Winter comes too quickly to Gusu.
Before the last dregs of autumn have fully faded, there is already a thin blanket of snow on the ground, a chill in the air that seeps between the weave of all but the warmest of cloaks. The wind is cutting, the clouds hang heavy on days that it snows, and even when it does not snow, the sharp crispness of the air stings exposed noses and cheeks. Windows on most buildings are firmly latched so that no breeze seeps through and the cold springs stay empty. Rooms feel darker; the days are shorter and quieter.
It might not be the Lan way to complain, but JingYi confides one day that this is the coldest, earliest winter they’ve had in many years. His nose is pink with cold as he waits for Wei WuXian to pull on his boots. “Lucky you,” he tells Wei WuXian, entirely insincerely, and ducks out of the way before he can swat at him with Chenqing.
The younger Lan juniors, who haven’t yet learned to control their bodies’ temperatures with their cultivation, don heavier cloaks, and even the seniormost disciples wear sturdier boots meant to be impervious to the wet snow. Scarves are worn as regularly as the ribbons on their foreheads; white mittens protect delicate fingers from the cold. Even Wei WuXian has a new set of robes for the winter, made of thick material, lined with fur, and dyed a deep blue colour that can’t have been cheap, but Lan WangJi had presented them to him and Wei WuXian is loathe to dismiss any of his husband’s gifts. He pulls on gloves when he goes outside because his core is not yet strong enough to keep the chill from his fingers like Lan WangJi, who stands proudly wearing only one additional layer over his normal robes.
It is not the cold that bothers Wei WuXian most days, but the quiet.
The snow subdues even the hardest of footfalls on the paths of the Cloud Recesses. Silence hangs heavy in the still air; music is played even less, as cultivators keep their easily chilled hands for more important tasks. Everything is muted, white, and cold. The soft crunch of snow underfoot becomes the only sound during quiet mornings and there are none of the cheerful crickets singing at night. Wei WuXian doesn’t wander the paths, doesn’t play his flute, cannot travel down to CaiYi Town while the path remains dangerously icy.
The construction on his small workshop in the back hills has also been halted, removing the last of his amusements. The Lan may be able to work through the snow, but this first cold spell has dropped the temperature so abruptly that other construction projects—like clearing the icy path to CaiYi Town and repairing a fallen bridge—have taken immediate precedence. There are many things to be done, to prepare for an early winter. Wei WuXian can hardly begrudge them reinforcing all of the main buildings against the cold and ice when he has so much trouble staying warm on his own.
He offers to help, of course, but the Lan Sect disciples are frighteningly efficient, and don’t usually require—or especially want—his brand of assistance.
So, Wei WuXian stays in the Jingshi. Shutters closed tightly against the chill wind, he works by candlelight, filling up pages of abstract ideas for sigils and talismans and arrays, musical compositions for his dizi, musings on how to weather the lotus pond that he is determined to build when spring finally arrives. He is grateful for the endless supply of paper—hemp and rice and silk, whatever he desires—and ink. It keeps him busy enough, but most days he still feels cooped up, ready to walk and explore and travel again soon.
“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi says one night as Wei WuXian sketches—nothing of importance, just a scene from the lakes of Lotus Pier in the heights of summer, as though seeing it will keep him warm. He forgets, for a second, that Lan WangJi has called his name, determined to put the finishing touches on the drawing before he crawls into bed.
“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi repeats, a little louder, and this time Wei WuXian does look up. Lan WangJi looks fond, if not a little exasperated. He is already sitting in bed, ready to go to sleep.
“I’m almost done,” Wei WuXian promises, adding a last flourish to the waves hitting the posts of the dock. He signs his name for posterity’s sake.
He can feel the weight of Lan WangJi’s stare on him as he places the newly finished drawing on the stack that has been accumulating by his knee.
“Will you bind them?” Lan WangJi asks, something in his voice that Wei WuXian can’t immediately read. Wei WuXian looks up at him, and Lan WangJi’s gaze goes to the piles—several, and plenty of loose-leaf besides—that cover the floor of the Jingshi in the corner Wei WuXian has claimed as his own.
Now that he looks at them again, it’s clear that they have gotten a bit out of hand. Most of his notes are not sorted, simply placed, once dry, on a stack and left for him to search for at a later date. The drawing he completed today is sitting on top of the beginnings of an idea for a talisman that he’s since completed but hasn’t tested. Underneath that lie some scribbles for a project that never materialized, and under that, a letter to Lan WangJi from many months ago that he had unearthed and reread.
He feels a little ashamed to have made such a mess in Lan WangJi’s—their—home. Lan WangJi is not a person who keeps many things by nature: he has one box with his most important items, a small shelf for his books, and a place to hang his clothes. He has almost certainly never seen the Jingshi in the disarray it currently is.
“Ah, most of them are just sketches, nothing important,” Wei WuXian says quickly, getting to his feet. “No need to bind them. I’ll go through it all and throw some away in the morning, I promise.” He yawns. Winter’s short days make everyone tired.
Lan WangJi says nothing to that, but his gaze is distant when Wei WuXian slips into bed next to him. Even as his hand comes up to cradle Wei WuXian’s head, pull him in for a soft kiss, there is a hesitancy that Wei WuXian can’t read. Lan WangJi extinguishes the last candle, falling into his sleeping position and closing his eyes. If it’s important, Lan WangJi will surely tell him. If not, he’ll ask tomorrow.
He pulls the covers over himself and snuggles closer to his husband. A low hum rumbles through Lan WangJi’s chest. If there is one thing Wei WuXian appreciates about winter, it is that the added body heat from sleeping on top of Lan WangJi is welcome, desirable even.
In the morning, he barely wakes when Lan WangJi leaves the bed, only conscious for the slightest press of lips to his forehead before it is gone again. It is cold, and dark, and Wei WuXian would rather stay in bed until at least the sun rises, but probably much longer. Winter mornings are kind to no one.
He doesn’t get the chance to take advantage though, because within minutes of the sun making its first break through his eyelids, there is a sharp rap at the door.
“Senior Wei?” It sounds like JingYi. “Can I come in?”
Wei WuXian garbles something unintelligible back, squinting into the morning sunlight. If the juniors are bothering him in the morning, it must be at least somewhat important—they know he likes to sleep in. He pulls an outer robe on over his first layer, and another on top of that before stumbling to the door. It is indeed JingYi on the other side, who frowns in proper Lan despair over Wei WuXian’s apparent lack of dress.
Wei WuXian ushers him in, quickly shutting the door behind him before the icy air permeates his whole living space. “It’s so early,” he groans, rubbing the heels of his hands in his eyes, “what do you need?”
JingYi raises his eyebrows, universal Lan signal for “it’s not early, you just sleep too late” but answers the question all the same. “HanGuang-Jun told me to come and help you take your notes to the library pavilion, so you can bind them properly.” He scans the room behind Wei WuXian, unabashedly curious. “You have a lot, huh.”
Lan Zhan, Wei WuXian thinks fondly, always has a way of getting exactly what he wants from the YiLing Patriarch, even when all he needs is to tidy his room.
“Most of them are just scraps,” Wei WuXian repeats. He grabs a few of the smaller stacks and combines them so they’re easier to carry. “I’ll be doing more throwing away than binding, I think.” JingYi makes a sound like an muffled laugh. Wei WuXian peers up at him. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing important.” JingYi has a funny smile on his face but turns away to help collect papers. “I’ll show you when we get there.”
Even collecting all the scraps takes longer than expected. A meal is brought for them, and Wei WuXian ignores JingYi’s pained expression as he pours enough chili oil on his meal to give it some sort of taste. JingYi is served even blander food than normal—plain congee and vegetable broth. He makes a face but digs in all the same.
Wei WuXian watches him, and asks, “is this some sort of new punishment for you? What did you manage to do so wrong that you were assigned to help me clean and eat terrible food?”
JingYi doesn’t answer immediately of course, but promptly shovels the rest of his congee into his mouth and swallows. He pushes away his bowl, as though to symbolize the end of the meal, before speaking. “It’s not really a punishment,” he says, “well—not exactly. I got injured on the last night hunt—” he presses a hand to his left side and winces, “—so I’m on administration duty this week. Paperwork, scribing, recopying old texts, that sort of stuff.”
The face he pulls is so pained that Wei WuXian nearly chokes with laughter.
With their combined effort, it doesn’t take much longer before they’re all packed up and have two—hefty—stacks of paper that they can carry over to the pavilion. The wind is biting cold, but not strong enough to tear any of the pages from their grip. JingYi snickers when Wei WuXian almost slips on the ice in front of the library, but there’s no one around to scold him in the quiet early afternoon. Only one of the three cultivators looks up when they enter but quickly goes back to his work.
Wei WuXian follows JingYi to an alcove near the back and they deposit all the papers on the floor next to the table. Binding materials—paste, additional paper, some small lengths of string—have already been laid out, and Wei WuXian is surprised to see them. Since he’s mostly been working on thicker hemp paper, rather than rice paper, he’d imagined they would just paste sheets together so they could be whirlwind-bound into a scroll. Whoever prepared this must not have realized that Wei WuXian’s notes were, for the most part, not worth keeping—there is enough here to bind his notes into folded tomes, even if he has written on both sides of the page. Silly, really, because it’s not as though the notes will be read by anyone but him.
JingYi stops him before he can sit and get to work.
“Come with me, first,” he says, grin sharp and excited.
Wei WuXian has not spent much time in the new Cloud Recesses’ library. Since—returning—the only time he’s spent here was while they were still hunting for the missing pieces of the puzzle surrounding Nie MingJue’s death. A lifetime seems to have passed since then, though it’s truly only been a few short years.
This library is larger than the old one, he remarks as they walk deeper among the rows. He has avoided it since he started living in Gusu, not because he didn’t want access to the knowledge, but because his peace with Lan Qiren is still tentative. The last thing he wanted to do was give the man yet another reason to hate him—or a reason to ban him outright. He didn’t think the man would, but Wei WuXian follows trouble as much as it follows him, and he wanted to wait for explicit permission before entering this particular sanctuary.
JingYi stops in a less well-lit area, a set of full corner shelves beside a window boarded up for the winter storms. It’s not the forbidden section, which is probably still in a secret compartment downstairs, but it’s also clearly rarely consulted. The shelves aren’t dusty—the Lan Sect surely wouldn’t allow that to happen—but the papers, some arranged into shabby butterfly-bound tomes, some loose-leaf, many scrolls (silk and whirlwind-bound alike), still look like no one has touched them in a very long time. There are no labels on the shelves telling them what they are looking at.
“Here,” JingYi says after a moment, pressing a smartly bound tome into his hands. There is no title on its paper spine, but the cover is good quality. Wei WuXian wonders if they are in a section they oughtn’t be, after all. “Open it.” JingYi looks nervous, but he’s also holding back a smile.
Wei WuXian does, and almost drops it in surprise.
He flips a few more pages, but it’s all the same—these are his. His drawings, his sketches, his notes on talismans and applications for them. The inner pages are all low-quality paper, thick and rough and clearly made from gritty old pieces, far from the crisp ones he now writes on. In many spots, the ink is smudged. More of the pages are stained with unidentifiable grime, dirty or ripped. Despite their imperfections, all of them are exquisitely and carefully bound together.
“How?” he manages, staring down at one of the first sketches he’d made all those years ago in the Burial Mounds, for the talismans that had helped make it habitable. He recognizes his own thumbprint, a smear of ink, in the corner. “Where—when?”
“There are more,” JingYi tells him kindly. “I’m kind of surprised you didn’t know about it.” He gestures at the shelves behind him. “These are all unique works. One-of-a-kind and not permitted to be copied, not by anyone.” He shrugs, admits, “I don’t know where your notes came from, but everyone says HanGuang-Jun—” he cuts himself off, face colouring.
Wei WuXian stares down at the carefully bound book in his hands. HanGuang-Jun. Lan Zhan. His husband. It must have been him, who all those years ago found and kept these notes. Wei WuXian can picture it, can picture him trying to lie all of the notes flat, press them until they could be bound properly, added to the collection in a small corner where no one would need to know about them.
“These were just scraps, though. They aren’t worth anything.” He’s staring down at a small doodle of what is probably a radish. “What is it—doing here?”
“Well,” JingYi says, passing him another tome without a title, bound in the same smooth paper cover. “They’re kind of an open secret. There are lots of theories of why we have them, but, you know, no gossiping in the Cloud Recesses,” he recites with a shrug. “I’m sure you can guess.” Wei WuXian can only blink at him, stunned. He continues, “Gusu has the biggest collection, but LanlingJin definitely has some too. The YiLing Patriarch’s—I mean, your notes were considered quite valuable.” He adds another to Wei WuXian’s stack. “We still use your Phantom Attraction Flags, right? Apparently, a lot of the research for those was sourced from the collection at Carp Tower on—alternative cultivation.”
Wei WuXian’s hands tighten on the tome.
He stares down at it without seeing. He’s as much grateful as disgusted to have his old notes in his hands. Grateful, because someone kept these notes, someone saw value in even the small things like his frivolous sketches of Wen Qing’s medicines or Granny’s washing board. Grateful, that Lan WangJi had bound them into six neat tomes that are kept among other books considered irreplaceable and unique. He is also disgusted, in the same way he was when he first saw the Phantom Attraction Flags he designed in the hands of the Lan juniors at Mo manor. His work—a key piece in their night-hunt, as essential as their swords.
Who were these sects, who had shunned him and abused him and cast him out, to rely on his own inventions? Who were they, to applaud his genius while condemning him to die?
The hypocrisy of it all hurts like a hand reaching into his chest.
The collections he holds now are Lan WangJi’s, he tells himself, running a finger down the unmarked spine, reinforced with another sheet of thick hemp paper. This was not the senseless hoarding of spoils of war of other sects. Whatever was kept here wasn’t permitted to be copied, not allowed to be bastardized and contorted until it was justified use of a path they condemn.
For once, JingYi doesn’t say anything as they head back to the table. Wei WuXian appreciates it; he keeps his old notes tightly in hand. He thinks that JingYi understands now, that the existence of these notes, though they were ostensibly scrap, wasn’t shared with him for a reason.
They sit at the small alcove table and Wei WuXian sets them down carefully. He pores over them, scanning pages of sketches and drawings, rereading old theories, watching as talismans grow from doodles in margins to fully-fledged useful designs, watches as sketches encroach on scientific thoughts, calculations tumbling over drawings. In an odd way, it’s like seeing into his own mind. There are few pieces of actual demonic cultivation theory—some stray arrays, maybe, a few talismans—but it is mainly formed from doodles and scratches.
He remembers what JingYi said—that there’s a collection at Carp Tower of books of demonic cultivation, another open secret. Revulsion shudders down his spine.
Turning back to the book in his hands, he traces characters in his own sloppy calligraphy. His handwriting is far from the best, and every once in a while, there is a page where the writing is even more jagged and jittery. His hands had been shaking as he wrote, and they shake now as he reads. There is no resentful energy in the pages, there couldn’t be, but the eerie edges of memory prod his mind—he could easily sink in, remember how on the worst of the days, he could barely hold a brush for the way the resentment coated his bones. He flips the page and he can breathe again.
He doesn’t know how much time passes, as he looks through the books. He takes his time, flipping past every page, doing his best to remember what and when and why. Often, he can’t recall. JingYi stays across from him, quietly shuffling and flattening the papers from the Jingshi. It will take time to get them ready to be bound properly.
Too soon, he’s on the last volume, unshed tears in his eyes making even the least smudged writing blur. He is staring down at a blank page with nothing but a hasty scribble of a smiling A-Yuan in the corner when someone stops at their table.
JingYi gets to his feet hastily. “HanGuang-Jun,” he says, bowing. “This junior did as you asked.”
“JingYi,” Lan WangJi acknowledges. Wei WuXian looks up at his husband, feeling small and overwhelmed. Lan WangJi meets his eyes and tells JingYi, “you may go.”
JingYi grins and bows again. “Bye, Senior Wei,” he says. Wei WuXian just nods unable, for once, to conjure words.
He stares down at the miniscule A-Yuan sketch. He’s no artist, not professionally, anyway, but he has always had a talent, he thinks, for capturing likeness. It makes it that much more startling to see A-Yuan’s features rendered exactly as his long-faded memory recalls them. He blinks and tastes salt. If he didn’t know that Lan SiZhui, little Wen Yuan, was all grown up and thriving, he would surely be sobbing.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, voice a little rough. “You kept them.”
“Mn,” Lan WangJi acknowledges, and sinks to his knees to sit at the low table. He reaches across, brushes the trace of the fallen tear from Wei WuXian’s cheek.
“All these years—I didn’t—I thought they would have been burned.”
“No,” Lan WangJi says. There is something like thunder in his expression, briefly, before it clears. He places a hand on Wei WuXian’s.
Wei WuXian clutches it back, like a lifeline. “None of them?”
“They were all that were left,” Lan WangJi says softly, “of Wei Ying.”
Wei WuXian stares at him, stunned into silence.
Technically, there was probably plenty left of his sojourn in the Burial Mounds: Chenqing had survived, the blood pool, some dark clothes, a tattered red ribbon—but that’s not what Lan WangJi means. His personal name had been used on the streets for years to show just how little respect people had for him after his death. That is not, has never been, the way that Lan WangJi uses his name. The Wei Ying that Lan WangJi is talking about—the person behind the YiLing Patriarch that everyone thought they knew—was the one who made these sketches. Not a fearsome demon, not the most hated ex-cultivator of the generation, but him, Wei WuXian, Wei Ying.
Wei WuXian’s heart hurts, thinking of the time the Lan WangJi must have spent binding all these books, to preserve the memory of the boy who had taunted him at the Cloud Recesses in their youth, the cultivator who was cast out and shunned. To put his works among the others feels like a love confession all over again. He aches.
He hopes that Lan WangJi can read it in his expression.
“Thank you,” he says.
“There is no need for thanks,” Lan WangJi tells him. His thumb strokes the back of Wei WuXian’s hand, gazing at him fondly.
It reminds Wei WuXian of his expression the night before. “Is that why you sent JingYi so early today? You didn’t want me to get rid of any of my notes?”
Wei WuXian stifles a laugh at the absurdity of it all. A smile dances at the corners of his mouth, trying valiantly to pull it up. “You could have told me,” he tells his husband, lacing their fingers. “I would bind a thousand books of my silly pictures if the Cloud Recesses had room for them.”
“I will make room,” Lan WangJi says evenly.
“Mark your words,” Wei WuXian says, but he can feel the grin splitting his cheeks. Not even the cold of winter can take this from him—a husband that loves him, has always loved him, and who he loves in return. “I’ll fill all of the shelves this winter.”
“Mn,” Lan WangJi agrees. There is the barest hint of a smile on his lips. Wei WuXian raises his other hand to cup his husband’s cheek. “I will build a library for Wei Ying alone.”
Wei WuXian laughs.