Wei Wuxian has pictured his return to the Cloud Recesses a lot of ways. Maybe he would sneak in the back way no one’s supposed to know about and surprise Lan Zhan, laughing at his perturbed expression. Maybe he would make a grand entrance just to give their reunion all the pomp and circumstance it deserves. Maybe he’d fling himself into Lan Zhan’s arms and pretend to be swooning if anyone questioned him.
Mostly he’s thought about Lan Zhan’s face. That moment when it softens around the edges like everything in him loosens and exhales in response to Wei Wuxian’s presence. Wei Wuxian loves that moment.
Right now, there’s this. His underarms prickle with sweat as he waits. Hanguang-jun should be along any second, the junior disciple had promised, Wei Wuxian’s coveted jade token in her hand. He scratches behind Little Apple’s ear, shifting his weight from foot to foot. It’ll be so good to see Lan Zhan.
Long minutes pass. It’s the height of summer. At this altitude, the Cloud Recesses is sheltered from the worst of the heat, but a bead of sweat still wends its way down Wei Wuxian’s spine. The neatly geometric shadows of the courtyard grow longer.
There’s a rustling, and a whoosh. A flurry of white robes, and Wei Wuxian’s attention snaps to. His face splits into a grin so fast his jaw hurts, but it doesn’t matter. “Lan Zhan!” he calls. He lifts a hand in a stupid little wave, bouncing onto the balls of his feet.
Lan Zhan draws closer. The golden sun catches on the tower of silver ornaments keeping his hair in place.
Wei Wuxian can’t stop smiling. “Lan Zhan,” he says again. He drops Little Apple’s reins, impatient, and steps forward.
Lan Zhan’s features are smooth. He has a hand behind his back, as usual, and when he’s a few paces away he stops. He always could execute a perfect bow, the angles of his body textbook.
“Hi,” Wei Wuxian says stupidly.
Lan Zhan straightens. He doesn’t blink as he says, “Wei Wuxian.” His eyebrows make the barest arc upward. “What is the nature of your visit?”
Wei Wuxian’s insides tighten. His stomach drops, a precipitous fall down the stairs and to the bottom of the mountain. “Ah.” He clears his throat. “I… well, I guess I’m here to see you.”
The words seem to glance off Lan Zhan like he’s the glassy surface of Biling Lake and Wei Wuxian is a weightless insect. “Hm,” he says. His gaze flicks to the side, toward Little Apple. “We can provide for your mount.” He looks back to Wei Wuxian, blank. “Quarters will be arranged for you as well. Wait here.”
In a second grand sweep of robes, Lan Zhan is leaving. Wei Wuxian starts to say something, but his mouth opens on empty air. “Oh,” he says finally, the words very small and bitter as they crawl out of his throat.
His room isn’t the room he occupied countless summers ago as an unruly student, but it might as well be. It’s beautiful, elegantly furnished, its feng shui almost definitely perfect. Wei Wuxian smiles at the disciple who’s shown him here, thanks her profusely, and then throws his travel pack onto the bed with enough force to knock a lovely embroidered pillow to the floor.
He sinks to the floor, knees to his chest. He’s been provided a table, cushions for seating, and an ornamental incense burner, but he sticks with the floor. You really need the floor for a good wallow.
“Get a grip,” he tells himself. It’s so quiet here that speaking aloud feels harsh, almost unnecessary. He sees the porcelain glint of Lan Zhan’s expression all over again, the cool politeness without a hint of unnecessary warmth.
Wei Wuxian’s memory is famously poor. He’s relied on Lan Zhan to hold onto the finer details of their history for him; has trusted that nothing slips out of Lan Zhan’s grip unless he wants it to. Maybe this is the way it always was between them. Maybe it was all in his head. Maybe every flicker of heat in the space between them, every one of those miniscule smiles Lan Zhan had sent his way like a precious parcel, maybe it was all an invention of his fevered mind.
He drags in a breath of humid air. His hair is sticking to the back of his neck. It’s too hot, hotter than it was when he got here despite the sun sinking lower in the sky. He presses his forehead to his knees, breathing in the scent of the road on his robes.
In the Burial Mounds, he was very alone, and he was never alone. His head could go in circles for hours, thoughts chasing each other into ragged submission with ghosts on their tails. There’s no telling what he could have cooked up to comfort himself. What kind of damage could have been etched into his perception of reality.
“Shit,” he says, muffled into his own legs.
For months, throughout his travels, he’s kept his memories of Lan Zhan in his pocket alongside his jade token. He’s turned them over, polished them like stones at the bottom of a creek. They’ve been burnished to gleaming, promising him a safe place to return and someone who’d be so happy to see him, their reunion would be one for the poets.
Then again, wishful thinking can be a powerful drug.
Wei Wuxian is sick to his stomach when the rustling comes outside his door. There are a few hesitant footsteps, the sound of someone clearing his throat. His heart swoops, and then rises when he recognizes Lan Sizhui’s voice: “Wei-qianbei?”
This, at least, Wei Wuxian is sure of—and he’s more than grateful for the distraction. He’s smiling already as he gets to his feet and slides the door open. “A-Yuan,” he says, and he’s rewarded with a radiant smile and an armful of junior disciple.
Sizhui’s presence cuts some of the strings of tension tightening Wei Wuxian’s back. He squeezes Wei Wuxian tightly, color in his cheeks when he steps back like he’s expecting an inspection. “I had hoped you would be back soon,” he says. “I worried you would stay away too long.”
Wei Wuxian waves an airy hand. “What’s too long when the people waiting for me are cultivators? You have plenty of time to miss me and remember how charming and wise I am.”
Sizhui’s eyes crinkle into a deeper smile. “Days pass the same for everyone,” he says. “And I think I can be forgiven for wanting to make up for lost time.”
It’s the gentlest possible rebuke, and Wei Wuxian elects not to take it to heart. “Isn’t it getting a little close to Lan bedtime?” Nothing about Sizhui’s appearance is out of place, but Wei Wuxian straightens his collar nonetheless.
Sizhui laughs indulgently. “Yes, but I wanted to see you before I slept. You nearly sneaked in without anyone knowing—but Jingyi hears everything from everyone.”
Ah, so Lan Zhan isn’t exactly broadcasting his return. The queasy feeling wants to creep back up Wei Wuxian’s throat, and he forces it down. “A-Yuan,” he says tentatively.
The earnest directness of Sizhui’s gaze is only a little overwhelming. “Wei-qianbei?”
Wei Wuxian can’t get the words out. If he’s misremembered his friendship with Hanguang-jun, that’s his mistake to bear. He’s carried plenty of other missteps and done just fine. “I was only going to say you don’t have to be so formal with me.” He grins and pats Sizhui on the cheek. “Now get to bed before you’re kicked out of the sect for keeping company with a bad influence.”
Sizhui is a good boy—the best boy, in fact. So he laughs again, gentle, and he promises they’ll take a meal together sooner rather than later, and he ignores Wei Wuxian’s protests and gives him a polite bow before he slips into the gathering night.
Wei Wuxian has no intention of sleeping, but the grounds of the Cloud Recesses don’t hold the appeal they held when he was a mischievous student hoping for excuses to tease Lan Zhan. For once, he’d rather not run into Lan Zhan at all.
“Good morning, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chirps.
He’s a persistent man and he is, after a shadowy and fitful night, freshly determined not to give up on what he was sure they had. Lan Zhan has a helpfully predictable schedule.
Lan Zhan, three steps out of the jingshi, stops. He is fresh for the day: every coil of hair pinned in place, his robes sparklingly clean. His face is like a bowl of still water, unmoving and revealing nothing. He doesn’t speak.
Wei Wuxian rallies. It’s insanely early by his standards, and he barely slept, and he’s unwashed and probably smells. “Good morning,” he says again. He punctuates it with a smile.
Lan Zhan’s brows draw together in a fleeting hint of a frown. “Wei Wuxian,” he says. As if that’s the sum of their business, he starts off toward the rest of the Cloud Recesses again, gaze steadily ahead of him.
“Ah, Lan Zhan—wait.”
Again, Lan Zhan stops. His eyes dart toward Wei Wuxian, then away.
It’s like traveling back in time, Wei Wuxian reasons. He’s done this before, hovering around Lan Zhan and making a nuisance of himself in the name of making a friend. “Didn’t I say I came to see you?” he says, inching closer. “You dismissed me so quickly last night.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t look at him. “As you may be aware,” he says in a measured tone, “I am the chief cultivator. I’m often busy.”
It’s not like traveling back in time. He’s been ignored by Lan Zhan, but he’s never been invisible. Those years ago, when they were students, he always had Lan Zhan’s attention—he could feel it, the thrum of it so deep it resonated along his meridian channels sometimes. Lan Zhan might not have been looking, but he was always aware of Wei Wuxian.
In the split-second it takes Wei Wuxian to answer, Lan Zhan is walking away again.
Wei Wuxian can’t breathe for a second. He wants to follow, but his body is leaden. “I know you’re busy,” he says to Lan Zhan’s retreating back, the tidy stretch of robes across his shoulders. “I know you’re important.” Lan Zhan doesn’t look back, and he’s about to vanish around a corner, summoned to his duties. Wei Wuxian continues anyway: “I guess I always thought you would wait for me,” he says, “but maybe that was selfish of me. I should’ve come back sooner. I wish I had.”
It’s only him and the courtyard outside the jingshi. The morning sun makes the countless ivory-colored rocks of the Cloud Recesses’ gardens glow a soft yellow. Wei Wuxian is used to talking to himself, and he’s used to talking to a quiet Hanguang-jun, but he swallows the rest of his speech. It goes down like rancid wine.
Everything is fine, is the thing. Obviously Wei Wuxian was hanging onto something that wasn’t there. He’s visiting a friend, and his friend is busy. These things happen.
He needs a drink and he needs kindly company and he needs to breathe some different air, immediately but not in that exact order. Hunched over his talismans, he sends a letter into the ether, a slapdash scrawl that’s just this side of dignified enough not to count as a plea.
Two hours later, Wen Ning pours Wei Wuxian a drink with a smile on his face, and Wei Wuxian could lunge across the inn table and hug him until radishes come out his ears. Caiyi Town is almost just like he remembers, waterways and friendly merchants, and Wen Ning looks just the same, too, his hat tipped low over his eyes and his robes an unobtrusive brown.
“You look good, Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says, planting his elbows on the table and knocking back a cup of wine.
Wen Ning ducks his head around another smile. “Wei-gongzi, I’m glad to see you.”
Wei Wuxian grins at the welcome sentiment. “Did you and A-Yuan have fun on your trip? Did you do heroic deeds?” He softens, then adds, “Did everything go well?”
Wen Ning contemplates his cup, which is and which will remain empty. “It went well,” he says carefully. “We were grateful for the time together and for the journey. And I think we were even more grateful to come back.” He cocks his head just a bit. “A-Yuan was eager to be home in time for your return.”
Warmth flushes through Wei Wuxian’s chest. It’s not the wine quite yet. “Ah, well, he made it, then.” He could settle into this life, he thinks. There are other pleasures to make up for the absence of Lan Zhan’s friendship. “Shouldn’t you be staying at the Cloud Recesses with him? Surely his beloved cousin gets that right.”
Wen Ning hesitates. The cultivation world would never believe how awkward the fearsome Ghost General can look. “I don’t think I would necessarily be welcome,” he says.
“Come on!” Wei Wuxian shakes his head before pouring himself a fresh cup of liquor. “There’s no way Lan Zhan can say no to A-Yuan’s face. He’s a complete sucker, trust me.”
Something almost indulgent creeps into Wen Ning’s expression. “You would know, I suppose.”
The sourness is back, knotting in on itself in Wei Wuxian’s belly. Their food arrives with a clatter of dishes and an apology from the server, and Wei Wuxian smiles widely and waves her away, but not even a healthy swallow of wine chases the queasiness away. He shoves a still-crackling piece of pork belly into his mouth and chews furiously. Wen Ning only watches, but Wei Wuxian is used to that.
“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning says, seeming to hesitate again. “I’m happy you wrote to me, but is there something else going on?”
Wen Ning knows him a bit too well. Or he’s a bit too transparent, or both. Wei Wuxian spears another piece of meat on the end of a chopstick, heedless of etiquette. “You spent time with me and Lan Zhan. The two of us together, I mean.” The alcohol helps the words get out.
If Wen Ning were anyone else, his eyebrows would be shooting up. He does a polite little frown instead. “Yes,” he says.
Wei Wuxian chews, swallows. The weight of Wen Ning’s gaze is heavy on him, and the worst part is that he brought this on himself. “Did you—I mean, did we—” He starts over, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “Aiya, I sound like a child. Maybe I am one, since I got born again. Did you think that Hanguang-jun is fond of me?”
Wen Ning blinks three times in quick succession. “Wei-gongzi?” he says, in the tone someone would use to coax a scared farm animal out of its enclosure.
Wei Wuxian slumps in his seat and swirls his cup for something to look at it. “It’s only a question.”
There’s another moment of quiet, and Wei Wuxian is afraid to peek at whatever Wen Ning’s face is doing. “This question is like asking whether the moon shines at night, that’s all,” Wen Ning says. His voice is low, serious. “It’s like asking whether my sister was a skilled physician. No one would think to ask it, because the way Hanguang-jun feels about you is so obvious.”
Wei Wuxian looks up. Wen Ning’s level expression doesn’t change. “You’re so sure about it,” Wei Wuxian says.
Wen Ning smiles. “I’ve seen a lot of people have a lot of feelings,” he says. “Hanguang-jun isn’t one of the subtler ones, and I’m not stupid.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says.
Wen Ning smiles, a little rueful. “Did you really need me to tell you that?”
Something feels itchy under Wei Wuxian’s skin. He knocks back another cup of wine to quell the sensation. “Just curious,” he says, slinging a smile Wen Ning’s way. “I better eat, don’t you think? So no one wonders why you’re not.”
Wen Ning has always let Wei Wuxian get away with too much. He picks up an empty cup, for show, and sits back. “Enjoy, gongzi.”
“How was your meeting, Lan Zhan? Did you smooth things over between the Zhou brothers?”
Yet again, Lan Zhan stills in his tracks. He’s the highest form of chief cultivator today, Hanguang-jun radiating from his pores. His hair is piled high, not a strand out of place, his array of ornaments bright in the afternoon sun. He makes a beautiful painting.
Wei Wuxian keeps smiling at him. “Well? A-Yuan told me all about their bickering. They sound pretty obnoxious.” Sizhui had also, over a dinner crawling with curious disciples, tipped him off about Lan Zhan’s schedule.
Lan Zhan deigns to glance toward him, otherwise impassive. “Mm,” he acknowledges.
Buoyed, Wei Wuxian steps closer. Disciples, handmaidens, and guards filter around them, leaving a respectful berth for Lan Zhan and valiantly not sneaking glances at Wei Wuxian. “Did you get tempted to just use Bichen on them and hope for the best?”
Something like the ghost of amusement crosses Lan Zhan’s face. He straightens, then, improbably—Wei Wuxian could have sworn his posture was already flawless. “Do you have a grievance as well?” he asks.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says brightly. “I’d like to complain that my good friend Lan Zhan has been too busy to spend time with me since I got back. Where was my hero’s welcome?”
Naturally, Wei Wuxian is used to Lan Zhan looking blank. This is on a new level, though; he’s like a fresh scroll, no characters painted across it. Usually Wei Wuxian can read stories into the minute twitches of Lan Zhan’s lips. Now there’s nothing there at all.
His stomach threatens to roil again. He had wanted to be braver in the wake of his meal with Wen Ning. “Lan Zhan?” he tries.
Lan Zhan frowns, just a bit. He looks Wei Wuxian’s way again, a tiny crease between his eyebrows. “Are your quarters inadequate?” he asks incongruously.
Wei Wuxian, thrown for a loop, squints at him. “Lan Zhan, are you all right?”
“I am well.” Lan Zhan says it like he’s rehearsed it.
Cold fingers walk their way down Wei Wuxian’s spine. It’s a beautiful afternoon in the Cloud Recesses, and Wei Wuxian starts to wonder. “Have you gone on any exciting night hunts lately?”
Lan Zhan’s shoulders relax by a fraction. “Gusu has been quiet recently,” he says.
It’s obvious he thinks this is the end of the conversation, but Wei Wuxian presses him: “And in the months before recently?”
“I subdued a jiangshi in Lijiang,” Lan Zhan says, as if it’s a commonplace feat. “Lanling Jin hosted several of the prominent cultivator clans for a competitive hunt last autumn.” The furrow between his brows reappears. They’ve been stopped on this particular Cloud Recesses pathway longer than anyone pauses to talk there. The denizens of the Cloud Recesses are typically focused on their destinations, and they’re typically pretty silent about it. “Wei Wuxian,” he says, his voice tight, “why are you asking?”
Wei Wuxian steels himself. “Because I missed you,” he says, “and because I thought we were friends. Friends talk to each other, don’t they?” Before Lan Zhan can reply, he adds, “I’ve been looking forward to telling you about my travels. I met a lot of people. I learned a lot of interesting things.”
Lan Zhan stares at him like he’s spoken an incomprehensible language. His frown deepens just barely. “Are we friends?” His expression smooths out like a cloud dissipating in the wind. “I’m needed elsewhere.”
Everything aches, from Wei Wuxian’s sternum down to the spaces between his ribs. “All right,” he says. “Don’t be late.”
The gift of Lan Zhan’s attention is already gone. He straightens the elaborate arrangement of his hair, tucks a fist behind his back, and sets off.
Wei Wuxian nearly sinks to the ground in Lan Zhan’s wake. He grips a nearby decorative fountain until his knuckles whiten. He’s mined the depths of his own memory so many times he doesn’t want to plunge inward again for fear he’ll warp something in there for good. And the thing is… he sucks in a breath and closes his eyes.
He’s beginning to nurse a suspicion, is the thing. He curls his fingers around Chenqing, tucked familiarly at his side. If Wei Wuxian dares to trust himself, he can acknowledge that he knows Lan Zhan as well as anyone aside from Zewu-jun. He can recall his decades-old memories and see the way Lan Zhan had looked at him in the very beginning, how he had reacted to Wei Wuxian with irritation, interest, disgust, and exasperation—but never indifference. Bystanders could have mistaken Lan Zhan’s silence for a lack of interest, but hindsight grants Wei Wuxian the ability to know better.
He rubs the pad of his thumb across Chenqing’s mouthpiece. Maybe what he’s hearing from Lan Zhan isn’t silence after all. Maybe there’s a distant discordant note waiting for him to pick up on its frequency.
“You know I didn’t exactly finish my education,” Wen Ning says. “I’m… ah, well, I’m far from an expert.”
Wei Wuxian fondly cuffs him on the shoulder. “You don’t need an education to help me brainstorm.”
Wen Ning smiles, leaning back against the outer wall of the Cloud Recesses where they’ve met. He still can’t be convinced to come inside, though Wei Wuxian is entirely sure Sizhui would happily pave the way for him. At this angle, Wen Ning’s hat slips back and his face is visible, the spidery black veins that mark him bared to the flicker of their campfire.
They’re quiet for a string of moments. Wen Ning has a wooden figure of the dancing goddess in his hands, a small whittling project; every now and then, he carves a fresh peel off her shoulder or foot.
“Maybe I’m losing my mind again,” Wei Wuxian says into the night.
Their shoulders touch where they sit side by side, a glancing point of reassurance. Wen Ning doesn’t look at him as he answers: “I’ve seen you losing your mind before,” he says. “And I’ve lost mine. I’ve lost my mind to your mind, gongzi. I don’t think that’s what’s happening.”
Wei Wuxian accepts the barb for what it is. “I thought we had something special, me and Lan Zhan.”
Wen Ning sighs in a quiet huff of cold breath. “You did. He waited for you without even knowing he was waiting. I think that counts as special. I think something is happening to Lan-er-gongzi and I’m afraid he needs your help.”
“He looks at me like—” Wei Wuxian groans, slumping.
“Like the way he looks at everyone else,” Wen Ning says wryly.
“Like that,” Wei Wuxian agrees. He feels tired and restless at the same time. “I wish you’d come inside. A-Yuan is busy with his training. I’m pointless in there.”
“You’re probably not pointless to A-Yuan,” Wen Ning says, “no matter how busy he is.”
“Ah, well.” Wei Wuxian scowls into the sparking flames. “He’s gotten along without me for a long time, somehow.”
Wen Ning bumps his shoulder into Wei Wuxian’s, very gently. “What will you do?”
It’s a cold night, and the nights are getting longer as they crawl into autumn. Wei Wuxian had come to Gusu with the intention of settling into the Cloud Recesses for the season, maybe for longer. He’d meant to come home to roost this time around.
He lets his breath out into the crisp air. On his way to the kitchens to scrounge for dinner, he’d passed Lan Zhan and been rewarded with a polite, empty nod of acknowledgment. It was horrible. “I’m the Yiling Patriarch, aren’t I?”
Wen Ning huffs out something like a chuckle. “Wei-gongzi,” he says. “You—yes, you are.”
“Well, then, if the fearsome Ghost General won’t storm the Cloud Recesses with me, I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.”
Wen Ning smiles and tips his hat back to shade his face. As if anyone will be skulking around the back of the Cloud Recesses at this time of night. As if Wei Wuxian would let anyone cause trouble for him. “If you need me—” He doesn’t have to finish the sentence.
They sit in silence for some time. Wei Wuxian almost starts to feel ready for what he thinks he has to do.
The library is spangled with dust motes in the late afternoon, and better than that, it’s empty. The disciples practice sword forms at this time, and Wei Wuxian has done his best to memorize the schedule as Sizhui has explained it to him.
With Lan Zhan’s back turned, Wei Wuxian indulges in a moment of letting himself expect the familiar. That Lan Zhan will see him and the cant of his eyes will shift into sudden warmth. That he’ll get to hear his birth name for the first time in months.
Lan Zhan folds the scroll he’s holding before he looks up. The ornaments in his hair shine in the sun when he moves his head. “Mm?”
The air between them is worse than frosty—it’s just dead, empty space. Wei Wuxian lifts his chin and puts on a swagger as he approaches. “Lan Zhan,” he repeats, “I think you owe me an explanation.”
Lan Zhan gives him no reply.
Wei Wuxian slinks closer, until they’re almost chest to chest. Lan Zhan’s expression doesn’t change, but he’s cornered now. “Hi,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice pitching itself higher without his consent. He’s forgetting himself. Proximity with Lan Zhan does that to him sometimes.
Lan Zhan looks faintly irritated. He’s silent, but it’s one of his silences that means something: Can I help you?
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” Wei Wuxian slaps on a grin. “Don’t you remember what a good time we had in this library? I know you didn’t forget the art I was kind enough to show you.”
It’s easier, actually, if he pretends he’s gone back to those days. Nie Huaisang would be hovering outside with his fan clasped to his chest, ready to twitter and gossip with Wei Wuxian about whatever heights of annoyance he’d goaded Lan Wangji toward today.
Nie-zongzhu is still around, but Huaisang feels long gone.
Lan Zhan hasn’t said anything. His expression is shuttered, giving Wei Wuxian nothing.
This moment doesn’t feel anything like being a reckless teenager trying to make Lan Zhan smile. Wei Wuxian misses that tiny smile and the way it could have been made especially for him.
Something feels cracked in the core of him. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Lan Wangji.”
A flicker of recognition from Lan Zhan.
“Hanguang-jun,” Wei Wuxian concludes. “I’m going to be serious, if you’ll be so kind as to do the same.”
“I am serious,” Lan Zhan says. “Nearly all of the time.”
“Nearly,” Wei Wuxian agrees. He swallows, hard. “Lan Zhan, what is it? What’s gone wrong between us?”
Lan Zhan’s face looks almost glassy again.
Wei Wuxian reaches for Lan Zhan’s wrist, curling his fingers around the skin that peeks out of his voluminous sleeve. “I’ll go,” he says. “I’ll leave you alone to your responsibilities and your life. I just have to know what changed to make you look at me like this. When you used to—ah, Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, you know how you used to look at me, right?”
Lan Zhan opens his mouth, and Wei Wuxian braces himself for something cutting and poetic—and, nothing. No words at all.
Lan Zhan seems to try again, his mouth moving around silent air. He pauses and touches two fingers of his free hand to his lips, but they still yield nothing. His consternation is evident.
“Oh, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian’s dread shifts from something deep in his belly to something more ambient and familiar. He nudges Lan Zhan’s hand aside and touches his mouth in its stead, just lightly. Lan Zhan looks at him like he has two heads, and he’s still quiet, but there’s finally something there.
“I—” Lan Zhan’s mouth twists into peevish confusion under Wei Wuxian’s fingers. He steps back as much as he can where Wei Wuxian has pinned him. “I…” He can’t seem to hold onto a sentence, and Wei Wuxian finally knows that whatever’s happened here isn’t some natural end to their friendship. If Lan Zhan really has decided to push him away, it’s been overlaid by a more powerful force, too.
It’s probably shameful and definitely unkind, but Wei Wuxian could laugh with sheer relief. Lan Zhan tiring of him is uncharted territory, but this—whatever it is, curse or spirit or monster—this, he thinks he can handle.
“I’m going to figure this out,” he promises Lan Zhan.
Lan Zhan blinks at him, slow. He frowns minutely, then sidesteps Wei Wuxian and brushes past him with a fist tucked at the small of his back.
Wei Wuxian smiles after him. The library is his to plunder now, after all.
Curses that can make someone who used to look at you like you personally hung the moon be rude and dismissive to you is a little tricky to search, as a concept. Wei Wuxian, without bothering to ask, has hauled an incredible amount of literature back to his guest quarters. The lock to the forbidden section wasn’t much of a challenge to a few clever talismans. If the Lan clan comes for him, Wei Wuxian is willing to bet on Sizhui’s defense to buy him some time before he gets unceremoniously kicked out.
“Wei-qianbei,” Sizhui says the next time they cross paths, “are you well?”
Wei Wuxian is frazzled and overtired. He hasn’t done this much reading and this little sleeping since—well, if Wen Qing were still alive, she could testify. He smiles at Sizhui. “Better than fine, A-Yuan. And I’ve told you to stop being so formal.”
Sizhui adopts an air of gentle concern. They’ve run into each other near the kitchens; Wei Wuxian has taken to raiding them for bland nutrition in the off hours. It’s easy to avoid skeptical glances if you don’t mind cold rice. It’s possible Sizhui has been looking for him, and equally possible that Sizhui is starting to memorize his habits.
“Wei—” Sizhui wrinkles his nose. “Xian-ge,” he tries, “is there anything I can do?”
Wei Wuxian grins at him. “Ah, that’s better!” He bites back the instinct to ruffle Sizhui’s hair out of its perfect topknot. “If you’re really offering…”
“I am,” Sizhui says earnestly.
“Think you can find me a time when Hanguang-jun is alone?” He pauses, then adds: “And not on his way to a meeting?”
That’s how Wei Wuxian sets foot into the jingshi for the first time since his return to Gusu.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, “I’m here!”
The rooms are unchanged, beautiful and clean and all Lan Zhan’s private domain. Lan Zhan himself, impeccably dressed but without hair ornaments, looks up from his qin with a bemused cant to his head. The what are you doing here is heavily implied.
“A-Yuan told me you were looking for me,” Wei Wuxian lies. Sizhui is, in fact, hovering outside for the next ten minutes to ensure that Wei Wuxian doesn’t get summarily kicked out. He’s such a good boy.
“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Zhan says his name like it’s a foreign language.
“Hi again.” Wei Wuxian swoops down upon him before he can make any protests. “Your hair looks nice. What song are you playing?”
Lan Zhan glances back down at where his fingers are poised on the strings. He touches the curve of his thumb to one string and a very faint note rings through the instrument. A frown flits across his features. “I don’t know,” he says, too slowly.
Wei Wuxian’s chest tightens. “Ah, Lan Zhan…”
The space between them is different after Wei Wuxian pressed the issue in the library. It’s not as it was before their mountaintop parting, but the frostiness has melted into a pressing blankness, like if Wei Wuxian reached for Lan Zhan, his hand might simply disappear. He doesn’t feel disdained anymore; he feels erased.
Lan Zhan gazes up at him with nothing behind his eyes, and Wei Wuxian could cry.
“Will you let me try something?” he ventures.
Lan Zhan’s features tighten, as if in suspicion, but he gives a small and wary nod.
“Be still,” Wei Wuxian says, and thus begins his experiment.
He arranges Lan Zhan in lotus pose, seated on the mat just below his bed so Wei Wuxian can sit behind and above him. “Stay,” he instructs Lan Zhan, and takes the lack of response as an affirmative.
Wei Wuxian hasn’t often found great success at meditation. The strength of his cultivation came from other means—quick thinking, he likes to believe; deep convictions, he still insists to himself; innate talent, perhaps. But for Lan Zhan, he’ll try. He breathes deep, places two fingers of each hand at Lan Zhan’s temples, and shuts his eyes.
Lan Zhan’s breaths are slow and deep. With each one, Wei Wuxian breathes alongside him. He matches the rhythm; in, then out. In, then out. His heart beats, and so does Lan Zhan’s.
There it is.
Lan Zhan’s golden core burns bright within his lower dantian, cradled there like the precious bounty that it is. His meridians are just as radiant, threads of precious silk looping and pooling throughout his spirit as they hum with power. Wei Wuxian has never made time for envy, and he won’t start now, but Lan Zhan is so beautifully crafted at his own hands. Wei Wuxian’s cultivation is comparatively weak, especially now. No core, no years of tempering his qi through discipline and focused meditation. As ever, it’s only him and his wits, and half the time he’s sure he prefers it this way.
Another slow breath. Slower, and then slower still. Their hearts slow, too.
With the tips of his fingers, Wei Wuxian searches for an explanation. He brushes Lan Zhan’s neck, his shoulders, the points of power at the crooks of his elbows and the tips of his fingers. When he touches Lan Zhan’s hands, Lan Zhan tenses. Wei Wuxian doesn’t let his breath catch.
He’s the worst kind of amateur at this sort of detective work, but without Wen Qing, he’s all he has. She taught him a few things, mostly in the form of affectionate threats of stabbing his qi points with her endless supply of needles. He has that, and he has all the reading he’s skimmed over the last day. It’ll have to be enough.
He walks his fingertips down Lan Zhan’s back. Still so light and so careful not to get caught in the deep wells of Lan Zhan’s spiritual power. He’s always known Hanguang-jun was an impressive cultivator, but the reminder makes him want to swell with pride nonetheless.
At the height of Lan Zhan’s kidneys, palms skimming his flanks, Wei Wuxian halts. There’s something—maybe he’s grasping at nothing, desperate for an explanation. Or maybe the lightning-quick flicker of the energy there means something.
Lan Zhan shifts. He speaks in a low rumble: “What are you doing?”
Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath. “Hey,” he says, “I’m just trying to help you out.”
Lan Zhan snaps from his reverie. He glances sidelong at Wei Wuxian over his shoulder, hands uncurling from their positions on his knees. “You?” he asks with suspicion.
“Yes.” Wei Wuxian puts on a smile. “Remember, you’re not feeling well? A-Yuan asked me to help you out.” Another lie, but Sizhui will forgive him.
Lan Zhan shakes his head a little, like someone hounded by a biting fly. “You?” he says again, utterly incredulous. “That can’t be right.” He unfolds, getting to his feet and stepping away from Wei Wuxian. A flyaway of his hair has come loose, and he smooths it back, businesslike. “This is my home,” he says, an undercurrent of steel sliding into his voice. “Again, I have to ask—are your quarters here not acceptable?”
The roil of dismay in Wei Wuxian’s gut is getting a little too familiar. “They’re great,” he says. “I’m sorry for intruding.”
Lan Zhan’s stare, legendarily icy, ushers him out the door.
Wei Wuxian is stubborn. Ask anyone. Ask a randomly-selected bystander, even. It’s well-known, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t proud of it.
“I know what my sister would say,” Wen Ning tells him that evening. He politely refuses Wei Wuxian’s offer of a swig from his flask of Emperor’s Smile. “She’d say to trust your instincts. You don’t need medical training to have those.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him, fond—of him and of the sister he continues to embody. “That’s lucky,” he says, “because I haven’t done much else for most of my life.”
It’s not like he ever expected to find himself anywhere but back at the jingshi.
“Lan Zha-aan,” he sing-songs as he interrupts another qin practice session the next day. After Sizhui pointing him here at this time once, Wei Wuxian had felt safe coming at the same time thereafter. Lan Zhan loves his routines.
Lan Zhan huffs out the tiniest sigh as his fingers still on the strings. He leaves them poised, half-curled where they hover. “Wei-gongzi,” he says flatly.
The added layer of formality stings, of course it does. But Wei Wuxian smiles through it and slides Lan Zhan’s door open until he can push his way inside. “Hi again!”
Unsurprisingly, Lan Zhan neither looks at him nor answers him.
Wei Wuxian mirrors Lan Zhan’s sigh, a much more dramatic heave of breath. He shuts the door behind him. “Do you remember what we were doing yesterday?”
Lan Zhan hesitates; Wei Wuxian has learned the difference between a deliberate silence and Lan Zhan searching for an answer. “You were here,” Lan Zhan says after a beat, but he sounds unsure.
“Yes.” Wei Wuxian draws closer. His fingers itch to touch Lan Zhan’s hair. “You kicked me out right when I was getting somewhere. I think that might mean something, actually.”
The qin strings make a discordant noise as Lan Zhan’s hands drop. He flinches, then, and pulls them away, but he looks at a loss, still. “Wei Wuxian…”
Wei Wuxian could curl himself around Lan Zhan and never move, if he thought it would be welcome right now. “I just want to try it one more time,” he says. “Think you can let me do that? All you have to do is meditate with me again. I know you’re good at meditating.”
Lan Zhan takes a quick breath, like someone steadying himself. He looks up at Wei Wuxian with clear eyes. “Mm.”
This time, Wei Wuxian has a better idea where he’s going. He balances Chenqing on his lap before he begins, his sleeves full of talismans that rustle when he arranges himself behind Lan Zhan. As ever, this kind of stillness comes easy to Lan Zhan: his posture is perfect and his breaths are even within mere minutes.
Wei Wuxian follows him to the best of his abilities. He’s terribly impatient, now more than ever. He wants to touch Lan Zhan. Instead, he crosses his legs and turns all his attention to the drag of his breath, the thump of his heart.
It’s easier to sink into this when he’s chasing the cool brilliance of Lan Zhan’s qi than it has been in a long, long time. Lan Zhan’s energy has a gentle thrum to it, a frequency that makes Wei Wuxian want to stretch out alongside it like a cat in a sunbeam. Wei Wuxian bites back an incongruous smile and, his own qi fixed in attachment to Lan Zhan’s, slides his hands back to Lan Zhan’s lower back. Either side of his spine; his kidneys, their qi points strung tight to the heart.
Something slips away from him. Smoothly and subtly, like a goldfish disappearing behind underwater greenery. Wei Wuxian frowns and reaches farther, his senses wide open.
There it goes again. A curl of something dark and just this side of familiar—Wei Wuxian’s territory. He frowns, leaves one hand splayed against Lan Zhan’s warm back while the other finds Chenqing. He doesn’t need to play to feel the way the flute vibrates in response to the presence of resentful energy. Yes, all right; it wasn’t only wishful thinking or the remnants of whatever havoc the Burial Mounds wrought on his mind.
Whatever it is, this thing, it’s hiding from him. It’s small and it’s quiet and it doesn’t want to be seen or noticed. Wei Wuxian presses his fingertips into Lan Zhan’s robe, and the bitter muttering of a fretful ghost echoes in his ears, but he can’t get it to stabilize.
“Be very still,” he instructs Lan Zhan. He receives a nearly-silent affirmative hum of response.
Carefully, the way he moves when he’s trying not to spook Little Apple, he lifts Chenqing to his lips. It’s warm already, awaiting his command faithfully. He breathes out a low note and lets it go questing through the jingshi for a response. Wei Wuxian’s eyes are still closed, but he can see the wisp of darkness that slinks around Lan Zhan anyway. He plays another few notes, tripping up the scale to make the sound shiny and attractive in the way that works for some spirits. Stripped of the bulk of their humanity, restless ghosts can be childlike, distractible and easy to bribe.
This isn’t your business, a petulant voice hisses from over his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t jump, but he comes close. His heart squeezes harder in his chest for a beat or two. Got you, he thinks, and he plays slower again. It’s meant to be a soothing rhythm. Usually, it lulls spirits and slows their movements.
He’s not yours anymore. It’s nearly a growl now. A cold touch brushes Wei Wuxian’s neck, the same spot where his wound from Jin Guangyao healed.
Wei Wuxian can agree with that. Lan Wangji isn’t his. He’s not yours either, though, and he plays the sentiment in a series of quick, low notes, Chenqing almost buzzing in his hands and under his mouth. For his efforts he gets a fresh hiss in his ear, and a protective tightening near the base of Lan Zhan’s spine. This little spirit has latched onto him with vigor and it has no desire to let go.
Striving for patience, Wei Wuxian takes his tune back up the scales, a playful attempt to solicit some answers. The frequency of its energy has turned mulish, however: it knows he’s here to ferret it out and it’s digging deeper, stubborn to match Wei Wuxian.
“All right,” Wei Wuxian says aloud. “Maybe we’re at an impasse. Do you want to tell me who you are?”
The chilling blankness he earns in reply feels a little too familiar these days.
Wei Wuxian sucks in an irritated breath. “Lan Zhan?” He nudges Lan Zhan’s shoulder with his knee, giving him a jostle.
“What?” Lan Zhan doesn’t have to face him for his own annoyance to be evident.
“Want to do me one more favor?”
“Not especially,” Lan Zhan says.
“I thought you might say that.” Wei Wuxian smiles anyway. “It’ll be quick, I promise.” Maybe. “Weren’t you in the middle of your qin practice? I just want you to practice something in particular for me.”
With the ease of years of habit, Lan Zhan rises from his meditative pose and doesn’t spare Wei Wuxian a glance on the way back to his zither. He sinks into his seat, pushes his hair back over his shoulders, and strums the opening notes to Clarity.
You wouldn’t think someone could play the qin tenderly. You really wouldn’t think a member of Gusu Lan could. Wei Wuxian’s realizing that Lan Zhan used to pull it off, though. He used to glance at Wei Wuxian before he began, used to direct the melody toward him and leave spaces between each note for Chenqing to make an entrance if he so desired. This afternoon, his back is straight and his gaze is focused and the music is meant only for himself and the heavens.
Wei Wuxian follows. He clears his throat, curious to see if he can get Lan Zhan’s attention. “Lan Zhan?”
Still, it’s like Lan Zhan perceives him through a cloud of smoke. His eyes flick up, then back down with seeming disinterest.
“I can work with this,” Wei Wuxian says. “I think. Can you play Inquiry?”
Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches; his version of a scoff. “Yes,” he says.
So, speaking of stubbornness. Wei Wuxian laughs. “I’m asking you to play it,” he clarifies, “please.”
“And inquire… what?”
Wei Wuxian gets the feeling he should ease edgeways into this. He steps to Lan Zhan’s side, where he can watch him play without looming over him, and says, “Start small. Ask if there’s a spirit here.”
Lan Zhan’s musical cultivation is strong enough to compel answers. He makes a barely-there gesture, the ghost of a shrug, before setting fingers to strings. Plucking one note, then five more in quick succession. The answering notes are slow to come. Wei Wuxian’s breath is caught in his lungs, and then he hears them, reluctant whispers of sound more than music.
“Well?” he prompts.
“It says yes,” Lan Zhan says. There’s a hint of darkness, the barest consternation, coloring his expression. “It’s here.”
Wei Wuxian could collapse to the floor in relief. He can hear the smile in his answer. “I knew it! Ah, Lan Zhan, I’ve still got it.” Absent any reply from Lan Zhan, he continues: “And how long has it been here?”
One too-slow musical interlude later, and Lan Zhan says, his shoulders ramrod straight, “Four and a half months.”
Some of the lightness of Wei Wuxian’s relief drains from him. “Four and a half months,” he echoes.
Lan Zhan hums low acknowledgement.
“I need to know its purpose.” Wei Wuxian clears his throat. He wants to fuss at Lan Zhan’s robes for something to do with his own fingers while he watches Lan Zhan’s move deftly across the qin.
Moments pass, and Lan Zhan’s hands still. He recites the spirit’s answer in flat tones: “Hanguang-jun has something I need, it says.”
Helpless, Wei Wuxian sets a hand at Lan Zhan’s shoulder. It’s warm. “You know what to ask next, right? I mean—I know you know. What is it you have? What is it taking from you?”
Lan Zhan plays a halting melody. A response comes; Wei Wuxian can hear it. Lan Zhan says nothing, though. He’s too still, a tiny furrow between his brows.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. He curls his fingers into Lan Zhan’s robe. “Please.”
When Lan Zhan speaks, it’s like someone reading syllables in a language he doesn’t speak. His voice is halting, completely unlike him. “It says, ‘His love for Wei Ying.’”
Ah. Wei Wuxian stays upright by virtue of his grip on Lan Zhan. He could bury his face in the back of Lan Zhan’s neck, sink to his knees and lean his forehead against the span between Lan Zhan’s shoulders—but not just yet. There’s work to do, and a clever spirit to chase off, and Hanguang-jun’s affections to reclaim. “Wen Ning was right,” he says with a bitten-off laugh. “Wen Ning is usually right. Lan Zhan—oh, you just wait here. Don’t move, all right?”
Reckless, he drops a kiss to Lan Zhan’s perfect cheek and doesn’t wait to see the aftermath.
Vanquishing spirits, once they’ve made themselves known, isn’t the hard part. Lan Zhan did half the hard part for him, and Wei Wuxian will thank him later.
In his quarters, he rummages wildly through his pack. This talisman, that talisman. If Wen Qing were here, he would pick her brain one last time. He sends a hasty message to Wen Ning, little more than a sloppily-scrawled I think I have it, and then he’s rushing back to the jingshi.
“Wei-qianbei!” someone calls to him as he passes. He brushes them off with a smile and an excuse.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes as he bursts through the door.
Lan Zhan hasn’t moved. Not in the usual way that he cultivates stillness—literally, he could be frozen in place. His little spirit friend must be panicking, knowing it’s going to lose its hold on him. Lan Zhan’s chest rises and falls, a balanced breath his only response to Wei Wuxian’s entrance.
Most of the talismans in his possession are meant for calling ghosts to his side. Well, good. He sends one flying across the room, a protection to stick firm to Lan Zhan’s front, and he slaps another to his own chest, a summoning. “You can come to me,” he says. “I know your kind. We’ll get along just fine.”
Chenqing leaps to his lips, light in his grip. He knows how to call this spirit now, how to wrap his music around the intention of I’m sorry, but this one belongs to me, and you can’t have him anymore.
Wisps of resentful energy fly from Lan Zhan’s core like a spray of ink.
Please. That’s the spirit, a droning whine in Wei Wuxian’s ear and at the base of his skull. Please, I’m letting him live. I’m not hurting him, am I? I’m so small, can’t you see? You didn’t even know I was there.
Wei Wuxian could laugh, but he keeps Chenqing steady instead. You took him from me, he tells the little spirit.
The whine climbs higher in pitch. I was so hungry, and his love was so, so big. You can’t imagine how big. Every day I’ve feasted and every night it’s grown back. It’s the only thing I’ve taken; can’t you share?
“Let him go,” Wei Wuxian says aloud. It’s only a few strides across the room to where Lan Zhan is statue-still at his qin. He touches Lan Zhan’s forehead, one shoulder and then another, and finally the qi point just above his golden core. His hold on Chenqing tightens, and he sends a fresh shock of energy into the talisman stuck to Lan Zhan’s chest with two fingers of his free hand. “I don’t know what I did to earn that love, but I earned it all the same. Apparently. I think I should get to see it for myself, don’t you?”
The air crackles weakly—and Lan Zhan gasps.
Wei Wuxian almost drops his flute.
Lan Zhan’s shoulders slump and his eyes are wide. He stares at Wei Wuxian like he’s been hit by a boulder, lips parted already around his next words. “Wei Ying?”
Wei Wuxian does drop his flute, then. Chenqing clatters across the jingshi floor.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again. His throat bobs as he swallows. Wei Wuxian has rarely seen him so undone and open with his expressions, and he guiltily relishes it the smallest bit.
“Hi.” Wei Wuxian sinks to his knees. His hands curl around Lan Zhan’s calves without asking his permission. “Lan Zhan, hi there.”
A faint hint of color, like the ghost of a flush, rises in Lan Zhan’s cheeks. “I… hello.” It’s impressively incoherent by Hanguang-jun standards. There’s a question in the shape of his eyes.
Wei Wuxian nods. A huge grin is trying to take over his face, crinkling his nose and stretching his cheeks. “It wasn’t a dream,” he says. “I guess that means you remember what happened?”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan swallows again, composure returning to his face. His fingers tremble only a little as he reaches for Wei Wuxian, brushing his knuckles across the hinge of Wei Wuxian’s jaw. “You came back. And I… was unkind to you.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “You weren’t rude. I’ve been lucky, you know? Feeling like I was special to you. I couldn’t wait to get back to that.”
Lan Zhan touches his temple, his nose; Wei Wuxian sits up straighter to chase the contact. “I missed you,” Lan Zhan says. A fluttery beat passes, and he adds, “Very much.”
Ah, it’s like sinking into a warm and perfumed bath. Wei Wuxian slides his hands to Lan Zhan’s thighs, solid under the many-layered silk of his robes. “You’re more than welcome to tell me as much about how much you missed me as you want.” His smile must be positively stupid by now. “To unburden yourself.”
Alarmingly, a grave shadow flits across Lan Zhan’s features. “I do owe you an apology,” he says. He draws his touch back from Wei Wuxian’s face.
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian cocks his head.
Lan Zhan’s gaze drops, his eyelashes casting little shadows on the lovely curve of his cheek. “You left,” he says, “with intention. I let you go because it was what you wanted. And I meant to await you with composure and patience.”
Wei Wuxian tips his chin up to better watch the small expressions playing out on Lan Zhan’s face. “And then what happened?”
Lan Zhan allows himself a weary exhale like the ghost of a self-deprecating laugh. “I already told you.”
“Summer began to end,” he says, “and I missed you.”
Wei Wuxian squeezes Lan Zhan’s thighs, thoughtless reassurance. “You know I missed you too, don’t you? I never asked you not to miss me. Everyone I met, everything I saw—I couldn’t wait to tell you about it.” He slings another smile Lan Zhan’s way. “I think I just went so I’d have stories to tell to make up for your sixteen years of stories that don’t feature me.”
Lan Zhan’s face softens. “Wei Ying, nearly everything that’s mattered has featured you. Whether you were dead or alive.”
“Flatterer,” Wei Wuxian says with glee.
Lan Zhan hums agreement, then continues. “When I missed you, I was ashamed. I wanted to respect your wishes.”
“You’re too upright.” Wei Wuxian is suffused with fondness about it.
“The spirit… took advantage, I believe. Of that shame and that loneliness.” The words seem to pain Lan Zhan just a little. “I was not vigilant in my meditation. My defenses were lowered, and it was a very small spirit.”
“A clever spirit, eh? I’m the only person who could’ve noticed the way I did.”
Lan Zhan catches his eye, embarrassment tightening the corners of his mouth. “I’ve been asleep these past months,” he says.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, “let me be the first person to say it, then.” He rises to his feet, palms to the intricately embroidered clouds of Lan Zhan’s outermost robe. “Good morning, Hanguang-jun.” Warm throughout with the rush of Lan Zhan’s regard, he cups Lan Zhan’s face in both hands and leans down to kiss him with his heart in his throat.
The world stops, only for a moment. Lan Zhan could be frozen in place again, jade through and through—and then he’s not frozen at all; and then he’s making a low noise in the back of his throat, and opening to Wei Wuxian like an orchid at the break of dawn, and kissing him in answer.
Lan Zhan’s smile is too close to see, but Wei Wuxian can feel the curve of it tucked against the side of his mouth. “It’s afternoon,” Lan Zhan says dryly.
Wei Wuxian laughs. He kisses him again for the pleasure of knowing it’s not their first kiss this time. “Good afternoon. Good evening. Whatever! I missed you too.”
Lan Zhan kisses his chin. His gaze is direct and almost luminous. “I put you in the dormitory. Shameful.”
“Not your fault! You love me so much it was irresistible to some little lonely resentful spirit.” Wei Wuxian can’t make himself stop laughing or make himself stop kissing Lan Zhan’s smiling mouth. “To think I accused you of flattery a minute ago and it wasn’t even because of that.” To think Lan Zhan loves him that much.
He’s rewarded with another huff of breath that could be a laugh. “If it’s flattery you want…”
“How soft-hearted,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything. He tilts his head up and kisses Wei Wuxian instead, a slower affair that has the skin at the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck prickling. Lan Zhan is intent, careful with him like he wants every touch of tongue and press of lips to mean something.
Wei Wuxian’s knees are weak. He curls his fingers into Lan Zhan’s hair, bumping his forehead into the crown of Lan Zhan’s head where his tower of hair ornaments would sit if he’d been facing the public when Wei Wuxian accosted him. He breathes in the fresh smell of him, clean hair and the ever-burning incense that provides ambiance to the jingshi. “Lan Zhan,” he says. It feels good, so he says it again: “Lan Zhan.”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan noses at the underside of Wei Wuxian’s jaw. He pauses, then draws back and levels a thoughtful look at him. “You haven’t eaten.”
Wei Wuxian heaves a dramatic sigh. “I can’t believe you can think about that right now. Should I be insulted?”
His childishness earns him a kiss to the base of his throat and Lan Zhan’s hand cupping his jaw. “No.” Lan Zhan’s forehead ribbon is the slightest bit crooked, and the sight sends a thrill curling around itself in Wei Wuxian’s belly.
“I’m not hungry,” Wei Wuxian insists.
“Hm.” Lan Zhan considers this, then obviously dismisses it. He draws a character in the air, glowing blue, and paper flutters in its wake. Their food will be here in the hands of an eager disciple soon, and Wei Wuxian can only take advantage of the wait. He bends with dedication to the work of kissing Lan Zhan.
“What was it like?” Wei Wuxian licks the last piece of rice off the end of his chopstick and lets it drop to the tray on which his meal arrived.
Lan Zhan gives him a sidelong glance; seeing that Wei Wuxian is done eating, he relents. They’ve been eating in silence, one of the Lan rules that Wei Wuxian finds the most impossible. Lan Zhan doesn’t pretend not to know what Wei Wuxian means. “It was like walking through a doorway and forgetting what you’ve come for in the first place,” he says. His chopsticks are neatly side by side, his bowl clean. “I missed you terribly, and one day I didn’t. It should have felt strange, but the respite from regretting your absence was a relief, in some ways. Then I didn’t think of you at all, and I was kept hostage in such a way that I didn’t know to find that as strange as it was.”
Wei Wuxian lets his breath out through his nose. He wants to shove their dishes aside and crawl across the table directly toward Lan Zhan. “You could have asked me not to go.”
“I’m not my father,” Lan Zhan says. He meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes, something mournful in the set of his jaw. “And I hoped you would return.”
“I always meant to come back. I mean—always.”
Lan Zhan smiles. Enchanted, Wei Wuxian rests his chin in his hand to look at him.
“You know I really thought… I don’t know. That maybe I’d made all of it up.”
“Made all of what up?” Lan Zhan asks with pitch-perfect innocence.
Wei Wuxian wrinkles his nose. “Made up—oh, you know! Everything we had. Or everything we did. Aiya, don’t make fun of me right now. I’m delicate. The chief cultivator was the victim of a months-long haunting, haven’t you heard?” He softens and adds, “You didn’t even like me anymore. I didn’t trust my memories.”
“I have heard that rumor,” Lan Zhan says solemnly. He’s quiet for a moment. “Did it say anything to you?”
Wei Wuxian considers the question. That spirit was Lan Zhan’s companion for a long time, after all, like a stray dog feeding off the scraps an innkeeper throws out. “It was lonely too,” he says. “Lonely when it died. Lonelier in death, I guess.” He can almost still hear the thing whining in the back of his head. “It said it was hungry. And, ah, it said your love was… that there was a lot to spare.” His face feels hot, and he has to look away from Lan Zhan.
The next time Lan Zhan speaks, he’s much closer. “There was,” he says simply. He stands over Wei Wuxian, offering him a hand. “There still is.”
Wei Wuxian’s blood roars in his ears. He hopes his palms aren’t clammy. He hopes he doesn’t swoon right into Lan Zhan’s arms and cut their afternoon short. He takes Lan Zhan’s hand with both of his own and pulls himself up until they’re chest to chest, face to face.
Lan Zhan smiles again for a sunny moment. “Hello, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian throws his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck and kisses him. Eyes shut, thigh working its way between Lan Zhan’s legs, pulse thrumming in his neck with the delicious novelty of it. Lan Zhan makes a sound like a gasp, and that’s delicious too, and Wei Wuxian really could eat him alive for the pleasure of never letting him go. He settles for kissing him again and again, Lan Zhan’s hands making their way to his hips and Lan Zhan’s mouth going slack and inviting under his own.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan says his name with his teeth catching on Wei Wuxian’s bottom lip.
“Mmhmm.” Wei Wuxian threads his fingers through the back of Lan Zhan’s hair, just tight enough that Lan Zhan will know he’s there. “Just let me—” He kisses Lan Zhan. It makes the pit of his stomach feel like it’s floating and the base of his spine feel like it’s melting, so he does it one more time.
His voice low with amusement, Lan Zhan squeezes Wei Wuxian’s hips and says, “Come here.”
“Lan Zhan? I… oh!” Before he can say anything else stupid, Lan Zhan is tugging at him, leading him across the jingshi until they’ve reached the bed where Wei Wuxian once convalesced after a stab wound.
“Take off your clothes,” Lan Zhan says. He clears his throat then, the little sound so uncharacteristic that Wei Wuxian could laugh. There’s a hint of the sheepish in his expression as he looks at Wei Wuxian. “I have something to prove.”
There’s nothing Lan Zhan needs to prove to him. Wei Wuxian isn’t about to deter him at a time like this, though. He kicks off his boots, fumbles at the layers of his robes until they slide to the floor. Lan Zhan never looks away, and Wei Wuxian’s cheeks stay warm, his blood thick with the anticipation of stepping away from the pile of his own robes. He hesitates, but not for long, before pulling the thin undershirt over his head.
“Is that enough for now?” he asks. He’s aiming for teasing, but he lands somewhere around flustered ingénue instead. “Or do you need me completely naked right away?”
Lan Zhan appears to consider this, his eyes dark. “This will do,” he says. “For now.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. “What have I gotten myself into?”
“Sit,” Lan Zhan says. When Wei Wuxian perches on the edge of the bed, Lan Zhan fixes him with a glance so unimpressed that he could blush all over again as he arranges himself against the cushions, the embroidered silk rough on his bare back. “Better,” Lan Zhan allows. He reaches inside his own robes, untying something, and his first layer falls to the ground atop Wei Wuxian’s discarded clothing.
He descends upon Wei Wuxian, then, crawling onto the bed in a way that only Hanguang-jun could make graceful. His hair falls over one shoulder, and his knees bracket Wei Wuxian’s thighs, and he leans down to resume where they left off: kissing him, the fingers of both hands to the edges of Wei Wuxian’s jaw.
The burden of standing lifted, Wei Wuxian sinks into the physicality of Lan Zhan’s presence. The huff of his breath every now and then, the weight of him across Wei Wuxian’s lap, the spark like magic when Lan Zhan’s mouth is open against his and they’re breathing into each other’s mouths, kissing with languid intent. Wei Wuxian never did get as much practice at this as he would have liked to claim, but it’s not so hard. It’s following Lan Zhan across the rooftops as a teenager, matching his footwork and thrilling at the discovery of someone so suited to meeting him at every turn.
Lan Zhan kisses the corner of his mouth and the hollow of his throat. His eyes are bright now, his mouth pink. “I believe,” he says with deliberation, “that I need to make up for the last few weeks.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian protests. “You really don’t—you didn’t do anything! You were a victim. I was sad, but I’m not anymore.”
“Your return was meant to be joyful.” The side of Lan Zhan’s mouth lifts, so fleeting Wei Wuxian could have imagined it. “And it will be. Belatedly.”
Wei Wuxian lets slip a dramatic sigh. He’s smiling, though, stupidly. “Lan Zhan, does the public know their chief cultivator is so incorrigible?”
Instead of answering, Lan Zhan drops a kiss to the line of Wei Wuxian’s collarbone, careful and sweet. “I do like you,” he says. His hair tickles Wei Wuxian’s stomach. “I like this.” He punctuates the declaration by pressing his mouth to the skin under Wei Wuxian’s ear, nosing his hair aside.
Wei Wuxian sighs again, submitting to Lan Zhan’s ministrations. “That part specifically, eh?”
“That part specifically.” Lan Zhan kisses the gentle rise of his bicep. “This, too.” His mouth makes its way to the crook of Wei Wuxian’s elbow; Wei Wuxian squirms a little, laughs, and reaches to tuck Lan Zhan’s hair behind his ear. “And this,” Lan Zhan adds, lacing their fingers together so he can drop a fresh kiss to the meat of Wei Wuxian’s palm.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “Completely absurd, Lan Zhan.” He feels drunk on it, here in the sunny mid-afternoon without a drop of alcohol in his system. The jingshi tilts around him when Lan Zhan’s mouth makes it to the inside of his wrist and Lan Zhan’s hand curls around his hip.
Lan Zhan ignores him. He noses his way back up Wei Wuxian’s arm. When they’re face to face again, he gives Wei Wuxian another rare smile—getting less rare by the moment, and Wei Wuxian wants to tell all of Gusu that he’s the one who gets to see these. He wants to hoard them like a miser with a pile of jewels.
“You’re really beautiful,” Wei Wuxian says. He’s not in control of his mouth. When is he ever in control of his mouth? “I hated it when you looked at me like I didn’t matter to you. I’ve been really spoiled for a long time.”
Lan Zhan rubs his thumb across Wei Wuxian’s hipbone. His hand is warm, his fingers long and callused. He doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to: he dips his head, kisses Wei Wuxian’s sternum. “This part, too,” he says. He palms at Wei Wuxian’s side, fingers wide, and Wei Wuxian’s breath goes shaky in the wake of him. Lan Zhan’s mouth catches on his nipple; he could die from the twinge of lightning-heat and Lan Zhan’s breath.
“Even that part, really?” If he doesn’t keep talking, he’ll float away.
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says. He’s preoccupied stroking the curve of Wei Wuxian’s ribcage, kissing the bare skin of his belly. It’s completely insane that he’s still wearing at least three layers and Wei Wuxian is this naked under him. Wei Wuxian makes a small, whiny noise about it.
“I’m not done,” Lan Zhan says placidly. He strokes Wei Wuxian’s side the way he might placate a spooked horse. “I’ve wanted to welcome you home this way for quite a while.”
Wei Wuxian squirms, tugging lightly at a lock of Lan Zhan’s hair. He’s hard, a slow and steady almost-pleasure like friction, and he’s not a patient man. “I couldn’t wait to see your face when you saw me,” he admits. “I like the way you look at me.”
“And you were disappointed.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I was scared. Lan Zhan, come on, just—”
The low huff of breath Lan Zhan makes comes close to a chuckle. He kisses the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s hip, and Wei Wuxian’s toes curl. “I like this, and this, and this.” He looks up at Wei Wuxian through his eyelashes and Wei Wuxian wants to haul him in, kiss him stupid, grind against him until they both come apart. Lan Zhan’s smile presses to his stomach, above his waistband, and Lan Zhan says, “I love it, to be precise. ”
“Ah—Lan Zhan…” Wei Wuxian reaches for him blindly.
Lan Zhan’s expression is steely with intent, and Wei Wuxian has a feeling he knows what Lan Zhan might say next, and he wants to hear it so badly that he definitely can’t let himself hear it. He doesn’t have time to fall apart, not with Lan Zhan hovering over him like this: forehead ribbon askew, cheeks flushed, eyes glittering.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan wets his lips with his tongue.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. “Yes. It’s me. I got you back. Come here, please.”
Lan Zhan obeys, stretched out along the length of Wei Wuxian with his thigh between Wei Wuxian’s legs, and Wei Wuxian kisses him. His heart feels like it could spill out of his mouth, and the least he can do is give it to Lan Zhan, and so he kisses him again. He kisses him slowly, carefully, until he can’t be slow or careful anymore. Until Lan Zhan’s weight shifts and the broad muscle of his thigh pushes just so between Wei Wuxian’s legs and he whines, hands in Lan Zhan’s hair.
“Your stupid robes!” Wei Wuxian tugs ineffectually at Lan Zhan’s collar. “Hanguang-jun, you must be trying to kill me.”
At last, Lan Zhan pulls off his second layer. A third follows, and a gauzy fourth, and then there's clean white undershirt and trousers, but Wei Wuxian is greedy. He fixes Lan Zhan with a pleading look and pulls at the hem of his shirt.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, gently chiding. He stands, then, and the dismantling of Hanguang-jun comes to completion: forehead ribbon off and the remainder of his clothes in their wake.
Wei Wuxian stares. He swallows. Lan Zhan has gone golden in the early evening light. “Wow,” he says.
Lan Zhan ducks his head like someone trying to hide a smile. “And as for you?”
Wei Wuxian’s not nearly so elegant. He shoves his trousers down and flings them onto the pile of their discarded clothing. “I asked you to come here,” he says sullenly.
As ever, Lan Zhan comes to him. The weight of him is already sweetly a little bit familiar. Wei Wuxian smiles to see him, kisses him to bury the way he shudders when Lan Zhan’s skin touches his own. Lan Zhan’s warm all over, and Wei Wuxian slides hands down his back, his own calluses catching a little on the patchwork of scar tissue. The feeling makes him pull Lan Zhan closer, tighter; makes him kiss him harder, until he could swear Lan Zhan is close to panting against his mouth.
“Like this,” Lan Zhan says. He adjusts himself just so, determined, and then their legs are slotted together and Lan Zhan’s erection is pressed to the crease of Wei Wuxian’s hip, and he makes a totally stupid noise and yanks Lan Zhan down for one more kiss.
A long moment passes, a collection of seconds for Wei Wuxian to bask in everything that’s happening. Lan Zhan’s tongue in his mouth, Lan Zhan’s hands cupping his jaw, the unfurling of pleasure right from his center every time he rolls his hips and finds the willing solidity of Lan Zhan’s body right there. He hangs onto Lan Zhan’s shoulders and does that again, slower; he bites off the end of a ragged exhale, tucks his face into Lan Zhan’s neck so he can muffle the high-pitched noise that comes from somewhere low in his throat.
Lan Zhan pets his face and his hair. His breath is coming quick and shallow, and Wei Wuxian drinks in the sound of it. “Wei Ying,” he says.
“I’m here,” Wei Wuxian says. “This feels—it’s really good, you know that?” He should stop talking. “You’re gorgeous. Have you seen yourself?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says again, “be quiet.”
Lan Zhan kisses his forehead and reaches between them to fit his hand around Wei Wuxian’s dick, and Wei Wuxian is quiet, all the words punched out of him in a tiny gasp. Everything he said before about this feeling good seems insignificant now—now that Lan Zhan is breathing against his temple and curling his fingers around him and all his nerves are firing, everything in the world narrowed to this point of contact. He inhales on a pathetic little sound, the tips of his fingers digging hard into Lan Zhan’s shoulders.
“Just like that.” There’s a smile at the edges of Lan Zhan’s voice, and he twists his wrist, moves his hand, and Wei Wuxian whines again, bucks into the surety of his touch.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. “Yeah, yes, that’s good. That feels good. Don’t stop.”
Lan Zhan kisses his jaw and sucks the skin there between his teeth for a blistering second that makes Wei Wuxian’s thighs tremble. “I had no intention of stopping,” he says, low.
Wei Wuxian groans, his eyes shutting and his whole body curving toward where Lan Zhan has him in hand. The way Lan Zhan moves is so careful, his grip tight and precise. His fingers are rough and dexterous, his palm smooth. Everything coalesces, then, as Lan Zhan tucks yet another kiss into the hollow of Wei Wuxian’s throat. The backs of Wei Wuxian’s knees are sweaty, his tendons all drawn up tight with the goodness of Lan Zhan touching him, and he rides the high right where it’s been leading him: his head thrown back, Lan Zhan’s hair brushing his bare chest as he comes into Lan Zhan’s ready fingers. The feeling stretches out over a long and sumptuous moment, all of Lan Zhan’s attention on him as he pants his way through it.
Almost tentatively, Lan Zhan kisses his mouth. Wei Wuxian leans into it, blissful. “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says in a strained rumble. He’s very hard where he’s still pressed to the soft inside of Wei Wuxian’s thigh. “I can just…”
Wei Wuxian snaps to attention. “No! Lan Zhan, let me—” There’s no way to say in words how much he wants to touch Lan Zhan, how disappointed he’ll be if Lan Zhan takes the chance for him. “Don’t you dare,” he says instead. He brushes his knuckles against the eager curve of Lan Zhan’s erection—and Lan Zhan moans, the best sound Wei Wuxian’s ever heard in his too-short life. It’s so lovely that Wei Wuxian does it again immediately. Lan Zhan gasps, his dick twitching a little against Wei Wuxian’s fingers.
“Wei Ying.” He fumbles slightly as he reaches to hang onto Wei Wuxian by sliding a hand to the back of his neck.
Gleeful, smiling like a fool, Wei Wuxian fits his hand to the shape of Lan Zhan’s erection, rubbing his thumb at the head where it’s a little wet. “You like that, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Zhan glares, his cheeks pink and his pulse jumping in the stretch of his throat. Wei Wuxian strokes him; he’s sleek and hot to the touch, his hips chasing Wei Wuxian’s hand with every motion. His eyelids drift shut, his mouth open, the rhythm of his breath climbing quicker and quicker. Wei Wuxian grows bolder, petting the expanse of his back and making quiet sounds of assurance when Lan Zhan’s next inhale seems to get caught in his chest.
It all falls into place in a matter of minutes. Lan Zhan goes tense over him and hides his face in the side of Wei Wuxian’s neck, and comes with the most beautiful series of shivery little noises. Wei Wuxian wants to wrap himself around him just to devour every one of those, and he settles for throwing his arms around Lan Zhan and pulling him close, nuzzling the damp lock of hair that’s stuck to Lan Zhan’s cheek. They’re sticky and dirty and Wei Wuxian is floating, couldn’t care less.
Lan Zhan breathes out. He leans his forehead against Wei Wuxian’s. “So you see,” he says, “you did your job well. I’ve remembered exactly how I feel about you.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. He’s giddy, maybe. “Ah, Lan Zhan… I don’t even remember what it felt like to be scared about that. It’s all gone now. You did your job just as well, eh?”
Lan Zhan hums under his breath, clearly satisfied. “Stay where you are.” He tips Wei Wuxian’s chin up and kisses him. “I’ll make us clean.”
As usual, Lan Zhan is true to his word. He makes quick work of his task, warming the water with an infusion of spiritual energy and tending to Wei Wuxian before he tends to himself. Wei Wuxian could melt into the bed and beyond, right though the floor, but he settles for pouting until Lan Zhan rejoins him. His head fits well under Lan Zhan’s chin.
They drift there together as Wei Wuxian loses track of the time. Lan Zhan combs his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair and Wei Wuxian pets him, all along his belly and the sturdy muscles of his thigh and the mathematically perfect jut of his hip. He could do this for another sixteen years, easy. He’d spool out the stories he has stored up to tell Lan Zhan, one every night, and they’d never get bored.
Their luck holds: by the time a little shower of sparks in the shape of a rabbit alerts Lan Zhan that there are visitors approaching the jingshi, they’ve started to pull their clothes back on. Wei Wuxian’s hair is a mess, but he ties his hair ribbon back in place anyway.
“A-Yuan?” he asks as the miniature rabbit melts away from Lan Zhan’s palm.
Lan Zhan gives him a tight nod. He’s unreal, already looks impeccably put-together. His forehead ribbon’s slightly off-center, but Wei Wuxian’s not going to tell him that.
“Ah, well,” Wei Wuxian says merrily, hopping down from his perch on the edge of the bed, “he may as well find out.”
He slides the front door open, then stops. They have not one visitor, but two. Wen Ning wrings his hands, a handful of steps behind where Sizhui is standing and smiling at Wei Wuxian. “Wei-gongzi,” he says, eyes trained on the ground.
“Good evening, Xian-ge,” Sizhui says. “We have a question for Hanguang-jun.”
Wei Wuxian breaks into a fresh smile. “Lan Zhan!” he calls back into the jingshi. “I think someone has something to ask you. Though,” he adds, “you’d better tell him he can stay or I’m going to start regretting a couple of things.”
Lan Zhan is there at his side, his hand slotting into place at the small of Wei Wuxian’s back. “I’ve been hoping Wen-gongzi would ask,” he says.
The late summer sun, just beginning to sink lazily lower in the sky, casts everything in honeyed hues. Wei Wuxian kisses Lan Zhan’s cheek before he can worry that he shouldn’t. He never did get his grand entrance—but this isn’t such a bad homecoming after all.