powder contains extracts of cayenne pepper! I made it myself.”

 

The forest turns quiet again. Finally, Ouyang Zizhen asks, “Wei-qianbei, why would you put cayenne pepper on Sect Leader Jin’s wound?” The tone of the question is part confusion, part exhilaration, mimicked by his wide eyes and furrowed brow.

 

“Ouyang-gongzi, this extract is concentrated capsaicin. It can quickly deplete the pain signals from the leg to Sect Leader Jin’s brain. Without the signal, the pain is not felt! It’ll do until we get to a real doctor, anyway.”

 

“You put a chili pepper on my wound? Are you crazy?” Jin Ling cries. “I shouldn’t have pushed you out of the way!”

 

Unperturbed, Wei Wuxian simply caps the vial and hums. “Why did you do it then? I thought you’ve finally come around to your oldest uncle.”

 

“As if I could stand his Excellency’s wrath if we brought you back cut to ribbons,” Jin Ling spits at him. “The Jin sect is still recovering from - is still recovering. We don’t need any trouble from Hanguang-jun.”

 

Wei Wuxian titters. “Lan Zhan is used to me with all kinds of injuries. If anything, all of Lan Sect would be pleased I’m not running around breaking their 4500 rules.” He shakes his head at the pour soul who has to carve another dozen principles each day Wei Wuxian stays in the Cloud Recesses.

 

At this, Jin Ling looks even more irritated.

 

“Come on, let’s go. This isn’t a cure, it’s just a quick way to stop the pain temporarily. You’ll need real medicine.”

 

“Is this why you always carry spices with you, Wei-qianbei?” Ouyang Zizhen asks excitedly, and the group behind him turn their expressions from equal irritation to interest.

 

“Oh no,” Wei Wuxian says as he picks Jin Ling up, “I’m afraid it’s nothing so interesting. You know how I am - I just like the way it tastes.”

 

 

 

 

2.

 

The same night, they reach a small town with one doctor who fusses over Jin Ling’s leg like it’s the most important thing that has graced his small clinic. The other juniors sit in the tavern across the road - essentially all buildings in this town are in some way across the road from each other - and order their dinner.

 

“Wei-qianbei really knows all sorts of skills, doesn’t he?” Ouyang Zizhen says reverently.

 

“Of course he does.” Jin Chan snorts. “He’s the Yiling Patriarch! He invented demonic cultivation, what else couldn’t he figure out?

 

“Oy, demonic cultivation and knowing how to use spices are on completely different tiers. They shouldn’t be compared,” Lan Jingyi says and stuffs a piece of bok choy into his mouth as soon as the dish hits the table.

 

“Speaking of which, don’t you remember in Yi City when Wei-qianbei made Spiced Glutinous Congee to cure the poisoned disciples?” Ouyang Zizhen asks. “We should really figure out what spice he used in case we’re attacked with corpse poisoning powder again!”

 

Lan Sizhui chuckles and passes the dishes to the younger Lan disciples first. “If I remember correctly, the glutinous rice was the important component.”

 

“Then why was it so spicy? I couldn’t taste for days after!”

 

“I think that’s just something to do with Wei-qianbei’s cooking preferences...”

 

“I don’t know how Hanguang-jun lives with his cooking. It’s always so red my mouth feels enflamed just looking at it! And I heard that sometimes, Wei Wuxian forces him to drink the chili oils by itself!”

 

“Forced? Who can force Hanguang-jun into doing something he doesn’t want?” A pause. “Oh, right.”

 

“Who’s forcing Hanguang-jun? Is his Excellency in grave danger?” Wei Wuxian says casually and approaches their table with Jin Ling drifting in and out of sleep on his back, his leg bandaged and drenched with medicine. “I’ll have you know Lan Zhan loves my food!”

 

“How can that be true?” Lan Jingyi asks. “All Lan’s are born with a genetic deficiency to tolerating alcohol and spicy foods.”

 

Wei Wuxian shifts so Jin Ling doesn’t fall off. “If that’s true, then why does Lan Zhan always have seconds when I cook for him?”

 

The room quiets and the juniors jitter uncomfortably. They share a glance as if they’re all thinking the same thing, but no one wants to say it aloud. Finally, a weak drunk-like voice: “Because it’s you cooking, you idiot.” It’s the softest way Jin Ling has ever addressed him.

 

Wei Wuxian tilts his head almost adorably, if you could forget he was the Yiling Patriarch, a literal necromancer. “Yes, Lan Zhan really does try to make me happy.” His mouth curls wistfully and the juniors sit up straight, eyes wide. “I know he regrets what happened all those years ago, but none of it was his fault. I keep telling him that. He doesn’t have to eat something he doesn’t like just because he feels guilty.”

 

The juniors slump and Lan Jingyi even slaps his head into the palm of his hand.

 

“Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” They hesitantly sit up straight again. “Lan Zhan’s been eating spicy food with me since we were just teenagers! So...” His neck twists so he’s facing his nephew questioningly.

 

Jin Ling raises his head drowsily and narrows his eyes, though they remain unfocused. “How would we know? We weren’t even born then!”

 

“Has Hanguang-jun really felt this way about Wei-qianbei for so many years?” Lan Jingyi whispers loudly, and it’s unclear whether it’s purposeful or his un-Lan refinement that everyone overhears his words.

 

Wei Wuxian breaks into a large grin. “That must mean ever since I first introduced it, Lan Zhan has learned to love spicy food! You’ll all laugh one day when Hanguang-jun lives forever just because of my delicious dinners. Didn’t your teachers ever tell you that people with the longest lives eat spicy food regularly? You should see this town I came across in the north, so many centenarians!”

 

“That’s not true at all,” Lan Jingyi says, thinking of a month ago when Wei Wuxian was visiting Qinghe and Lan Wangji returned to eating simple boiled vegetables. But he should have been more specific of what wasn’t true, because Wei Wuxian turns to someone else with no ounce of awareness.

 

“Is that why Spiced Glutinous Congee works so well?” Ouyang Zizhen asks eagerly after capturing his attention.

 

Wei Wuxian cocks his head to the side. There’s a long moment until he snickers awkwardly and nods. “Oh right, yes, absolutely. The paprika was very intentional. It warms your body and you sweat the poison out and recover faster! That’s why this town I met in the north always eats spicy foods - it helps them sweat and cool down in the hot summer!”

 

“What’s with this town in the north Wei-qianbei keeps talking about?” Lan Jingyi mutters to Lan Sizhui. He shrugs and shakes his head.

 

“Alright, you should all finish eating and go to bed. It’s almost nine.” No one mentions that Jin Ling is slipping further and further down onto his back.

 

Ouyang Zizhen nods and calls their server over for some paprika.

 

 

 

 

3.

 

It’s a crisp winter day when Lan Sizhui wakes with a throbbing headache and a scratchy throat. He tries to sit up, but the weight on his head worsens and he quickly lays back down. There’s a knock on his door, and his eyes fly open, unaware they had closed again.

 

“Sizhui! Are you ok? It’s 5:15 and it’s unusual for you to not be in the dining hall yet.”

 

It’s Jingyi. Lan Sizhui tries to respond, but all that comes out is a rough gurgle that hurts and when his eyes reopen, Lan Jingyi is standing over him.

 

“Sizhui, you don’t look well. I’ll bring some food for you and tell Master Lan that you won’t be in class today,” says the fuzzy silhouette of his friend.

 

Lan Sizhui moves his head in wordless thanks and nods off again.

 

The next time he awakens, Wei Wuxian is kneeling beside his bed, dressed in his usual black robes but - and Sizhui could be imagining it, since things were slow to focus right now - with a white underrobe peeking out from his collar. “A-Yuan! You’re awake! I heard from Jingyi that you weren’t in class today.” He peers closer, taking in the rosy cheeks, glazed eyes, and sweaty locks.

 

“I’m sorry to worry you, Wei-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui says and is pleased that his voice is less raspy, though it still feels like long fingernails are scraping his vocal chords.

 

“Why so formal, A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian whines and slips his lips into an exaggerated pout.

 

A-die,” Lan Sizhui says appeasingly and can’t help but uncontrollably beam.

 

Wei Wuxian looks absolutely pleased as he pats him on the head and walks over to the table in the shared junior dorm. He returns with a steaming cup that’s emitting a sharp, citrusy fragrance. “Here, this will help,” he says and hands the scalding cup over.

 

Lan Sizhui takes a sip and purses his lips. “Ginger?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“A lot of ginger.”

 

“It’s good for you!” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “Suibian and I shaved the ginger just before you woke up, so it’s most beneficial to drink it now while it’s fresh.”

 

“Thank you, Wei-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui says and dutifully sips at the spicy tea. It warms his throat and maybe it was the desire to please his father figure, but he really did feel a touch better already. As the fog clears in his head, he considers their conversation. “Wait...Suibian?”

 

Wei Wuxian grins. “Like me, Suibian has many different types of skills.”

 

Lan Sizhui imagines what the other juniors would think if they heard that the Yiling Patriarch uses his spiritual sword to shave ginger for tea. He can just picture it - Wei Wuxian hacking at the small roots and somehow splattering ginger chunks onto his clothes, and Lan Wangji handing him an oversized Lan-specific underrobe. He shakes his head at the delusional thoughts and lets the heat settle in his stomach.

 

Later, Lan Sizhui is in the medical pavilion with Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji, and Lan Jingyi, who had been unfortunately keeping him company before the adults walked in. The doctor is Lan Boqin, one of Lan Qiren’s classmates and the best physician in Cloud Recesses.

 

“It’s a simple case of influenza. There’s no need to worry too much, Hanguang-jun.”

 

Lan Wangji’s face betrays no emotion. He simply nods, despite yelling - ok, more like just saying, but it was yelling by Hanguang-jun standards - at Lan Sizhui to immediately go to the medical pavilion just a few minutes before.

 

“I can make a remedy for the fever, but otherwise you will simply have to keep hydrated and rest until the virus passes.” Lan Boqin hands him a murky brown liquid that smells like boiled jujubes and bitter herbs. “Your throat will heal in time. Ginger tea will help with some of the discomfort.”

 

“Thank you, Physician Lan. I had some ginger tea earlier today and it really helped my throat,” Lan Sizhui admits and drinks the medicine in one gulp. It’s bitter, but he is disciplined enough not to make a face, especially when the aftertaste hits. Lan Wangji looks at him approvingly.

 

“I’m glad someone has been listening to my lectures,” Lan Boqin says, pleased. “Lan Jingyi, is it? Are you hoping to apprentice in medicine?”

 

“Oh no, I remember little from your lectures,” Lan Jingyi protests and frowns when he realizes what he said.

 

“Ah, it wasn’t Jingyi, Physician Lan. Wei-qianbei made fresh ginger tea for me this morning and another after lunch,” Lan Sizhui says quickly to turn the three pairs of stern eyes back to himself. Lan Jingyi breathes and mouths his thanks.

 

“Where did he get ginger from? We had to move the remaining plants to a spiritually warmed room when the soil froze last week,” Lan Boqin wonders aloud and strokes at his long goatee.

 

Lan Qiren looks furious. “He must be sneaking in and stealing it!”

 

“Uncle, Physician Lan. Wei Ying is adept at horticulture. He keeps a small herb garden in the jingshi for his personal use,” Lan Wangji explains, and there’s a tinge of fondness in his words.

 

“What? In the jingshi? That’s an inappropriate use of your quarters, let alone what it must be doing to its feng shui! Why is that - that man not staying in the guest quarters?”

 

Lan Wangji’s eyes turn frigid. “Uncle, we are not so fragile that ginger roots will bring us misfortune. And Wei Ying is welcome to stay with me if he likes.”

 

Lan Qiren sputters and turns a livid eye towards his nephew. “Oh?” the doctor interjects before the vein on the other’s temple bulges too much, “And what does Wei Wuxian do with his collection of herbs?”

 

“Cooking,” Lan Wangji responds placidly, though Lan Sizhui notices a tug of his lips upward. “Crude medicines from the roots for emergencies. He also enjoys a bolder flavor that the Cloud Recesses does not supply.”

 

“Yeah, Wei-qianbei isn’t trying to overthrow the Lan sect gardeners or anything. He just uses his spices to make us sweat or to make tea for Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi adds defensively. A ghost of a smile lingers on his lips and Lan Sizhui knows it’s because of the idea of Hanguang-jun watching idly as Wei Wuxian inevitably makes a mess of the jingshi because he’s decided to grow his plants in there. The thought is followed by another: seriously, how does Wei Wuxian not know? Isn’t he supposed to be some type of prodigy?

 

“I’m impressed that Wei-gongzi is familiar with herbology,” says Lan Boqin brightly, breaking them from their thoughts.

 

Lan Sizhui’s thoughts take a different turn. He’s collected a few memories once lost to fever, and he’s learned that the general theme of feeling hungry and watching adults worry is intercalated with flashes of sincere happiness.

 

He remembers that Wei Wuxian had spent over a year living with Wen Qing, so it made sense he would have picked up some knowledge of herbal medicine. Lan Sizhui vaguely remembers them turning the soil and when they thought he wasn’t looking, quickly removing a grey limb or two. He remembers being carried as Wen Qing delighted in the newly sprouted greens, and Wei Wuxian’s slightly interested noises as he listened to her go on about herbal remedies in lieu of hobbies he could no longer take part in. Thinking of them and the desolate time they spent in the Burial Mounds makes Lan Sizhui grimace, and melancholy blooms in his chest.

 

He catches his father’s eyes, and knows his thoughts were loud on his face. He’s surprised when Lan Wangji starts, “For Wei Ying,” he pauses thoughtfully, and looks at Sizhui as if sharing a secret, “this type of cultivation is preferred.”

 

There’s a beat and Lan Sizhui can’t help but laugh heartily and his throat punishes him for it. Even without the ginger tea, the melancholy in his stomach is traded for warmth. Lan Jingyi looks amazed while Lan Qiren, somehow, only looks crosser.

 

 

 

 

4.

 

There’s another unfortunate incident on a night hunt - firstly, that the Lans with their questionably favorite senior run into Jiang Cheng, Jin Ling, and their respective disciples; and secondly, that they’re drawn by a resentful spirit to an abandoned village high up in the mountains. They defeat the spirit easily, but then there’s a crack of lightning in the darkening sky and rain begins falling heavily.

 

They decide that the less experienced juniors will have a difficult time flying through the storm down the mountain, so they have no choice but to stay in the village. The homes have a light layer of dust, certainly not so thick as to allude to a lengthy abandonment.

 

“It looks like the villagers here must have left just a few days ago,” Wei Wuxian comments as they settle in the largest of the huts. There are several jugs on a table and he peers into each, giving them quick sniffs. “There’s some soup and dried meats. The kids are hungry, right? I’m sure the villagers won’t mind since we cleansed their homes!”

 

He distributes the food to the youngest juniors first, who weren’t as experienced in inedia or the pangs of hunger yet. Jin Ling takes a bite of the meat just as Lan Jingyi sips the soup and both cough and wrinkle their noses.

 

“It’s sour!”

 

“You gave me spoiled food!”

 

Wei Wuxian takes the soup and sniffs it again, nodding considerately. “It’s not spoiled, my dear pampered nephew, just maybe a day off.”

 

“Who wants to eat this?” Jin Ling says hotly and puts his food down.

 

The other disciples seem to agree. Some are nibbling at the meat nevertheless, but the soups generally remain untouched from smell alone.

 

“Let me tell you,” Wei Wuxian says and shakes his head disdainfully. “During the war, we were sometimes lucky to find food, even if it was stale and a few days old! But we ate it anyway, and no one died from that, did they?”

 

“How would you even know if they did?” Jin Ling retorts and glares at his bowl.

 

“We had much more important things to die from in those days!” Wei Wuxian responds without a beat. He’s the only one to laugh at that, and the others shake their heads at such impertinence - no surprise from the Yiling Patriarch.

 

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “No one has your iron stomach,” he mutters. His eyes soften wistfully, and he lets out a long remorseful breath. “There were many times A-jie and I got sick while you would just continue flouncing around while we tried not to puke.”

 

“It was my myrmidon upbringing. It built resistance to weak toxins,” Wei Wuxian explains. Shoulders loosened and eyes downcast, he looks sad and nostalgic and the juniors shift uncomfortably at the glum mood.

 

“So... we should eat this to develop a stronger stomach,” a Jiang disciple concludes dejectedly. Nonetheless he looks very willing to do it, as if thinking: if such an act contributed to the Yiling Patriarch’s strength, then why not?

 

“No, if you don’t have to, then I recommend not,” Wei Wuxian says with a touch more liveliness and his body and features move back in place. He rummages in his qiankun pouch and pulls out two vials. “Here, here! This will help. We don’t need twenty puking teenagers in this hut tomorrow.”

 

Lan Sizhui takes the bottles first, uncaps them, and the air is instantly aromatic. “Garlic paste and - ”

 

“Allspice in oil of oregano,” Wei Wuxian supplies proudly. “These will prevent sickness from the poison of mildly rancid foods. I made these myself!”

 

Lan Sizhui imagines the feared Yiling Patriarch mashing cloves of garlic with the smooth plane of Suibian or using the hilt to grind dried berries into powder. He sets a good example and dumps some into his soup and makes a show of stirring them in and gulping it down. There’s a sting on his tongue, but he again takes advantage of his Lan discipline and simply nods.

 

“Wow, Zizhen is going to be so jealous,” Lan Jingyi says as he also dumps the spices into his soup. The words earn an agreeable smirk from Jin Ling.

 

“Is this why you always carry spices, Wei-qianbei?” Lan Sizhui asks smoothly despite his tongue curling in agony against the roof of his mouth.

 

The younger Lan disciples don’t have so much restraint and they cough and stick out their tongues. “Don’t be so dramatic,” Wei Wuxian complains. “These aren’t even spicy.”

 

“Who has your spice tolerance?” Jiang Cheng says bitingly, now that half the room is coughing. “It’s a miracle your tongue still exists with what you expose it to. Even when Father first brought you to Lotus Pier, you were so ungrateful and would add your chilis into every dish placed in front of you, even A-jie’s soups!”

 

Wei Wuxian hums at yet another attack on his preferred seasonings. He plays with the tassel on Chenqing, then moves to the pendant strung to his sash. The pendant is fine jade carved with a cloud motif, and it glistens in a beam of moonlight. Eventually, he shrugs at Jiang Cheng and simply says, “I never meant any offense. Old habits die hard.”

 

Whether the words pertained to his habit of seasoning or Jiang Cheng’s habit of attacking him over things long past is unclear. Surrounded by the violent pattering of rain, Jiang Cheng’s face flickers between wrath and exhaustion. “What old habits?” he ends up saying with less acidity, “We were barely adolescents at that point.”

 

Only splashes of paste hitting soup resounds in the room as Wei Wuxian stretches to fill the silence. He looks at the bowls of soup untouched by disciples who hadn’t received the vials yet or who were too turned off by the smell to approach it again. Finally, he says, “I learned it from some other kids who were even younger than me. Did you know that most children don’t like spice when they’re younger? I knew some like that. They’d cry until we gave in and they’d eat their rotting fruits happily one day and be dead the next, surrounded by waste and bile.”

 

Jiang Cheng moves his hand, but then puts it back down. He doesn’t respond immediately, and the room listens to his labored breaths. “Well,” he says gruffly, and the voice is loud in the small hut with all ears tuned to him. “I’m sure your Hanguang-jun feeds you only the freshest and healthiest meals. So, at least you don’t have to burn your mouth anymore.”

 

“Oh, probably. It is the Cloud Recesses. But why would he care?”

 

“What do you mean why?” All the anger that had slowly dissipated comes back in full force. “His Excellency wants his cultivation partner happy and healthy, doesn’t he? Do I need to give him the shovel talk?”

 

The idea that Jiang Cheng wants to give a shovel talk on his behalf makes Wei Wuxian feel giddy. “But why would you do that? Lan Zhan and I aren’t together.” The giddiness gives way to a slow ache as he says it.

 

“What? You’re not together?” He looks to Jin Ling for confirmation - who just says something like, what do you think, you know what an idiot he is! - and he receives his answer tenfold as every junior in the room nods in reply. “I don’t understand. Don’t you stay in the jingshi?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Jiang Cheng sighs and shakes his head. “I don’t understand you two. Do what you like. I just feel sorry for Hanguang-jun.”

 

The words make Wei Wuxian recoil. Jiang Cheng takes first watch and barks at everyone to sleep, but it doesn’t come easily for Wei Wuxian. He replays Jiang Cheng’s words in his head and the throb of his heart feels like lightning was being conducted from the skies to his chest. Tucking his head into his arms, he tries to sleep.

 

The next day, no one vomits or has explosive diarrhea, but Wei Wuxian is quiet as he clings to Sizhui on the flight down the mountain.

 

 

 

 

5.

 

“Ning-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui calls. His cousin is approaching them from the dense forests bordering the back hill of Cloud Recesses, pale in daylight with his dark robes doing no favors for his waxy complexion.

 

Wen Ning salutes them with low bows. “A-Yuan, Lan-gongzi, Sect Leader Jin, Ouyang-gongzi.”

 

“Hey, Ghost General!” Ouyang Zizhen returns enthusiastically. “Are you here to pet the rabbits too?” Jin Ling twists his face uncomfortably before giving a curt nod as well.

 

Wen Ning answers slowly, as if unsure what to do with Zizhen’s laidback welcome and Jin Ling’s begrudging tolerance. “I-I brought souvenirs from my travels. I was hoping to share them with A-Yuan and his friends.” His voice betrays his stiff face as he reveals trinkets, pouches, and a few jars from his pockets.

 

“Wow! These look great, Ghost General!” Lan Jingyi exclaims as he picks up a toy from the pile and immediately begins playing with it.

 

“Thanks for always thinking of us, Ning-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui says with a bright smile.

 

If Wen Ning could look embarrassed, he probably would at that moment. Instead, he merely sputters, “O-Of course, A-Yuan. I’m always thinking of you.”

 

“What’s this?” Jin Ling picks up a jar and removes its cover. He wrinkles his nose. “Ugh! This smells so gross! Where did you get it from?”

 

Wen Ning looks shocked that he was addressed directly by Jin Ling, but then the expression is replaced with distress. “An o-old woman said this tofu dessert was the best in her region,” Wen Ning stammers. “But, I can’t smell much anymore, and I c-couldn’t taste it to make sure. Is it bad?”

 

“Maybe it’s stinky tofu,” Ouyang Zizhen supplies helpfully. He takes the jar, gives it a sniff, and winces as well. Wen Ning looks at his feet and shifts awkwardly.

 

“Wen Ning!”

 

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are walking towards them. Quickly, Lan Jingyi sits upright and throws the toy back into the pile. They go through the appropriate greetings and Lan Sizhui looks at his father, “Hanguang-jun, you’re feeling better this afternoon?”

 

Lan Wangji nods. “Mn.” He sits and allows the rabbits to jump into his lap as if they were waiting for him.

 

“Don’t worry your cute head over it,” Wei Wuxian chimes in. “I nursed your dear Hanguang-jun back to health this morning!” He looks at the pile of assorted items. “What’s all this?”

 

“Some trinkets and rotten tofu,” Jin Ling interjects and crosses his arms over his chest.

 

“Ning-qianbei thoughtfully brought them to share,” Lan Sizhui adds quickly at his cousin’s crestfallen posture. For being perhaps the most feared being among their sects, in reality he’s quick to please and endearingly awkward.

 

“Yeah, it’s too bad that old lady took advantage of your lack of smell!” Lan Jingyi says defensively. This doesn’t work the way he thinks, so quickly, “Uhh, but it still looks really good, right, Sizhui?”

 

Wei Wuxian frowns and looks at Wen Ning apologetically. “Ah right, Wen Ning. That’s my fault, isn’t it?”

 

“No, Wei-gongzi! I-I am grateful to you,” Wen Ning says as emotionally as possible. “I should have double checked, but I admit I don’t think of what food should look or smell like often enough these days.”

 

“It’s just tofu,” Jin Ling utters under his breath in the beat of quiet that follows, just as Lan Sizhui says, “Everything else looks great, Ning-qianbei. Please don’t worry about it.”

 

“Besides, Wen Ning, your timing is perfect! I’ve actually been thinking of you,” Wei Wuxian says and starts fumbling through his pouch. Lan Wangji’s shoulders grow taut and his expression darkens, an amusing sight as one rabbit forces its head into the palm of his hand for pets.

 

Wei Wuxian pulls out a bottle with bright orange-red liquid and tosses it to Wen Ning. “Try this! I think I really got it this time!”

 

Wen Ning looks at the bottle timidly before opening it and putting one drop on his fingertip. Its color is so effervescent it looks like a miniature sun compared to his pallid skin. He puts it to his tongue and the lines of his face move, like a river’s first thaw in spring. “W-Wei-gongzi, I can taste it! The - the flavor is so vibrant!”

 

“What is that? Let me try,” Jin Ling says, and Wen Ning nods eagerly as he moves to put a drop on his finger as well. But suddenly the bottle is not in his hands anymore.

 

“Don’t do that!” Wei Wuxian cries and holds the bottle to his chest. “This sauce is really concentrated, your finger might actually burn from just touching it!”

 

“Now I really want to try it,” Lan Jingyi whispers to Ouyang Zizhen who, of course, is looking amazed.

 

“You think I’m so weak? I’ve been eating and using the spices you carry around for the last few months! I can handle a drop of this,” Jin Ling retorts.

 

Lan Sizhui has a boding feeling as Wei Wuxian eventually agrees, with a quirk of his lips, to squeeze a drop into his nephew’s mouth. He’s well aware of Wen Ning’s loss of sensation, so for his cousin to be able to taste this vermilion sauce -

 

“Aghhhh!” Jin Ling cries and begins seething in and out, his hands waving cool air at his tongue. “What the fuck is that? Liquid fire?” He grabs the tofu and quickly puts it in his mouth, and with a terrible grimace, he swallows it and sticks his tongue out. It has a dark red patch in the center, where a dozen papillae have become erect. He continues moaning and puts his hand to his throat.

 

“I don’t want to try it anymore,” Lan Jingyi mutters.

 

“Wow, I can’t believe you ate the stinky tofu, Rulan,” Ouyang Zizhen notes with incredulity. “You couldn’t even stand the smell just a few minutes ago.”

 

Wei Wuxian titters in an I told you so manner. “That’s an added benefit of spice. It can mask pungent flavors.”

 

“When in the world would you need something like that?” Jin Ling exclaims hoarsely. “You made this just to torture me, didn’t you?”

 

“Not everything is about you, Sect Leader Jin,” Wei Wuxian says with a roll of his eyes. “Besides, there’s plenty of uses! Like our last night hunt, perhaps, when a flavor is bad but you’re so hungry? Believe me, plenty of people have to eat things they don’t want to eat.”

 

Lan Wangji’s face hardens. He looks from his rabbits to Wei Wuxian, and if the path between their eyes was tangible, it would be bubbling magma with the intensity of his concern and grief that meets oblivious delight.

 

Seriously, how does Wei Wuxian not know?

 

Wei Wuxian tears his eyes away and cackles as Jin Ling’s cheeks continue to color. “Hahaha, I’m sorry, Jin Ling. But seriously, eat around a moldy bun or sprouted potato and then you’ll wish you had a sauce like this one!”

 

The words settle over them like a sheet of frost, and understanding is so close, making sense of random anecdotes and jokes. It’s so close, like someone yelling at them from under a frozen pond, and you can just make out the words.

 

Lan Sizhui thinks of the Burial Mounds again, but at a time before he started living there. He thinks of a small Wei Ying homeless on the streets, eating rinds or rotten fruit from the garbage, or in the Burial Mounds the second time staring listlessly at a plate of turnips.

 

Lan Wangji deposits his rabbits gently, and he’s up and hesitantly makes contact with Wei Wuxian’s wrist.

 

The other juniors seem to share the same realization. “Wei-qianbei, you’ve lived such a hard life!” Ouyang Zizhen practically wails and breaks the solemn moment - to them, at least. The object of their sympathy is focused on Lan Wangji’s hand on him before looking at them with bewilderment.

 

“Eh? What’re you three getting so misty-eyed about? You haven’t even tried my new sauce yet! There’s no need to cry.” He looks directly at Jin Ling whose eyes have become wet with tears, amid sweat dripping from his hairline and hard sniffles to prevent his nose from running.

 

The frigidity gives way. “But why such a spicy sauce?” Lan Jingyi asks, watching their friend finally stop sweating, “I’m sure most people probably wouldn’t eat this either based on Sect Leader Jin’s reaction.”

 

“W-Wei-gongzi made it for me,” Wen Ning answers and they look back at him. He’s playing with his fingers and at their attention, or Lan Wangji’s glare, he tenses and explains, “He’s been trying to make something that I can actually taste, I mean. W-Wei-gongzi, I really like it! Thank you for your hard work!”

 

Wei Wuxian looks embarrassed at the profuse gratitude. He sighs. “Don’t thank me, Wen Ning. I’m the one who made you this way, after all. Well, I hope you can enjoy life a little better now.”

 

“Wei-gongzi, you put in so much effort for me,” Wen Ning says hastily and with great appreciation. “Of course I’m thankful! Attempt after attempt just so I can taste something, amongst everything else you’ve done...”

 

“How many attempts has it been?” Lan Jingyi asks, interrupting the mood. He’s snickering, understandably, at the image of the great Yiling Patriarch being evil and making the hottest chili sauces in all of China just so his Ghost General can finally taste something again.

 

Lan Sizhui imagines that Wei Wuxian uses Chenqing to stir his concoctions, or something to that effect.

 

“Eighteen!” Wen Ning declares. The corners of his mouth move urgently, but his face remains stiff.

 

Lan Sizhui smiles gratefully. “Wei-qianbei, thank you so much for taking care of Ning-qianbei.”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs bitterly and waves his hands in front of him. “Ah, seriously, don’t thank me. I’m just glad Wen Ning likes it.”

 

“What spices did you use that even the Ghost General could enjoy it?” Ouyang Zizhen asks.

 

A big grin grows on Wei Wuxian’s face. “Great question, Ouyang-gongzi! It’s actually really funny.” His voice takes on a theatrical tone. “After seventeen attempts to bring flavor back into A-Ning’s life, I heard of a small town called Dali that was growing the spiciest pepper in all of China. So immediately, I traveled west and brought back a kilo of their famous... ghost peppers!” He devolves into a hearty laugh. Lan Wangji watches him fondly, as Wei Wuxian shoves his face into his shoulder to continue laughing at his own wit.

 

“Ghost pepper!” Lan Sizhui says in astonishment and amusement.

 

“Isn’t it perfect for Wen Ning?” Wei Wuxian says excitedly. “The ghost pepper for the Ghost General!” There are tears in his eyes as well now.

 

“But does that mean the sauce is actually good? Or is it just spicy? I heard ghost peppers are really intense. People can die from eating it!” Lan Jingyi whispers to Ouyang Zizhen, and Lan Sizhui notes to remind Jingyi how to whisper later.

 

“The sauce is good,” a deep voice says. It’s not Wen Ning. Or Jin Ling.

 

“Hanguang-jun, you’ve tasted Wei-qianbei’s sauces?” Lan Jingyi asks incredulously.

 

“As Jiang Cheng said, my tongue is burnt from all the chilis it’s been exposed to! So I need a taste tester and your Hanguang-jun was quick to volunteer,” Wei Wuxian explains excitedly, “They’re all pretty good, right, Lan Zhan?”

 

Lan Wangji nods. “Wei Ying excels at creating new flavors. Every spice mixture is well-balanced and pleasing to eat.” Wei Wuxian beams.

 

“Even the ghost pepper sauce?” Lan Sizhui asks hesitantly.

 

There’s a beat before Lan Wangji answers. “The ghost pepper is intense but carries a fruity aftertaste. I enjoyed trying it for Wei Ying.” The curve of Wei Wuxian’s lips gets even bigger.

 

“I tasted no fruitiness!” Jin Ling snaps.

 

“Uh, Hanguang-jun...” Lan Jingyi frowns and he makes eye contact with Lan Sizhui, who seems to be remembering the same thing. “Weren’t you sick this morning?”

 

Wei Wuxian looks between them questioningly at the sudden change in subject. Lan Wangji doesn’t answer, but the juniors only shake their heads sympathetically.

 

“Lan er-gongzi, I didn’t realize you went through such lengths for me,” Wen Ning admits contritely, clearly on the same page as them. He’s looking at Lan Wangji now with gratitude and if he could be teary-eyed as well, he’d probably be so now.

 

Wei Wuxian puts a hand on Wen Ning’s shoulder and titters. “Who went through such lengths for you? I burned my fingers mincing the ghost peppers! Why are you so thankful to Lan Zhan now?”

 

“I already thanked you, but you said not to, Wei-gongzi...”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs as he continues to pat Wen Ning’s shoulder, clearly taking great pleasure in teasing him. Lan Wangji’s lips tighten as he watches the interaction.

 

“Do you think Wei-qianbei laces his chili sauces with vinegar? Is vinegar a spice?” Lan Jingyi murmurs and the juniors chuckle together.

 

 

 

 

+1.

 

Spring is warming into summer when the junior foursome reunites in Cloud Recesses for the annual discussion conference. The mountaintop and Caiyi town are filling up with attendees, and yet in the few days before the conference starts, no one catches Wei Wuxian for more than a few minutes before he runs back to the jingshi.

 

“Do you think Wei-qianbei is ok?” Ouyang Zizhen asks one day. They’re at the archery range, and it’s unusual for Wei Wuxian to not be here showing off at this point.

 

Jin Ling snorts. “If that idiot can get sick, he’d be dead by now.”

 

“He was dead,” Lan Jingyi says helpfully and hits a bullseye.

 

“You know what I mean. He’s so irresponsible even having died once! How can he possibly be sick?”

 

Lan Sizhui hums. “Wei-qianbei hasn’t been eating much lately.” He tells them that yesterday, he had dinner in the jingshi and was surprised when Wei Wuxian picked at a few steamed vegetables, ate them plain, and then went to play his dizi.

 

“That’s odd,” Ouyang Zizhen comments and everyone puts down their bows. “I’ve never seen Wei-qianbei eat a meal without using one of his hot sauces or chili oils.”

 

Jin Ling presses his lips into a thin line, before he rolls his eyes. “Ok, fine. He’s sick. What do you want to do about it?”

 

“We should at least visit,” Lan Jingyi says with a shrug.

 

“Poor Wei-qianbei. And with Hanguang-jun so busy with the discussion conference these past few days,” Ouyang Zizhen says in agreement. “Do you think Hanguang-jun knows?”

 

“If he knew, he wouldn’t be working on the discussion conference,” Jingyi replies and they all agree with that.

 

A few hours later, the juniors knock on the door of the jingshi. When they hear the familiar voice, they enter cautiously into the esteemed Hanguang-jun’s private dwelling. The jingshi is organized attractively, with two low tables on the far end - one with a guqin and the others laden with small pots and trails of dirt. It’s a clear hodgepodge of someone with elegant taste - evident by a row of gilded manuscripts on the shelves - and someone with a little more garishness - evident by the tattered books with ripped spines next to the gilded ones.

 

Wei Wuxian waves them over to where he is sitting in the center of the jingshi. He looks completely normal except his smile is strained. “What do I owe the honor? Did you miss me, dear nephew?”

 

“Like I would!”

 

“Wei-qianbei, we brought some ginger tea, your favorite youtiao, and some freshly picked lychees for you,” Lan Sizhui says and puts the assortment of foods on the table. They sit.

 

Wei Wuxian looks at the food with a complicated expression. “Ah, thank you. Such filial piety!” he says, spreading his lips into his usual grin but winces before it hits his cheeks. He raises a hand to his jaw.

 

“Wei-qianbei, are you ok?”

 

“Oh, fine, fine,” he mutters, but takes a few more seconds before he removes his hand. “I’m afraid I’m not in the mood to eat any of this right now. It's too bad I just had a big meal. You go ahead; I’ll watch. How are things?”

 

No one moves in case he erupts into Ahh, how dare you eat before your senior! That was a test, but nothing comes. “What’s wrong with you?” Jin Ling asks, annoyed. “We literally went to get these lychees just for you because you always talk about how much you like them!”

 

“Really?” Wei Wuxian asks with surprise. “You picked these for me, Jin Ling?”

 

“They were already doing it so why not!” Jin Ling erupts, and his cheeks redden as if taking on the appearance of lychee skin itself.

 

Wei Wuxian laughs but cuts it short by raising his hand to his jaw again. “Agh. Well, thank you. Please, I really mean it, go ahead and eat since you put so much effort into it. I’ll make some salted water for you.”

 

“Salted water?” Ouyang Zizhen says as he reaches for a fruit. “Is there a special spice or something in there, Wei-qianbei?”

 

“Aiya, I said salt, didn’t I? I don’t want you boys to be too hot - oh, damn it.” As he made to stand, a line of blood trickled from one nostril and Wei Wuxian immediately pinches his nose with one hand and grabs a handkerchief with the other.

 

The juniors bristle, all lychees dropped. “Wei-qianbei! I’ll run and get a doctor! And Hanguang-jun!” Lan Jingyi exclaims, rising to his feet.

 

“No need, Jingyi. Sit,” Wei Wuxian says in a nasally voice. “This happens. It’s not a big deal. I promise I’m not dying.”

 

“Nose bleeds are not normal,” Jin Ling retorts with a lace of concern.

 

At that moment, the doors of the jingshi open and Lan Wangji steps in, looking every bit like his Excellency with pale blue and white robes, and a tall silver guan. He nods to the juniors, looks at the table, and turns to Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying,” he says worriedly and strides over. “Are you ill?”

 

“What are you doing here? Didn’t you have a busy schedule today?” Wei Wuxian asks from under the handkerchief.

 

“Mn. I came as soon as I received the message,” Lan Wangji answers and puts his own clean handkerchief up to Wei Wuxian’s nose, removing the now crimson-stained one.

 

“What message?” comes the muffled voice.

 

“Hanguang-jun, is Wei-qianbei ok?” Lan Sizhui asks, and he has his own handkerchief pulled out, just in case. “I told Hanguang-jun we picked lychees to cheer you up because we thought you might not be feeling well. Is that the message you’re talking about?”

 

“Mn.” Lan Wangji lifts the handkerchief and looks relieved to see the bleeding has stopped. “Wei Ying, what’s wrong?”

 

“Thanks, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian lets Lan Wangji dab a wet cloth at the dry blood under his nostrils. “Nothing’s wrong, I swear. I’m not sick!”

 

No one entertains that thought.

 

“No, really! I’m not sick. I just - ugh! It’s so embarrassing!” Wei Wuxian whines and scrunches his face unhappily, then winces hard, as if dreaming of his shijie in the loneliest hours of the night.

 

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji’s voice borders on desperation.

 

“Lan Zhan, it’s fine. Really - ugh.” Wei Wuxian pouts. “What’re you even doing here? A-Yuan tells you I’m sick - which I’m not - and you just abandon all your important Excellency duties and rush over? Why would you even do that?”

 

Lan Wangji tucks a loose strand of hair behind Wei Wuxian’s ear and his fingers linger there. “Why do you think?” he asks finally, kindly. They look at each other in prolonged silence, and between Wei Wuxian’s freshly pinched nose, the rosiness of his cheeks, and the burn of Lan Wangji’s ears, the scene is incredibly intimate.

 

The juniors really wish they weren’t here right now.

 

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says finally. “You - ” He pauses. Lan Sizhui half expects him to say something like, you didn’t want me to bleed all over the jingshi or did you forget something, let me help you find it. But he takes a beat before he simply says, “Me too, Lan Zhan, me too.”

 

Lan Wangji breathes and like sunbeams after a long winter, he glows. “Wei Ying.” He caresses Wei Wuxian’s face in his pale fingers with great care, and gently tilts his chin forward.

 

The juniors look away frantically.

 

“Lan Zhan, sorry, I can’t.”

 

Nothing follows that and when they look back, Lan Wangji is stricken, only clear by the conflicted motion of his eyes that are pointed down at Wei Wuxian’s lips then at his feet. He pulls his hand back, and he is back to impassiveness except for the tightening of his hand on Bichen.

 

They can’t take it anymore. “What the fuck!” Jin Ling yells. “Are you serious?”

 

Wei Wuxian looks at them as if just realizing their presence. “I - ”

 

Lan Wangji turns to the door. “I should get back,” he says briskly. “If you need Physician Lan, please let me know.” His shoulders are rigid, and he looks like he wants to run out of there immediately, if not for his distinguished reputation.

 

“Wait, Lan Zhan, you don’t understand!”

 

What do I not understand.”

 

It’s the coldest sentence Lan Sizhui has heard from his father since Wei Wuxian returned from the dead. He wants to say something, to force them to actually explain their thoughts and feelings for once, with words and not actions because not everyone can understand what those three years of seclusion meant, the thirty-three shameful scars on his father’s back, the five thousand songs of Inquiry.

 

“Lan Zhan, please.” Wei Wuxian opens his mouth and points at it. “I just mean I can’t kiss you right now. Not the way I want. It’d hurt too much, look.” He extends his bottom lip and parts his mouth to reveal several angry yellow circles in the tender folds of his mouth.

 

The world stops.

 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jin Ling stands so abruptly that the greasy bag of fried dough falls to the floor. “This is all because you have huo qi da? You’re not sick! You - you’re just pathetic!”

 

Wei Wuxian flinches. “Jin Ling - ”

 

“What’s that?” Ouyang Zizhen asks, looking around at everyone’s incredulous expression.

 

“Right, you’re a southern boy,” Jin Ling says, peeved. “What is it in Cantonese? Yeet hay?”

 

Ouyang Zizhen looks back to Wei Wuxian, who was staring at something awkwardly in the distance. “You have yeet hay?” he asks with disbelief. “That’s what this is about, Wei-qianbei?”

 

The words are the greatest threat to a Chinese child, describing the intricate balance of cold and hot energy in the body that could be easily disrupted by the foods ingested. The symptoms of too much hot - or yang - energy includes nose bleeds, sore throat, puffy eyes, and mouth ulcers. But it certainly wasn’t life threatening or anything of the sort.

 

The foods that can tip a body too hot? What child hadn’t heard someone tell them they couldn’t eat something delicious in fear of yeet hay? For example, everyone knows about lychees and longan, fried foods, and -

 

“Because you eat so much spicy food,” Lan Jingyi clarifies what everyone is thinking. Spices and curries contribute to yang energy in the body, and absolutely hurt like hell if you eat it with a mouth full of canker sores. Things click into place.

 

Lan Wangji frowns.

 

“I told you all I wasn’t sick,” Wei Wuxian mutters but doesn’t deny anything they say. “Oy - Lan Zhan, wait, where are you going? Are you - ” Lan Wangji leaves the jingshi abruptly and the door slaps shut behind him. “ - that disgusted with me? Fuck.

 

“Wei-qianbei, don’t be upset, we don’t want you to get another nose bleed,” Lan Sizhui says calmly though his face betrays his confusion. He looks at the others and they shake their heads. He can’t lie, so he doesn’t say meaninglessly comforting words that sit on the tip of his tongue, like I’m sure Hanguang-jun just had to get back to the conference or he’ll be right back, you’ll see.

 

So he says nothing.

 

Finally, “Wei-qianbei, how about I make some salted water for you? It’ll hurt, but it might speed up your recovery.” It’s a precise reversal of Wei Wuxian’s words just a few minutes before, so he forces a humorless chuckle and pats Sizhui’s head.

 

“Thanks, A-Yuan. I’m fine, really.”

 

“I know a stall in town that makes really good herbal tea. Really fresh. My mom used to get it for me all the time,” Lan Jingyi says, "Zizhen and I can go buy some bags." Ouyang Zizhen nods.

 

“Don’t be so respectful now,” Wei Wuxian teases them, “Besides, this happens all the time with this body. It’s not like it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It’ll usually go away in a week or so.”

 

“Can you just once accept some help?” Jin Ling shouts and kicks a youtiao across the room angrily. He looks every bit like his uncle then, with all the conflicted misery in his voice. “It’s fucking tea and fucking water. You can’t accept something so small?”

 

The words drive a dagger at all of Wei Wuxian’s most vulnerable thoughts. Before he can form his protective shield around them, the jingshi door opens again and Lan Wangji steps back in. He's both grateful for the interruption, but nervous energy reignites throughout his body. “Lan Zhan, you're back,” Wei Wuxian says nervously as Jin Ling backs down.

 

“Mn.” He’s holding a few white cloths and a vial opposite Bichen, which he places on the floor and joins in front of Wei Wuxian. “I brought ointment. It will speed up the healing of your sores.”

 

“Oh, I thought you went to greet some guests or something,” Wei Wuxian says uncomfortably.

 

“Wei Ying comes first.”

 

Wei Wuxian stares, his body static. “What?”

 

“Always.”

 

“Lan Zhan, you - you can’t just say things like that.” He’s beet red and really wishes he had one of Nie Huaisang’s fans right now to hide the embarrassing blush spreading over every centimeter of his face.

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond to that. Instead, he takes a cloth and dabs some of the ointment onto it. He brings it up until level with Wei Wuxian’s lips.

 

“Wait, now, Lan Zhan? The kids are here!”

 

This snaps the juniors out of their reverie. Jin Ling glares. “Who are you calling kids? I’m a sect leader!”

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says sternly. “I can ask them to leave, if you want. There is an analgesic mixed into the ointment, so you will feel better after it is applied.”

 

Wei Wuxian pouts. He looks over at them with resignation, and then opens his mouth gingerly. His gaze stays intently on Lan Wangji’s face as he carefully begins dabbing at the circles.

 

It’s all very domestic.

 

When they finish, Wei Wuxian closes his mouth and clearly thinks about running his tongue over the newly treated sores. Instead, he looks at Lan Wangji and blurts out, “I really wanted to kiss you, Lan Zhan!”

 

Lan Wangji breathes in quickly and his eyes immediately dart to Wei Wuxian’s lips.

 

The juniors all stand abruptly, taking their cue to leave.

 

“Oh, you’re all leaving already?” Wei Wuxian asks and leans to look at them around Lan Wangji’s figure, who at this point is uncharacteristically slumped with muted exasperation.

 

“If you knew we were here, then why are you acting so - so - ”

 

“We’ll just run to get the herbal tea before it sells out,” Lan Jingyi says hastily. “It’s really popular, you know!”

 

“And I’ll go to the kitchens to boil the water,” Lan Sizhui adds, despite the fact that one could boil water perfectly well in the jingshi.

 

Jin Ling still looks grumpy at the entire situation, and his posture remains severe. “Wait until I tell my uncle,” he mutters, then begrudgingly loosens the muscles of his neck and shoulders. “The Jin sect brought a basket of chrysanthemum flowers picked by monks for his Excellency. I might as well just bring it over now, so Wei Wuxian can balance his yang energy out,” he says derisively.

 

Wei Wuxian smiles a little, avoiding stretching his canker sores, and can’t help but tease, “Jin Ling, why, I didn’t realize how much you cared about me!”

 

Jin Ling snorts. “I know. Why do you think I call you an idiot all the time?” he says tartly.

 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes and mouth fly open. The other juniors pack their things and pick up the bread on the floor. They bow low and grab Jin Ling quickly as they walk to the door. The only words said as they march out the room is from Jingyi, who turns to Ouyang Zizhen and flippantly asks, “Do you still think Wei-qianbei’s spice tolerance is so great now, Zizhen?”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs and even slaps his knee with a strange feeling of happiness bubbling in his chest. He meets Lan Wangji in midair, and he leans over and presses a chaste kiss to his cheek. “I get such good care here, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says contentedly. “Thanks for getting the ointment and putting it on for me.”

 

“No need for thanks,” Lan Wangji responds, and the tips of his ears turn pink.

 

“Lan Zhan! Who knew you could still be embarrassed after all we’ve been through together!” Wei Wuxian chuckles. “And you know what? Who knew these juniors would go to such lengths for me! They failed, of course. They brought foods that would only make me worse, but, Lan Zhan, did you know they went to pick lychees just because I like them?”

 

The jade-like curves of Lan Wangji’s face soften and he looks at Wei Wuxian tenderly. “Mn. They care deeply about Wei Ying. As do I.”

 

Wei Wuxian throws his face into the white robes. “Ahh, Lan Zhan, you can’t just say things like that!” he exclaims and buries himself deeper into his chest. Strong arms enfold him comfortably but snugly, and he gets the feeling they wouldn’t let go easily.

 

An hour or so later, Lan Sizhui returns with a steaming cup and Jin Ling with a basket of fragrant flowers tied together with a gold, ostentatious ribbon.

 

“So, Wei-qianbei, are you going to stop eating spicy foods now? Would you be able to bear it?” Lan Jingyi asks from behind them, holding two bags of black liquid.

 

“Wei-qianbei doesn’t just use his spices for flavor,” Ouyang Zizhen interjects, holding another two bags of the same thing, “Haven’t you been paying attention? Besides, a little at a time shouldn’t be too bad.”

 

“Food is gross if it’s not seasoned,” Jin Ling agrees and drops the basket onto the low table, “You have to give him some credit - I don’t know how any of you eat these bland vegetables every day.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Wei-qianbei, do you want me to make chrysanthemum tea for you?” comes Sizhui’s soothing voice.

 

This, Wei Wuxian thinks as he looks fondly around the jingshi and meets Lan Wangji’s gentle gaze: the room filled with the bickering of the juniors until Jingyi eventually throws one of the bags at Jin Ling, and then immediately apologizes to Lan Wangji as the bag naturally spills all over the floor and Ouyang Zizhen tries to mop it up, Lan Wangji barely noticing as he holds Wei Wuxian close, their son opening the basket and exclaiming delightedly at the perfectly dried petals - he thinks that this is the spice of life.