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Twenty-One Questions

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When Lan Wangji’s body dutifully wakes him in the morning, it is not to crisp air or dewy windowsills, or to the familiar ring of a bell to signal the start of the mao hour. Rather, his senses are assaulted with smoke and heat. First is the smell of firewood, mingled with the heavy, oppressive reek of cave-must. Then, there’s the wound on his leg, which is its own slowly waning fire—a lingering, lazy crackle over his skin, a glow of pain from within. Perhaps worst of all is the fire behind his eyelids, the wicked scorch in his mind’s eye—flames licking up the mountainside, dissolving cloud-mist on flickering tongues; men in red who brought down the wrath of the sun onto his home.

Lan Wangji blinks away the nightmarish vision, looks down, and the heat roaring inside of him dulls to a pleasant simmer. There is a warm weight on his shoulder and a heavy, black robe slipping down his chest that hadn’t been there when he’d fallen asleep. Sure enough, when he slides his gaze over, Wei Wuxian is wearing only his red underrobes, sleepy and shivery against Lan Wangji’s side. The sight makes Lan Wangji’s heart give a pathetic kick against his ribcage.

(It always seems that just when Lan Wangji is beginning to wonder if he’s somehow oversold this to himself—if the rose-colored lenses of hindsight have painted a prettier picture in his head than the reality of Wei Wuxian truly warrants—Wei Wuxian will go and do something like this, something so needlessly kind and thoughtful and lovely, and Lan Wangji will be forced to reckon with the guilty tumult of his feelings all over again.)

Past the top of Wei Wuxian’s head, Lan Wangji spots the bright, glaring white of his forehead ribbon—the evidence of his lapse in restraint a tangible thing, wound haphazardly around his leg. He makes to reach for it, his leg protesting the movement with a sharp flare of pain, and slips it free, causing the makeshift stilts to clatter noisily to the ground. Wei Wuxian stirs to life at his side, groaning faintly. He flutters his eyelashes at the open air, then tilts his face up at Lan Wangji.

“Oh,” he breathes out. “Is it morning already? Ah, I forgot, it’s you—it must be five, at least.” He gives Lan Wangji’s bicep a slightly forlorn pat as he straightens up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Sorry, but your shoulder is much more comfortable than a rock,” he grumbles, sounding completely unrepentant.

Lan Wangji silently gathers all of the black fabric up into a neat bundle in his hands, then holds it out to Wei Wuxian. “Your robe,” he says, somewhat superfluously, when he only receives a slow blink for his effort. His thank you is right there, on the tip of his tongue, but at the last moment, the words catch on his teeth.

“Ah.” Wei Wuxian takes the robe and immediately drops it into his own lap, like he can’t be bothered with it. “But, Lan Zhan, how will you clear the rest of the dried blood from your throat, if I get dressed now?” He laughs obnoxiously at his own joke, rubbing absently at the angry, red patch of skin peaking through the charred hole in his robes. “I knew that you didn’t like me, er-gege, but I never imagined that you found me so repulsive that you’d actually throw up blood at the sight of me.”

Wei Wuxian has barely been awake for two minutes, and already, Lan Wangji is feeling thrown off-balance—like he’s the one that Wen Chao sent nosediving off of a gravelly, fire-lit path and into the dark depths of a cave. Succumbing to these unruly feelings of his would be its own special kind of free-fall; and Lan Wangji, as he currently stands, is just one strong gust of wind away from being bowled over completely.

“You know, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian barrels on, oblivious to Lan Wangji’s internal struggle, “I was so bored last night after you fell asleep. You have to actually keep me company today, okay? If you don’t, I will perish from boredom before that monster even comes near me.”

Lan Wangji is aware that he is probably the last person that Wei Wuxian would choose to be trapped in this place with (save for, perhaps, Jin Zixuan, whom Wei Wuxian has kept up a deeply unimpressed, running commentary about for all of the time that Lan Wangji has known him). He is under no illusion that he is a good conversationalist, or that he makes good company in the eyes of people his own age. The previous year of lectures at the Cloud Recesses had only served to drive home that fact—the easy exchange of affectionate banter amongst his peers a sharp counterpoint to the respectful distance that his own presence was usually met with. It’s something that he’d been mostly at peace with, until Wei Wuxian had burst through the white gates and made it his life’s purpose to see that Lan Wangji never saw another moment of peaceful solitude, so long as he was around.

But Wei Wuxian is an exception to every rule, it seems—even the one that every single one of their classmates seemed to understand almost inherently, perhaps even before arriving in Gusu: that people simply do not befriend Lan Wangji, who is quiet and strict and severe.

“Lan Zhan, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Wuxian whines, “I know so little about you—and now, we have all of this time together! Let’s get to know each other better. Try to take our minds off of—everything.” He swings around to sit facing Lan Wangji, propping an elbow up on one of his knees, chin in hand. It makes Lan Wangji feel abruptly and uncharacteristically self-conscious, sheepishly guilty, to be the focus of such full, undivided attention. “Or would you really rather just sit there and stare at rocks?”

Lan Wangji gives an indignant huff and busies himself with winding his ribbon back into his hair, desperate to regain some semblance of control over the situation. He is not particularly keen on the prospect of spilling secrets or divulging information about himself—especially now, when he is already feeling so flayed-open and raw, after what has become of his home, his people, at the hands of the Wen Clan.

And yet, being in the untethered state that he’s in, perhaps now is as good a time as any for unguarded honesty. For all that Wei Wuxian loves to poke and prod, he is surprisingly gracious in his teasing—aims to reel in and rile up, rather than to ridicule or alienate. Lan Wangji does not feel that his trust in him would be misplaced, if he were to confide in him. Still, the prospect is more than a little daunting.

“What would you like to know?” he asks stiltedly. A reluctant surrender to his curiosity, to this childish need to soak up his attention—the full, intoxicating force of it.

At his concession, Wei Wuxian brightens so instantly and so intensely that it’s actually a bit heartbreaking. Lan Wangji wonders at how he ever succeeded in pushing Wei Wuxian away for so long—dodged his smiles and batted him away with cold rejection—when this was the alternative.

“Oh, wow, okay. What to ask! Let me think…” Wei Wuxian swipes a finger down the length of his nose, again and again, his eyes alight. “Okay, alright—first question! If you could be born into any other clan, which would you choose? Besides the Wen Clan, of course.”

Lan Wangji had been expecting something closer to an interrogation, not… a game. The relaxed format eases his nerves, makes the question a bit easier to swallow; he does not have to chew on it for very long. “Nie Clan,” he answers simply.

Wei Wuxian inclines his head, a smile spreading slowly over his face. “Wait, really? Why?”

“The Qinghe Nie are renowned for both their competency in battle, and their proficiency in the arts,” he explains, haltingly. He feels a little silly at having to articulate his reasoning, for playing into Wei Wuxian’s game. “Their people are just and disciplined, and their cultivation style is… unique.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows climb steadily up his forehead. “Wow, such high praise! Those big sabers do look like they’d be fun to swing around, don’t they?” He grins, wide and lopsided, and proceeds to give Lan Wangji a very conspicuous once-over. “And I suppose it helps that gunmetal gray isn’t too far off from the funeral whites of the Lan Clan, mm? Lan Zhan, I’m a little offended, though—you really wouldn’t give Yunmeng purple a try? I think it would suit you.”

Lan Wangji needs desperately not to think, in any sort of depth, about the kind of scenario that would permit him to dress in the rich, regal purples of Wei Wuxian’s clan. “You don’t wear Yunmeng colors, either,” he points out, briskly sidestepping the question.

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian asks, the comment clearly catching him by surprise. “Oh. I mean, yeah, I guess.” He appears to visibly deflate, then, as if Lan Wangji had taken one of Lady Wen’s needles to his skin and let the air out of him. “It’s, um, not really my color,” he says, offering Lan Wangji a shriveled-up smile.

Lan Wangji feels a bit like he’s tripped into a maze array—like every step forward is a wrong turn, and the world as he knows it has been engulfed by a dense, bleak mist. Up is down; right is left; Wei Wuxian is sad. He remembers how Wei Wuxian had called out to him in the fog—the burden of reaching out always, shamefully, falling to him—and decides to press, “Do you really think so?”

Wei Wuxian turns away from him with a shuttered-off expression, all of his childlike eagerness from before forgotten. “Clan Leader Jiang and Madam Yu have already done so much for me. They brought me into their home, their family.” He leans forward to poke at the dwindling fire with one of Lan Wangji’s discarded stilts, his mouth a thin, unhappy line. Lan Wangji has never seen him look so grim before; he has to make a conscious effort not to openly gape. “I just don’t— I wouldn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, you know?”

Lan Wangji does not know. His standing in his own clan has always been indisputable, guaranteed to him by the circumstances of his birth. Wei Wuxian’s rise to head disciple in the Jiang Clan had been a far less orthodox affair by comparison—the position granted to him only by Jiang Fengmian’s good graces, at first, and then later solidified when it became clear to the rest of the world that he was an exceptional cultivator, and likely deserving of the title, anyway. Lan Wangji can only imagine the pressure that Wei Wuxian must have been under from a young age, being subject to the scrutiny of the entire cultivation world, wanting desperately to prove himself—can appreciate that perhaps Wei Wuxian’s arrogance had been bred from a place of insecurity, rather than confidence.

“Jiang Wanyin is to be the future clan leader,” Lan Wangji says slowly, shuffling the pieces around in his head. He considers what he knows of Wei Wuxian’s affectionate but tumultuous relationship with his shidi, and ventures a guess. “He… does not feel secure in his position?”

Wei Wuxian’s head snaps up, whip-crack-fast. “What? No, no. Jiang Cheng’s not like that,” he rushes to say. “Of course, he will lead the clan some day. There has never been any doubt of that. I’ve never wanted that for myself, anyway, and he knows that. Not that—” He drags a hand over his face. “Not that it would even matter, if I did.”

“Then, I don’t understand,” Lan Wangji admits.

Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh, loud and aggrieved, but he seems to be frustrated with himself more than anything. Truthfully, Lan Wangji had been expecting a very different response when he’d remarked on Wei Wuxian’s choice in attire—something flippant and arrogant about wanting to stand out in a crowd, or having a better fashion sense than everyone else. Not a painfully honest glimpse into his home life.

“It’s really not a big deal,” Wei Wuxian insists, with a laugh like splintering wood. “I’m probably just overthinking things. You know me, Lan Zhan. Besides,” he continues with false bravado, “my shijie is the one who gave me my first hair ribbon. If she thinks that red suits me, then I believe her.” He curls his lip, adding under his breath, “She has great taste in everything but men…”

A realization dawns on Lan Wangji, then, like the flick of a fingernail to his forehead. The mark that it leaves on his skin throbs with an unsettling truth: for a person with such an infallible sense of justice, who is as quick to speak out against bullies like Wen Chao as he is to draw his sword, Wei Wuxian takes abuse often and without blinking. Endures it with an ease that some might call impressive, but which Lan Wangji would place more solidly in the realm of tragic. When he’d been ordered by Lan Qiren to kneel in gravel for punching Jin Zixuan, he’d amused himself by playing with the ants; when Lan Wangji had dragged him off to face punishment after a night of drinking, he’d followed after him and promptly declared his intent to be friends. Lan Wangji had assumed that he was just forgiving by nature, but now, he wonders if his behavior is in fact self-preservation—a means of survival in the world of an adopted child, whose place in society has no stake in blood or birthright, whose livelihood is wholly reliant on the charity of others. Perhaps Wei Wuxian only bends in such a way so that he will not break.

Wei Wuxian has a face made for smiling—or, at least, a face that has been made to smile—and Lan Wangji worries that, one day, that wide grin will split his face in half—that he will snap like a stick of bamboo, hollow center, a flute played to exhaustion.

With a jolt, Wei Wuxian seems to remember their game, and he leaps at the chance to pick up where they last left off. “Well, Lotus Pier is the greatest place on earth, but since that isn’t an option… perhaps I would choose to be born into the Lan Clan.” He waggles his eyebrows at Lan Wangji, then bursts into raucous laughter. “Oh, man, could you imagine me growing up with Lan Qiren? I would’ve been tossed out of the Cloud Recesses before I even had a golden core.” He knocks his shoulder into Lan Wangji’s, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “Lan Zhan, you would save me from your mean uncle, wouldn’t you? No, no—you would have me write lines until my tiny, baby hand fell off. So cruel, you Lans. I’ll bet that you were a perfectly well-behaved child.” Perhaps it should feel wrong, to hear Wei Wuxian speaking ill of the Lan Clan during such a tremulous time, but he prattles on with such bright-eyed, gleeful fondness that Lan Wangji cannot find it in himself to scold him. “Lan Zhan, imagine if we’d known each other as children! I would have gotten you into so much trouble. I would have… snuck you sweets, and bunny rabbits, and made sure that you were getting up to a healthy amount of mischief.”

It’s a surprisingly sweet sentiment—so much like his promise to pick lotus seeds for him, should Lan Wangji ever visit Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji thinks that his mother would have liked that for him—these little daydreams. His monthly visits with her were some of the only times that he ever really… played, as a child. His uncle loved him, of course, and wanted the best for him—but for all that he is an exemplary teacher, it is possible that he never received the proper instruction on how to parent a young, grieving child.

Wei Wuxian pivots again, literally and figuratively. He turns so that he is facing Lan Wangji once more, then launches into another question. “What do children even do at the Cloud Recesses? Do they go to baby school? Baby music lessons? Oh, if someone from another clan wanted to learn how to cultivate with music, would the Lan Clan teach them?” Another thought seems to occur to him, then, by the way that his eyes go big and shiny. “If I wanted to learn the qin, would you teach me?”

Lan Wangji tries to imagine giving Wei Wuxian lessons in musical cultivation, and sees two possible outcomes: either Wei Wuxian would take to it like a duck to water, naturally brilliant as he is, or he would grow so impatient with it that he’d give up after the first session. Either way— “I only teach the juniors’ classes,” Lan Wangji tells him pragmatically.

Wei Wuxian’s face morphs into a comical concoction of surprise and delight. “Lan Zhan! You teach the little Lans? That’s so— but you’ve never said! I was only kidding about the baby music lessons! How does that even work, anyway?”

“When they are first starting,” Lan Wangji explains, emboldened by his enthusiasm, “I have them sit on my lap, and I guide their hands.”

Wei Wuxian clutches at his chest. “Oh, that is giving me a very cute mental image,” he says accusatorially. He stares off into space and smiles sort of goofily. “Lan Zhan, no offense, but… I wouldn’t have expected you to be good with children.”

The truth is that Lan Wangji can still remember how it felt to be that age—to learn that your every move would be scrutinized by parents, and teachers, and elders; that your headband must be straight, and your clothes pristine, and your gait slow and purposeful. It is often overwhelming, and it had been especially so for Lan Wangji, who’d held the misguided belief for most of his childhood that his mother had only stopped answering the door for him because he’d broken some rule or another—must have walked too fast, or spoken too loud, without even knowing. Children that young wish only for acceptance, for a gentle voice to tell them that they are doing it right—and now, Lan Wangji can finally be that voice for others.

“Children are easy. They do not judge you,” Lan Wangji says, by way of explanation, before realizing just how sad that probably sounds to someone like Wei Wuxian.

But, to his surprise, Wei Wuxian only nods, like he can appreciate the sentiment. “I always liked training the kids. I mean, the exercises were so— so silly, really. You got to play a little while you worked, you know? And they always looked so cute, holding their little training swords.” He huffs out a laugh, wistful in the way that makes Lan Wangji wonder if he is thinking of their current predicament—of how they may never see another training ground or even the light of day again. But a moment later, he flashes Lan Wangji a big, shit-eating grin. “So, if I were your student, would I also get to sit on your lap?”

Heat flees to the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears. “Wei Ying,” he grates out, in that long-suffering way of his that also implies—shameless. He’d thought that he’d gotten through the worst of it yesterday, with Wei Wuxian pestering him with questions about Luo Qingyang.

I wasn’t flirting with you, anyway—comes the reminder, unbidden, from some dark, sad corner of Lan Wangji’s heart. He lets his eyes flutter shut, disappointment kicking at his ribs.

Wei Wuxian pokes his cheek. “Aiyah, Lan Zhan, I was only kidding. Stop looking like that. Would it really be the worst thing in the world to teach me how to play? I’m actually a very fast learner—even though you wouldn’t really know it from Grandmaster Lan’s lectures. Besides, how could I not pay attention to anything you teach me, when it’d all be coming from such a pretty face?”

All of this back and forth is becoming difficult to keep up with—compliments followed by sharp dismissals; earnest gestures dowsed with boyish mischief. Lan Wangji has always been quick on his feet, but he is not accustomed to sparring with his words—finds it much easier to simply reach for Bichen at the first sign of Wei Wuxian’s teasing.

“I’ll— I’ll trade you!” Wei Wuxian says suddenly, surprising Lan Wangji with his fervor. “I’ll give you drawing lessons if you teach me how to play. Or—I suppose I could just pay you. Actually, come to think of it, my allowance is pretty shot right now. Maybe Jiang Cheng… Oh, I did say that I would sneak you sweets, didn’t I? Tell me, does Lan-er-gege have a secret sweet tooth? A favorite candy?”

“Dragon’s beard candy,” Lan Wangji replies. He can see that the straight answer takes Wei Wuxian by surprise, and finds himself elaborating, “My mother used to give it to me.”

Wei Wuxian surveys him closely, all intentions of haggling forgotten. “Were you… very close with your mother? I never asked, before, when we talked about our parents.”

When they what? Taking in his carefully blank look, Wei Wuxian says, “Ah, maybe you don’t… remember… that conversation. You were sort of— astonishingly drunk, at the time.”

Embarrassment sneaks up on Lan Wangji, then, like an arrow whistling past his ear. The reminder of his drunken escapade in Wei Wuxian’s guest quarters at the Cloud Recesses—the knowledge that there are things that he said and did, in his presence, that he will likely never know about—has him reeling again, shame and regret turning rancid in his stomach.

“You really didn’t do anything that bad,” Wei Wuxian pipes up, encouragingly.

His flimsy reassurance only succeeds in making him feel worse. Not that bad. Wei Wuxian may as well have told him that he’d made a complete and utter fool of himself.

“No— really,” Wei Wuxian insists, laying a consolatory hand on Lan Wangji’s knee. “You just talked a little about your forehead ribbon, and— and how your mother…” The sentence hangs, teetering just on the edge of too much, and Lan Wangji feels suddenly wild with the need to rein them both back in.

“I remember that she was… warm. Nurturing,” he begins, haltingly. “I know that I used to enjoy my time with her. But she died when I was very young.” He has no idea how much of this story Wei Wuxian already knows, prays that he’d had enough presence of mind to omit some of the less pleasant details. “I was under my uncle’s care from a young age, so I saw her very little. During my visits with her, she would sometimes sneak dragon’s beard candy into my robes, small bundles wrapped in paper, and… I would only notice later, when I went to change out of my day clothes. I think that she might have wanted to spoil us, me and Xichen, but felt that she could only do so in secret,” he recounts, flushed with nostalgia, and feels compelled to add, “She was very kind.”

Wei Wuxian hums in acknowledgement. “She sounds kind of like my mother, actually,” he says, a soft, whimsical smile on his face. His palm is still pressed to Lan Wangji’s knee, searing a near-perfect impression into the fabric of his robes. “I mean, from what little I know of them both.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji undertones, weary but heartfelt, and then silence settles over the pair of them like a fine, sun-speckled layer of dust. Lan Wangji can’t remember the last time that he’s shared the same space with another person for so long—the last time that he’d been so forthcoming with someone, or allowed himself to partake in this kind of needless, indulgent proximity. He places his own palm over Wei Wuxian’s knuckles and squeezes lightly, hopes that the touch—somewhere between self-serving and consolatory—is welcome.

Wei Wuxian stares down at the place where their hands are touching with all of the focus that he typically reserves for designing his talismans. Like there is a stroke missing, or a character drawn in the wrong place, and he can’t quite puzzle it out. A blink later, he cranes his neck up at Lan Wangji, as if he might hold the answer.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” he blurts out, and then Lan Wangji has the distinct privilege of watching Wei Wuxian transform into a person who trips and fumbles through his sentences. “I mean, ‘cause you— when you were drunk, you were saying— the Lan forehead ribbon is basically, like, a chastity symbol, right? Or something like that? I mean, how could you, you know, anyway, when the Cloud Recesses is so fucking gender-restricted—”

“It is not a— a symbol of chastity,” Lan Wangji interrupts him, strangled, heedless of his manners. Suddenly, they are on the same playing field, loose-tongued and clumsy. His eyes flicker down to Wei Wuxian’s lips without his own volition, and then he has to forcibly turn his entire head in order to tear his eyes away.

“So, then, you… you have…?” The way that Wei Wuxian is regarding him, so intent and searching, makes Lan Wangji feel seen through as opposed to merely looked at.

“Have you?” he flings back, nerves popping like embers in his stomach. He isn’t entirely sure if they’re still talking only about kissing.

Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his neck and forces a laugh, messy breath. “Ah— you know me, Lan Zhan,” he says breezily, eyes darting between Lan Wangji’s face and the cave floor. Pinpricks of color rise to the surface of his cheeks, betraying him further. “I can be… all talk, sometimes.”

Lan Wangji had caught on long ago that Wei Wuxian’s philandering often lacked in follow-through, having watched him chat up enough young maidens selling loquats, or hair sticks, or whatever else managed to catch Wei Wuxian’s fancy in the markets of Caiyi Town—whether it be to angle for a discount, or merely to pass the time—and then dash off with a flighty smile. Still, Wei Wuxian is clearly embarrassed, and it’s an endearing but nonetheless terrible look on him. Lan Wangji so prefers a Wei Wuxian that is jovial, and outspoken, and vain—that saunters around like he owns the place, every place—who talks too loud, and walks too close, and smiles so brightly that you’d think he’d never known hardship in his life. That invents clever things, and asks difficult questions, and draws rabbits on paper lanterns just to make Lan Wangji smile.

Lan Wangji looks at him steadily, until Wei Wuxian’s flittering gaze finally catches on his and holds. “You are all talk,” he repeats, letting the words hang for a heartbeat too long, “or always talking?”

There is a green-flash moment wherein Wei Wuxian rocks away from him, eyes comically wide as he processes Lan Wangji’s words, before he dissolves into the kind of messy, sunset-rich laughter that makes his eyes crinkle at the corners. Relief has only a second to land before Wei Wuxian is hissing out a mock-betrayed “Lan Zhan” and teetering forward again, onto his knees, and then Lan Wangji is being unceremoniously kissed up against a rough cave wall, square on the mouth.

Their faces tilt, noses slotting together, no pretense of unwitting happenstance. Wei Wuxian’s fingertips dig into the tendons at the back of his knee, where their hands are still overlaid, and the pleasure-pain sends sparks dancing up Lan Wangji’s spine. Lan Wangji hadn’t known that such soft noises could come out of Wei Wuxian, so loud and boisterous in everything else that he does, until he’d started to kiss him back in earnest, a sumptuous give and greedy take.

Their lips part with a sound like a raindrop. Wei Wuxian is wide-eyed as he pulls away, like he is marveling at his own boldness, floating somewhere outside of himself. Lan Wangji’s face feels terribly hot; he thinks that if he were to touch his fingertips to his own ears right now, the heat there would burn him in the third degree. His thoughts trickle in, perilously slow, as he draws back from Wei Wuxian, like his brain is reluctant to catch up to the present.

Wei Wuxian’s ponytail is coming loose. The red ribbon has slipped down the length of his hair, and there are more dark waves framing his face than usual. Probably because—Lan Wangji had had his hand in it. Fingers at his nape, thumb resting in the hollow space below his jaw, right where neck meets ear, just a soft pressure. Holding his face closer. Because they had been—kissing.

“Oh, my god— your leg!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, slipping his hand out from underneath Lan Wangji’s with a stricken expression. “Lan Zhan, you— you should’ve said something! You shouldn’t have let me just— climb all over you, what the hell— your leg is literally broken—”

“Wei Ying,” he cuts in, gently, when it becomes clear that, without intervention, Wei Wuxian will keep on rambling apologies at him until he is blue in the face. “I am fine. You did not hurt me.”

Wei Wuxian lowers his face into his hands. “Oh, my god. Why did you let me do that?” he demands, muffled and despairing. It clicks for Lan Wangji, then, that he is not referring to the hand on his knee, but rather, the kiss as a whole.

“But I reciprocated,” Lan Wangji replies, without thinking. It’d been a lengthy kiss—long enough for Lan Wangji to stop him, to push him gently away, if he’d been so inclined. Surely, Wei Wuxian understands that. Perhaps he is simply regretting that it happened at all—that he’d given away his first kiss to Lan Wangji. For all that the Lan Clan steeps its teachings in somewhat antiquated romanticism, Lan Wangji had never given much thought, growing up, to what his first kiss might be like—but surely, someone as well-versed in flirtation as Wei Wuxian must have at least thought about it, may have even been saving it for someone special. At least, Wei Wuxian could be content in knowing that Lan Wangji would treasure it, hold it close to his heart, however much he may wish to take it back.

Wei Wuxian’s head lifts, slow, disbelieving. “You’re… really not upset?”

“No,” Lan Wangji admits, unabashed in his honesty. “But I am sorry, that you… regret it.”

With a series of faint pops, the last remaining traces of their fire die out. A wispy, gray tendril of smoke rises up out of the brush, chased away by the new chill in the air. “What the hell,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. “When did I say that I regret it? I was embarrassed, because I—” He flaps his hand back and forth between them, as if to indicate the pair of them at large, everything and nothing. “—and, well… you hate me.”

Hate him? Lan Wangji had wound his forehead ribbon around both of their wrists—composed a song for him—let him sleep on his shoulder—kissed him—and Wei Wuxian thinks that he hates him?

Lan Wangji tucks a stray piece of hair behind Wei Wuxian’s ear, shaking his head faintly. “Silly,” he chides him. The heavy feeling on his chest is gone, replaced with fond exasperation.

For about a matchstick’s time, it seems that all that Wei Wuxian can do is stare at him, slack-mouthed. Then, apropos of nothing, he scoots closer and tucks himself neatly under Lan Wangji’s arm.

“We are huddling for warmth,” Wei Wuxian informs him, gravely. He black outer robe has been cast aside, long-forgotten in the events of the morning.

“Okay,” Lan Wangji says, feeling thick-witted.

With the arm that Wei Wuxian has commandeered, Lan Wangji shyly rests his hand on the spot between Wei Wuxian’s shoulder blades, the excess fabric of his sleeve draping over his restless form like a blanket. Wei Wuxian presses the cold tip of his nose to Lan Wangji’s throat and lets out a contented sigh. For a long while, silence reigns, and all that Lan Wangji knows is a red-and-white embrace, and the quiet, desperate joy lighting him up from within.

Then, mumbled into his collar: “So… does this mean that you don’t like Mianmian?”

It is moments like this one that make Lan Wangji want to wag a finger at his own heart and demand, Really? Him? because, regrettably, the object of Lan Wangji’s affection may also be the densest object in the universe.

Lan Wangji sighs, quiet but long-winded. “What if I did?” he muses aloud, possessed by some ornery impulse.

Wei Wuxian shoots up in Lan Wangji’s arms, rounding on him with a dismayed, creaky-floorboard noise. “Wait, do you really?” he asks, eyebrows pulling together like magnets. “I just thought… Lan Zhan, if you like her, you should say something. Why would you waste your time with— oh, you’re— you were just teasing. Ai, Lan Zhan, did you secretly have a killer sense of humor this whole time, and you didn’t tell me?”

“Possibly, it escaped your notice,” Lan Wangji says facetiously, as Wei Wuxian resettles, muttering accusations under his breath.

Perhaps Lan Wangji has been going about this all wrong. For years, he has thought of love as something to be heedful of—has compared it, in the confines of his mind, to a fall from a great height, or a sparring session for which he is woefully unequipped. When he was younger, love meant kneeling in the snow, wiggling frost-bitten fingers and toes, waiting for a door to open. Later, it became his uncle’s praise—the lesson that love is the reward for excellence, for perfect memorization and impeccable handwriting.

Later yet, it was a sword-fight under a moonlit sky. A sweeping musical score, composed in solitude.

The Lan are famously unlucky in love—from Lan An, to Lan Yi, to Lan Wangji’s own father. They give away their hearts too freely, too recklessly, and oftentimes to the wrong people. One day, Lan Wangji’s uncle had sat him down and explained to him that restraint, contrary to what their white robes and Wall of Discipline would imply, does not come naturally to their people. Rather, the Lan had taken to inventing thousands of rules for themselves out of necessity—because, when left to their own devices, their hearts had time and again led them astray.

Someday, love will be all of the things that Lan Wangji had once feared. It will lead him to the edge of a precipice, red-eyed and fevered, and because it is cruel, he will not be the one to fall.

But today, love is kind to him. Flirtation is a game of question-and-answer; desire, a red robe. Intimacy is called ‘huddling for warmth,’ because neither of them can be bothered to start another fire, or to put their true feelings into words. Today, love is—

“Lan Zhan, does your leg still hurt? Do you want to put some more medicine on it?”

In sixteen years’ time, love will wear a different face. But it will still be just as good to him.