Lotus lakes have a particular smell to them, that isn’t quite stagnant water. The night is cool and very quiet, now that they’re away from Lotus Pier. The air is thick with dragonflies and smaller things, which buzz around invisibly in Lan Wangji’s ears despite the sigils carved into the side of the boat designed to ward them away. The bottom of the boat is silty beneath his shoes, and Wei Ying is still against his chest, his breathing deep and even.
By this point Lan Wangji has held Wei Ying in his arms several times. He knows the span of Wei Ying’s narrow shoulders, the length of his arms. The difference between Wei Ying asleep, unconscious, or pretending to be. Wangji rolls one shoulder slowly and then the other, carefully adjusting Wei Ying in his grip without disturbing him. Wei Ying’s forehead rests against his chest, almost directly over his heart. He can feel Wei Ying’s heartbeat through his fingertips, wrapped around Wei Ying’s wrist.
It’s firefly season. They’re thicker on the shore, of course. But even out on the water they dance in between the lotus flowers. Lan Wangji finds himself, absurdly, feeling very peaceful. His thoughts flow through him only a little faster than the sluggish lake water moves them towards shore. That is often the only thing you can do with thoughts, he has found. With anger and frustration and hatred. Sadness, too. Grief is a singular animal, who will build a home in your heart rather than slip painlessly away if given time to rest - but most other things will pass, if you only let them.
The cords in Wei Ying’s wrist shift beneath his hand. Lan Wangji holds himself very still. He watches the fireflies rather than Wei Ying’s face, which tightens and relaxes in a series of minute expressions as he climbs slowly towards wakefulness. “Lan Zhan?” comes the first sluggish question.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji answers. It’s the only possible response he can make to Wei Ying.
When he looks down, Wei Ying is staring up at him. He has made no attempt to get out of the circle of Lan Wangji’s arms. He doesn’t seem surprised to have found himself in them, either. “We’re not in Lotus Pier,” Wei Ying says tentatively.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. He watches Wei Ying’s eyes flicker away from his face to take in their surroundings. The lotus lake, the slow water, the boat. “Where did Wen Ning go?” Wei Ying asks, after a while. He looks around over his shoulder, as if Wen Qionglin might still pop out of the water. Lan Wangji waits to see if he’ll realize his mistake, feeling terribly fond.
“He returned to Lotus Pier,” he says eventually. “He is informing the Lan disciples that we have left. He will rejoin us in the morning.”
Wei Ying takes in this information silently, and then grimaces. It’s not the sort of exaggerated expression that Lan Wangji is expecting, and he tucks his forehead into the front of Lan Wangji’s robes as if he can hide his face in them. He’s in real pain, then. It’s not so unsurprising.
He flinches when Lan Wangji’s fingers find his forehead, and turns his face just far enough to blink one wide eye upwards. Lan Wangji doesn’t give him spiritual energy - after what he’s just learned he’s not sure if it will do any good - he just presses very lightly, rubbing his fingertips and thumb over the places where tensions gather. The center of Wei Ying’s forehead, where his eyebrows meet when he scowls. Along the ridges of his eyebrows to the softer corner of each temple. Down towards the hinge of his jaw. It’s a little awkward to do with only one hand - the other hand being curled around Wei Ying’s shoulders, keeping him close against Lan Wangji’s chest - but he makes do, alternating one side and then the other. Wei Ying allows it, saying nothing, watching closely. He’s undoing all of Lan Wangji’s work, with the tension threading through the rest of his body, but the lines of pain in his face are easing, at least.
Eventually the tension in Wei Ying’s shoulders gathers. He’s about to push himself up, away from Lan Wangji. Regret flickers through him. Helplessly, he asks, “Wei Ying, where are you going?”
Wei Ying looks up at him. He’d gotten as far as bracing one hand on the floor of the boat, his elbow cocked at a strange angle. “We should get to shore, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji allows. He doesn’t tighten or loosen his hold on Wei Ying’s shoulders.
“We should set up camp,” Wei Ying says, “or find an inn. There are a few nearby, I think. If they’re still there.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. It’s true. Both of them are still covered in the thin, ashy dirt of the Burial Mounds, and even after hours of resting on the way to Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji is exhausted. It’s a marvel Wei Ying stayed on his feet as long as he did. They should get to shore. They should sleep, really sleep. And in a moment, they will. But for just a moment -
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, very softly.
Lan Wangji’s hand stills. His knuckles just barely brushing against Wei Ying’s cheek. He makes himself complete the gesture: tracing the line of Wei Ying’s cheekbone, down to the corner of his mouth and then back again. As soft as Wei Ying’s voice, as soft as fireflies. Wei Ying’s lips make the shape of Lan Wangji’s name, but Lan Wangji speaks first.
“How did you know that Wen Qionglin was with us?” he asks Wei Ying gently, and traces the shape of confusion and dawning realization that flicker through Wei Ying’s eyes. “You were unconscious when he arrived.”
Wei Ying’s mouth opens and closes like a carp, foolish looking. “Ah,” he says after a moment. “Well, that’s - that’s an interesting question, I suppose it has to do with ah, with, I mean, I created him, didn’t I? Well, you had a hand in it too. But I suppose I feel his presence the same way he feels mine. He can find me just about anywhere, did you know that? Hah. Haha.”
Lan Wangji smooths a lock of hair away from Wei Ying’s face. He doesn’t bother to dignify any of that with a response, so eventually Wei Ying runs out of words and just looks at him. “We don’t have to say anything about all that,” Wei Ying says finally. “It’s all in the past, anyway. You weren’t meant to know. None of you were.”
Lan Wangji makes a thoughtful noise. Wei Ying’s hair is soft under his fingers. It needs a wash, but the feeling is far from unpleasant, so he takes his time smoothing out the other parts that he can reach. “As you wish,” he says.
Wei Ying laughs. “Just like that?” he asks. “Hanguang Jun, you really have changed.”
Lan Wangji smiles, and Wei Ying falls completely silent. When he looks down Wei Ying’s eyes are soft and startled looking. A firefly has landed on his clothes, unnoticed. It blinks on and off, on and off, paces in little circles, and then departs. Is it true? Has Lan Wangji changed so much? He supposes it must seem like that to Wei Ying, deprived of so many of the years between them. It’s difficult even now to explain the effects that his death had on Lan Wangji’s life, on all of their lives. He knows this very well: only a few years ago he had to try and explain it to Sizhui, after the boy had caught sight of Lan Wangji’s whipping scars, and finally been old enough to realize where they’d come from.
Reluctantly, Lan Wangji opens his arms. Wei Ying sits up, his hands patting his hair over. He finds Lan Wangji’s work not up to task, and pulls the tie out of his hair to redo it. “I have a tent and bedding,” Lan Wangji tells him. “Or we can seek out an inn. Which would you prefer?”
Wei Ying’s smile wavers. His eyes flicker. He’s set his red ribbon between his teeth, both of his hands pulling and twisting his hair back. “Leaving it up to me, Lan Zhan?” he asks, a little muffled. “It’d be easier to camp. The nearest town is a few li away, I think - we’re not far enough away yet from Lotus Pier that an innkeeper wouldn’t send word to Jiang Cheng we were there. Plus that way we,” and he breaks off into a yawn, only a little play-acted, “we don’t have to walk as far before we sleep.”
Lan Wangji nods. He sends a little spiritual energy into the boat, directs it gently towards the shore. The fireflies get thicker as they go - bouncing against the broad lotus leaves and the pale flowers and against Lan Wangji’s silver headpieces. Wei Ying’s attention strays towards them, his dark eyes lit up by the flickering light. He sees Wei Ying’s face relax for the first time in -
He can’t remember.
Maybe not since they were young together, in Cloud Recesses.
“I used to catch them when I was a kid,” Wei Ying says suddenly. “If you catch them -” His hands dart out and close around a firefly, perhaps two or three. He stares down at the light, bumbling harmlessly against his palms. “I would crush them. You can paint your fingers with the light, and you’ll glow. Not for long. Just a few minutes, maybe.”
His expression is thoughtful. Still relaxed. Lan Wangji watches him, and lets his own thoughts flow through him, and after a moment Wei Ying opens his hands and lets the fireflies go. “Jiang Cheng always hated it,” he says, and looks at Lan Wangji. He smiles crookedly. “You probably would’ve hated it too. I can’t imagine you being cruel to animals. Even bugs.”
It’s true. Lan Wangji had never been the sort of child who would step on ants or crush fireflies. He has dim memories of his brother (and dimmer memories of his mother) praising him for being gentle. For waiting for an animal to approach. For gently moving a spider into an out of the way corner, or leading ants away from the house with a trail of rice. The thought of crushing out that little spark fills him with a vague sort of horror.
That boat bumps gently against the shore. Lan Wangji climbs out first. He extends a hand back to Wei Ying, who allows Lan Wangji to pull him stumbling onto the uneven ground and against Lan Wangji’s chest. The impact is soft. Lan Wangji’s arm finds its own way around Wei Ying’s waist. Wei Ying’s hands are against his shoulders. And for a moment they only look at each other, as they so often do. The urge to kiss Wei Ying overwhelms him, as it often does.
“You,” Wei Ying breathes, his eyes on Lan Wangji’s mouth, “we should,” and then he says nothing else. Should they - what? And if not, why not? Wei Ying tips his face closer - Lan Wangji holds his breath - and their foreheads come to rest together. Wei Ying’s mouth is only barely out of reach. His forehead digs the metal of Lan Wangji’s ribbon stingingly against his skin. Lan Wangji’s breath is thick with longing in his chest.
He lets Wei Ying step away. Rub both hands over his face, muffling his shaky laugh. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Ah, Lan Zhan.”
They walk side by side, deeper into the trees. Far enough away from the water that the mosquitos and gnats grow thin, the fireflies only a little less so. The air still carries that lotus water smell, as Lan Wangji calls the tent and bedding out from where he stores such things. Two pairs of hands make it light work. Wei Ying finishes clearing brush while Lan Wangji crawls into the tent and makes it comfortable. He carries two blankets with him - when he takes the junior disciples hunting, one of them will forget a blanket as often as not - but only one bedroll, and only one pillow.
“I’ve set aside some wood for a fire in the morning,” Wei Ying says, lifting the tent flap. He drops to his hands and knees to get inside the tent even though you can mostly stand up inside of it. He’s still speaking, brushing dirt off his palms, when he sees the amount of bedding available. “I don’t know what kind of food you carry with you but I can catch a fish for us to eat in the morning, if you’d -”
His expression doesn’t falter. He doesn’t look at Lan Wangji. He just subsidies into quiet, and smiles to himself.
They undress. In the dark it’s clear that a few of the fireflies have made their way into the tent, despite the late hour. The faint light they give off isn’t enough to illuminate Wei Ying’s face, to give Lan Wangji any insight into his thoughts. Lan Wangji undoes his hair and lets it loose around his shoulders. He folds his own clothes, and then Wei Ying’s, and sets them into a pile he knows is neat only through touch. He coils his forehead ribbon on top. In their underclothes, they climb into bed.
The sleeping mat is not large enough for two grown men. The last time Lan Wangji had shared it, it had been with Sizhui, who had been quite small at the time but still kicked and sprawled all over Lan Wangji through the night. It feels smaller now. The space between them is as scant as when Lan Wangji had held Wei Ying on the boat. Wei Ying smells of the laundry soap used in Cloud Recesses. He smells of the ashy dirt of the Burial Mounds. He smells of blood and sour resentment. They face each other on the single pillow, and breathe the same air.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers. The wind of his voice brushes against Lan Wangji’s lips, as light as a kiss. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji gathers Wei Ying into his arms. He comes willingly, tucking his face into Lan Wangji’s throat. His cock presses hard against Lan Wangji’s thigh, unhideable behind the thin politeness of his sleeping clothes. He doesn’t try and move his hips away, or forward, but he trembles in Lan Wangji’s arms. Wanting. Asking. Afraid to ask. Afraid to want, maybe.
Lan Wangji’s hand finds Wei Ying’s stomach in the dark. Wei Ying makes a wounded noise, low in his throat, when Lan Wangji’s fingers push searchingly under the hem of his sleeping shirt, seeking a scar he already knows isn’t there. May never have been there at all: he doesn’t know the details of the surgery Wen Qing performed, so many years ago. The skin there is very warm, and covered with wiry hair - soft and interesting against Lan Wangji’s palm. Wei Ying makes another noise, and pushes his face harder into Lan Wangji’s neck. His hips jerk forward, maybe accidentally.
It is still possible to stop. They have before, though they’ve never come so close to the line before. Once Lan Wangji listened to Wei Ying name him soulmate, and didn’t throw him down onto the forest floor afterwards. It was harder then to let Wei Ying walk away than it is now, to stop himself from pushing his fingers lower, petting the dense, soft hair that grows between Wei Ying’s hips, and then to take him in hand. But he doesn’t stop himself, and Wei Ying doesn’t stop him either. It’s a choice they are both making, as it was a choice to step inside the Jiang family shrine and make their interrupted bows. Wei Ying clutches at Lan Wangji - his fingers splayed on Lan Wangji’s cheek, in his hair, and he makes short, gasping sounds, panting hot against Lan Wangji’s skin as Lan Wangji rubs and strokes him - but this still is not inevitable.
Wei Ying’s hands fly to the waist of Lan Wangji’s pants, and push wildly at them until he finds the hot skin underneath. Ther mouths find each other at the same time their bodies do: kissing open and frantic and wet, as Wei Ying pulls their hips close, aligns them together, shoving closer, closer, as if they could climb inside each other this way. They’ve bared so little skin to each other - barely more than belly to thigh - and any more seems unimaginable. He wants it too much. If he loved Wei Ying less, then maybe it would be possible to do the things he’s always dreamt of doing: here, now, in the tent, the two of them more alone in the dark than they would be in Lan Wangji’s soft bed at home, or any other bed Lan Wangji could take them to.
In the morning, the butterfly messenger will find them. Wen Qionglin will find them as well, as easily as Wei Ying said he would. Wei Ying will catch a fish in the lotus pond, and Lan Wangji will gather plants and roots for them to cook with it. He will watch the mud dry on Wei Ying’s skin as they eat - as they talk around the events of last night with Wen Qionglin, and Wei Ying remembers the papers he’d seen in Jin Guangyao’s treasure room, pointing them to Yunping - and occasionally Wei Ying will catch Lan Wangji’s eye, and the same pain in Lan Wangji’s heart will show through in his face.
Before then, Lan Wangji will open his eyes to a cool dawn that smells of lotus and lake water, and the warmth of Wei Ying’s body against his own, so entwined that beneath the blanket he can’t tell where Wei Ying ends and Lan Wangji begins. He will blink to clear his thoughts and find that the inside of their tent is dotted with fireflies, sluggish and beetle-like in the daylight. He will lift his hand away from where it rests over Wei Ying’s heart, and he’ll peel back the tent flap, shielding Wei Ying’s eyes with his other hand. And the fireflies will shudder and make their slow way out, to hide among the grass, biding their time until night falls again.