“Life is hard, Mr. Scoresby, but we cling to it all the same.”
“And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”
“The greatest wisdom I know.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
The back hills are the perfect place to nap.
Wei Wuxian discovered this about two weeks ago, sometime between arriving at the imposing Lan gates and being chased around by Lan Wangji across the rooftops under moonlight, laughing as Emperor’s Smile spilled across his sleeves.
If this were Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian could have sat down on that very roof –in broad daylight even, not just the shadow of night— covered his eyes, and let the heat of summer and sounds of water lapping on the wood docks lull him to sleep. He could have dozed into dreams pleasantly tipsy, muscles still burning from the way Lan Wangji’s sword slid against his own.
But this isn’t Lotus Pier, and Lan Wangji had quite unkindly ruined his plans for rooftop anything, so: the back hills.
It’s in those very hills, as Wei Wuxian is staring up at the sky and thinking idly about the taste of Emperor’s Smile on his tongue, that Suibian jumps full force onto his stomach and cries, “A-Xian, don’t be mad!”
The sheer force of her pounce knocks the breath out of him. He lets out an ooofhm sound, much different than what he wanted to ask: Why would I be mad?
The resulting pause is just long enough for Jiang Cheng, who up to this point has been laying rather peacefully next to him, to shoot up and demand, “Oh great, what did you do now?”
To be fair, the question isn’t exactly unwarranted. Suibian looks an absolute mess: twigs stuck in her fur, dirt smeared across the white fluff of her underbelly. She’s panting up a storm, little heh heh heh gasps that haven’t edged into her normal high-pitched laughter.
When her ears press back against her head, she could almost pass for pitiful.
“Bichen hates me.”
Wei Wuxian’s first thought is Why would Lan Zhan’s daemon hate you?, but it’s followed quickly by remembering exactly where he is, how little trouble he’s caused today, and the fact that he hasn’t seen Suibian for a few minutes.
A grin spreads across his face.
Jiang Cheng doesn't seem as amused; he groans so loudly that a group of birds flush from a nearby tree, and points an accusing finger at her. “Why are you always causing trouble?!”
“Hey!” A-Sui presses her ears back against her head as she glares at Jiang Cheng. “It was an accident!”
That earns her a roll of the eyes. “Oh, just like when you accidentally dropped a dead bird onto my plate last night—”
“It’s called instinct, I’m not trying to cause problems—”
“Ok, ok!” Breath back in his lungs, Wei Wuxian interrupts them before they can really get started. Despite Suibian’s apparent distress, he’s grinning when he looks down at her and asks, “What fun are we having now?”
“None!” she wails, and Wei Wuxian laughs. “A-Xian, you didn’t see, I’m dead!”
“Good,” Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath. Suibian whines again in response, burrowing into Wei Wuxian’s stomach so she doesn’t have to look at any of them anymore. From the way their bond is trembling, watery and distraught, someone might as well have died; but she's always been a bit on the dramatic side. He tries to jostle her off him without having to sit up, but the movement only has paws scrambling at his torso, A-Sui’s little fox claws digging through the fabric of his shirt.
When he tugs pointedly at her ear, she retaliates by nipping at his fingers.
“Ow, ow! Suibian!”
“She’s going to eat me!”
“Can a daemon even eat another daemon?” Nie Huaisang, who is a mǐ or so to his right with his daemon curled up in his palm, sounds suddenly nervous.
Suibian ignores the question, too deep in her fit of drama. “What if she never talks to me again?!”
“She doesn’t talk to you now,” Jiang Cheng points out, and A-Sui pouts at him. Sandu, who has been resting her head against Jiang Cheng’s legs, lets out a small huff of amusement and thumps her tail against the grass.
“Only because they’re fuddy-duddies,” Wei Wuxian says, and pulls Suibian’s face to eye level. “Alright, c’mon, spill it! What did you do, hmm, A-Sui?”
Suibian stares up at him with watery eyes, twitching in his hands.
“I nibbled on her tail,” she whispers.
Wei Wuxian blinks at her.
Around them, mild panic erupts. Nie Huaisang starts to frantically fan himself, looking as if he might bolt or faint or perhaps both. His mouse squeaks in alarm and darts into the nearest bush, while Jiang Cheng sighs like the end of the world is imminent and that sacrificing Wei Wuxian and his daemon will somehow make it more bearable. Sandu, bless her, lets out a defeated growl and shoves her face under her paws.
Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, starts laughing.
“Undignified,” he teases, and laughs harder as Suibian wriggles to try and shove her cold nose against his neck. He manhandles her higher into the air, high enough to be safe from scrambling claws and wet noses. “Ridiculous! Shameless!”
A-Sui doesn’t appear to be amused by the Lan impression. “Don’t make fun of me!”
“Why the hell would you mess with Lan Bichen?” Jiang Cheng demands. “Are you insane?”
“I was playing! Trying to play!”
“You really think any of those Lan daemons can play?” Wei Wuxian asks her, and Suibian does her best to look guilty even as she slips out of his hold and plops back onto the grass.
“I thought I could show her how! And it looked so fluffy and it was just swinging back and forth, and I didn’t think—”
“When do you?” Jiang Cheng sighs, but less meanly this time, and Sandu shifts so she can put a large paw on Suibian to hold her still. Suibian wriggles valiantly for a few moments but eventually admits defeat, panting a little.
“They… didn’t follow you, did they?” Nei Huaisang is still visibly nervous, looking around the clearing as if Lan Wangji and Bichen might miraculously appear from thin air to scold them.
Actually, that’s not so far out of the realm of possibility. Wei Wuxian sits up fully and looks around too, just in case. Nothing unusual greets his eyes. Just the grass swaying in the winds, the dappled shadows of leaves on the ground.
“No, they just… stared at me,” A-Sui says, and pouts as Sandu starts to groom the top of her head. Still, Wei Wuxian can feel her relax from the other daemon’s attention. “And then Bichen’s ears did something weird and I ran away.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows furrow. “Lan Bichen, idiot, what if they hear you?! And stop trying to be friends with them.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian and Suibian reply in unison, making Jiang Cheng throw up his arms.
“Fine! Not like I’m trying to help you or anything! If she eats you, it serves you right.”
“You really should be more careful,” Sandu advises, calmer than her human counterpart, and A-Sui sighs deeply. A fond look crosses the wolf’s face, even as Jiang Cheng huffs and looks away.
“They’ll never want to be friends with you if you keep breaking their rules.”
Another deep sigh.
Wei Wuxian grins, pats A-Sui on the head. She’s definitely edged back into pitiful territory, a defeated line of red and white fur. He almost feels sorry for her; it’s really not her fault that she causes trouble so much. Whereas Wei Wuxian purposefully tries to stir up chaos (for fun! harmless!), A-Sui just has terrible impulse control.
“Wait,” he says, snapping his fingers to draw her attention back, “before you forget! Tell me: was her tail as fluffy as it looks?”
“So fluffy,” A-Sui confirms, staring up at him with huge brown eyes. “Like spun sugar.”
Wei Wuxian melts a little. Partly because he wants to pinch her little fox ears, and partly because the idea of Lan Wangji’s aloof, cold snow leopard being fluffy is just too cute.
Cute, and not fitting in the slightest; Bichen, after all, always looks about five seconds away from biting their heads off.
“Well,” he decides, “if it was for the valiant pursuit of scientific curiosity, there’s nothing we can do about it.” He plops back down on the grass, eliciting a squeak from A-Sui and a noise of protest from Jiang Cheng.
“Shouldn’t you—do something?!”
“What, exactly? I make Lan Zhan mad all the time. You don’t see me whining about it.”
“You do whine about it.”
Wei Wuxian pretends not to hear that particular tidbit. Instead, he closes his eyes and rolls onto his side. Out of sight, out of mind.
“I think I’ll go back to napping, thank you very much.”
There’s a grumble of agreement from Suibian, another defeated sigh from Sandu. The breeze blows across his face, the chill of it staved off by the sun and his own good mood. It should be possible to squeeze in at least a few more hours of dozing before they’re called back for dinner—and with A-Sui now by him, he can feel the pull of sleep like a physical tug.
For a few blessed seconds, it’s quiet.
“Um,” Nie Huaisang squeaks, breaking the soft sounds of their breathing, “Um, Wei-xiong, I don’t think napping is actually such a good idea—”
“C’mon, what do you think’s gonna happen?” Wei Wuxian asks, eyes still closed. Suibian is warm where she’s tucked herself into his collarbone, probably dirtying the white robes as she does. “It’s not as if Lan Zhan and Bichen would come all this way—”
“Fuck,” says Jiang Cheng, finishing the thought for him, and the world jolts into motion again.
Wei Wuxian groans even as his stomach gives an excited, happy flip. Sitting up provides him a better view of the hill’s slope and ah, yes—that is unmistakably Lan Wangji walking toward them with what has to be an uncomfortably straight spine, his daemon close behind.
Both are staring at the small fox now trying to hide herself into nonexistence behind Sandu.
“Aw, darn,” he sighs, trying not to smile in delight at the sight of them. Today really had been a good one, but he’s never one to turn down a little bit of excitement.
Jiang Cheng scowls. “Great! You’ve done it now. Wait until A-Jie hears about this…”
“Noo, don’t tell Shijie—”
“She’ll find out anyways!”
Their squabble is interrupted by another “Wei Wuxian!”
Lan Wangji is close now. He looks as composed and cold and perfect as ever, not even a hair out of place. Bichen is the same: ears perked in their direction, the spotted fur on her back impossibly smooth, as if the wind itself it afraid to ruffle it. There’s no canines showing this time, which Wei Wuxian will consider an improvement in mood from that time she hissed at them in the Library doing lines—but he can’t help but notice that Lan Wangji is gripping his sword hard.
The sight sends a low thrill through him. Wei Wuxian wants to draw his own sword and dive right in, feel the wild pounding of his heart like that one night on the rooftops.
“What do you think, A-Sui?” Wei Wuxian asks, looking down at Suibian. She stops trying to hide for a moment, tail flicking back and forth and she picks up on his playful tone. “Do we stay, and face the fury of one of the Twin Jades? Or…”
“Or…” she draws out the word, and her tail starts wagging in full, “Or we play tag!”
“Tag!” he agrees, jumping to his feet.
Lan Wangji and his daemon are only a few mǐ away. With each step they take, the frustration in their eyes becomes more apparent. That’s doesn’t bother him, though, given that it’s one of Wei Wuxian’s favorite expressions on Lan Wangji: his golden eyes on fire.
A pleasant tingle works its way down his spine.
“Ah, Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian calls, waving enthusiastically at the two of them. A-Sui weaves along his ankles, letting out her own chitter of greeting to Bichen.
Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be caught off-guard by the greeting. They hesitate a few paces away, Bichen’s ears pressing back against her head.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji starts, and ah, he’s mad, “you—”
“You can tell me later! You’re it!”
The smallest furrow appears between Lan Wangji’s brows. Wei Wuxian beams.
Then he and A-Sui bolt.
“Run!” A-Sui shrieks as they dash down the slope, her laughter intermixed with the sounds of Jiang Cheng’s protests, one last call of his name from Lan Wangji. He laughs as well, a white blur to Suibian’s red one as they dodge through the trees. It’s a full-on sprint that he knows he’ll get punished for later, but it’s worth it when he imagines the surprised look on Lan Wangji’s face.
Forget napping in the back hills. This is so much better.
They say Lan daemons are unlike any other.
It is one of the many rumors about those who live in the Cloud Recesses, but perhaps one of the most well-spread. Talk based on envy or pride spreads quicker, sinks its roots in deep, and the Lans inspire both.
Since the moment he joined the Jiang Sect, Wei Wuxian has heard little tidbits here and there, stories so repeated and well-worn that they now come to mind more easily than his childhood books.
According to the whispers, Lan daemons are elegant, and graceful, and always wise. More than that: they are so connected to the hearts of their humans that even several battlefields away, they could fight in perfect harmony. Their connection runs deep and pure, made purer by meditation, sullied by worldly things such as touch and desire. To be a Lan daemon is to embody perfection—a reflection of the humans they are paired with.
From what he’s seen so far, Wei Wuxian figures that’s ninety percent bullshit.
“This is Lan Yizheng,” Lan Qiren had told them on their first day, the look in his eyes matched near-perfectly by the sharp gaze of the owl perched on the wooden stand next to him.
At the sound of her name, Lan Yizheng had fluffed up a bit, then slowly swiveled her head back and forth as she took in the disciples sitting before her.
Wei Wuxian remembers the muted whispers: beautiful, majestic. Even thinking back on the memory now, it takes almost all his self-control not to burst out laughing. Lan Qiren’s daemon, a spot-bellied eagle owl, has one of the most ridiculous faces he’s ever seen. To think people were so starry-eyed that first day as to call her majestic—
“An instruction from her is equivalent to my own: you will call her Lan Yizheng or Lan-laoshi,” Lan Qiren had continued. His gaze had been piercing when he added, “As do I.”
Everyone had nodded. The Lan’s choice of using rather outdated naming conventions for their daemons was a well-known fact, and certainly a harmless one. Wei Wuxian had always found it a bit silly, really, overly-formal—but compared to some of the other three thousand rules they’d had to jot down that day, it was one of the more boring ones.
(That was, of course, before he had seen the look on Lan Wangji’s face when Suibian slipped up and called his daemon A-Chen. Then that rule had become very, very interesting.)
“Furthermore,” Lan Qiren had continued, face somehow still harsh in the morning light, “while you are being instructed, we expect you all to display the proper control and discipline of the Cloud Recesses. All of you, sit properly.”
Everyone had straightened up, as much as their already protesting backs allowed.
Lan Qiren had not looked pleased.
“I said all of you!” he had snapped, and pointed at Wei Wuxian and Suibian. “You! Inappropriate posture.”
Wei Wuxian had looked around, just to make sure that Lan Qiren was, in fact, pointing at him. Then, for good measure, he had pointed at himself and asked, “Me?”
That would be the first time Lan Qiren’s face turned an outraged red at something he said, but not the last.
“Not you. Your daemon!”
Suibian had looked up from where she was curled on Wei Wuxian’s lap, ears perked. They’d looked at each other, then back at Lan Qiren, blinking in twin confusion.
“Yes, you! Get off his lap,” Lan Qiren had ordered, and Suibian had scrambled to comply, a tangle of red and white sliding off his legs and onto the hard floor. “Sit straight! Straighter! Do not lean, keep the space between you.”
Then, after Suibian had done as instructed, sitting uncomfortably proper at Wei Wuxian’s side with her ears pressed back against her head and discontent buzzing through their bond, Lan Qiren had turned to the others.
“Now, all of you do the same.”
There had been a hush over the class as the words sank in.
They had, of course, obeyed anyways.
Or, most of them. Among the flurry of daemons abandoning their spots –some curled into laps like Suibian, others perched on shoulders, a select few tucked carefully into pockets— a brave disciple in the front row had raised her hand. Her daemon, a butterfly, had clung quietly to her fingers.
After a nod from Lan Qiren, she had said, “Thank you, Grandmaster. Forgive this humble student, but I do not understand. Our daemons are not permitted to—touch us?”
Simple, no further explanation. There had been another barely contained murmur among the group, many of whom now had their daemons in proper place.
Wei Wuxian had jumped in. “But why?”
Everyone had wanted to ask it, really—I mean, what kind of place expected humans and daemons to do something like this? But Lan Qiren’s eyebrows had furrowed, matching those of his (absolutely ridiculous) daemon’s.
“Control.” A click of Lan Yizheng’s beak. “When trying to reach the peak of cultivation, one must build their own tolerance for discomfort. In setting aside such needless distractions, in overcoming our base desires, one grows their skill.”
“That doesn’t make sense, though,” Wei Wuxian had shot back, annoyed despite himself. “It’s our natural instinct to touch! Theory has shown that the stronger a link, the better we can cultivate—so why fight against that? Won’t we all be more distracted like this?”
Jiang Cheng had kicked him under the table, a clear signal to shut up. Wei Wuxian hadn’t really cared. It was common knowledge that the Lan Sect didn’t touch their daemons in public, but he hadn’t thought it would extend to them, too!
“And besides,” he had continued, ignoring the increasingly furious look on Lan Qiren’s face, “there is more to control than setting aside worldly things! Why are we alive, if not to treasure that which we hold dear?”
That had been the wrong thing to say, looking back. Had Wei Wuxian been asked at the time to bet on whether Lan Qiren would go into qi deviation on the spot, he would have given it a 70-30 chance.
“You must abandon such flawed and childish assumptions!” Lan Qiren had snapped, Lan Yizheng’s beak clicking with renewed fervor behind him. “Are your links so weak that a single mi will impact you? No! If I am to instruct, then I will instruct you all, and you shall all model restraint and control. If your daemon is not holding themselves to the standards set for you, then you have already failed.”
“No!” Lan Qiren’s voice had echoed in the room, stopping any and all protest. “Set aside these foolish questions. While you are in this classroom, you shall uphold these expectations, or leave!”
And that, right there, had been the first sign of trouble for Wei Wuxian.
(Ok, maybe not the first. But a sign, definitely.)
“This is ridiculous!” he had exclaimed later to Jiang Cheng, watching A-Sui and Sandu tussle in the rooms provided to them. “First their three thousand rules, and then their headbands, and now this? Why can’t we just let them relax while we learn?”
“They think they’re better than us,” A-Sui had sniffed, earning a smack on the nose from Sandu. “Hey! What, you know it’s true! Why else would they do that? I can pay attention better on A-Xian’s lap than I can on that stupid floor, with my tail all twisted up and stiff!”
Wei Wuxian had frowned, trying to think it through. “I can’t believe the Lans are expected to do this all the time. What a boring, empty life they must lead, if they keep their own daemons so far from their hearts!”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli had scolded gently, “do not be so unkind. It is only while we are learning, and they must have their reasons for it.”
But even she had sounded unsure. Wei Wuxian had turned to Jiang Cheng, looking for support; his brother had simply scowled and offered a half-hearted shrug.
“Yeah, well,” he’d said, gazing out the window at Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen walking gracefully across the courtyard below, “you know what they say about Lan daemons.”
It’s been weeks since that first lesson, long enough that all his classmates have gotten used to their daemons sitting by their sides during lectures, resisting the ever-present urge to reach out and touch. They’re in the habit of using the formal names for all the Lan daemons, too, at least to their faces.
Lan Yizheng, the owl. Lan Shuoyue, the stag. Lan Bichen, the leopard. Paragons for daemons and cultivators alike.
Wei Wuxian still can’t bring himself to call Lan Wangji’s snow leopard Lan Bichen. He knows what Lan Wangji would say, has said, will continue to snappily say every time Wei Wuxian slips and calls her Bichen only:
But it still feels wrong.
Now, sitting at the oppressively quiet Lan dinner, Wei Wuxian glances down at A-Sui. She’s busy trying to chew on a pair of Gusu Lan’s expensive chopsticks without Bichen noticing her. It’s going well, if only because Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be actively avoiding looking at either of them.
A-Sui senses his gaze and looks up at him. A single tilt of her head: yes?
He reaches out to scratch behind her ears, give her a little boop on her nose as the vibrant energy of their bond pulses through his core. Fondness blooms in his chest when she promptly abandons the chopsticks in favor of wriggling onto her back so he can stroke the red and white fur on her stomach. It’s soft under his fingers when he runs them through it, fluff now clean of the dirt and twigs from earlier thanks to an impromptu dip into the cold springs.
“Want some more?” he asks her, nodding to their bowls, and her eyes brighten.
“Do they have the fried pork belly still?”
She pouts up at him and he laughs, glances around the table. “Look, Sandu still has some on hers, you could—”
She’s already off, nosing her way up to Sandu’s side and putting on her best begging eyes. Sandu is, tragically, unmoved.
“Please, A-San, just a little bite?”
“You’ve had plenty, A-Sui.”
“But I’m still growing!”
“You most certainly aren’t.”
Wei Wuxian watches them, heart feeling like it could float up into the cloud-patterned ceiling. When he turns back to the table to take another serving of his (bland, terrible, boring) rice, he realizes Bichen is watching them.
Not with her eyes, which might be how it escaped his notice for so long. The interest is undeniably there, though: her ears are swiveled in their direction, spotted and small and absolutely fluffy.
His breath catches. This is new, having her attention pointed their way for seemingly no reason. He waits for the fallout—for her to signal that they’re somehow breaking a rule, or have done something worth copying lines for.
But she doesn’t turn to Lan Wangji so he can scold them. Doesn’t do anything, actually.
Just stays like that for a moment, gazing at the floor, before her ears swivel away.
“A-Xian,” Suibian says, coming back over to curl in his lap, tail wagging furiously behind her. There’s a piece of pork belly in her teeth, soy sauce and garlic and vinegar caught between her canines. “A-Xian, look! Do you think Xiaolien…”
He hums in response, only half paying attention as he stares at the carefully maintained bubble of space between Bichen and Lan Wangji. Needless distractions, Lan Yizheng had said, the words echoing in his head, the memory of her sharp gaze burning into his neck. Overcoming our base desires.
And a pair of patterned ears that had, for just a single moment, held something more than otherworldly disinterest.
“Ugh,” he says, loud enough that the table next to them look over. Jiang Cheng shoots a confused, warning glance in his direction; Sandu’s eyes immediately dart about the room. When she sees that A-Sui is still within a mǐ of her and able to be grabbed before trouble starts, she relaxes.
“A-Xian,” whispers Xiaolien, from where he’s tucked in Jiang Yanli’s lap, “please behave.”
“What, what, I wasn’t even doing anything!”
The daemon rolls his eyes and goes back to shucking oysters, his whiskers twitching in amusement.
Wei Wuxian chances another look at Lan Wangji and Bichen. It really is amazing, their control. Many of the other disciples around the table have their daemons in their laps, or shoulders, or perched on a knee; Nie Huaisang has his mouse curled up in his pocket, only her ears poking out.
But Wei Wuxian has never seen Lan Wangji and Bichen try to sneak even a wayward brush of contact. They barely even talk. For someone as quiet and uptight as Lan Wangji, it’s not exactly surprising that his daemon would be just as serious, but, well…
“Stop staring,” Jiang Cheng hisses under his breath, once he realizes what Wei Wuxian is looking at.
Wei Wuxian makes a face at him. “I’m not!”
He does, however, stop staring.
Jiang Cheng is right—all this thinking about Lans is making him very morose, really, even more than usual at these dull dinners. He’s going to get hives if this keeps up.
One last stolen glance. Looking at them, at their perfect posture and perfect silence and perfect everything, Wei Wuxian can’t help but agree: the Lans and their daemons really are unlike any other.
But he doesn’t envy them for it.
It’s only later that night, walking back from the Library Pavilion from doing lines, that his mind returns to Lan Wangji and Bichen.
“They really are strange,” he tells A-Sui, who is batting at moths in the cool night air. They flit between her paws, delicate wings turned almost luminescent under the moonlight. “Do you think they like it, being that distant?”
“Maybe they’re just shy.”
He hums, twirls his brush in his fingers. That doesn’t feel like the reason behind all the rules around daemons here, but…
“Or maybe we just haven’t figured it out yet.”
He looks down at her right as she finally succeeds in her quest, chomping into a moth with an unfair amount of gusto. A spot of bright red smears across her teeth and her tail goes wild, a fwip fwip fwip that drags on the stone path and cuts through the ever-present quiet here.
“Eww, Suibian!” Despite the protest, he feels himself laughing, her own happiness bubbling through their link and into his chest. “I just ate!”
“And now I did too,” she says primly, but she spits out the moth and starts weaving between his legs as he walks. He snorts, dodging her multiple attempts to trip him.
“A menace, you! And what do you mean, figured it out?”
A-Sui blinks up at him, pupils large in the ever-increasing dark. “How to make them pay attention without being mad. That’s what you want, right? For them to look at us? And like us?”
Wei Wuxian pauses, thinks on that. Is that what he wants?
He pushes the idea aside. No way! He’s been making Lan Wangji mad just for fun, really, for the intense look he gets on his face whenever Wei Wuxian presses his buttons. Lan Wangji has made it clear that Wei Wuxian does little outside of annoy him, and Bichen seems indifferent to their existence, so it’s not like either of them will be looking anytime soon anyways.
He doesn’t need their approval or his attention; it’s just fun to bug him.
“I don’t care if they like us or not. Lan Zhan’s face is just silly when he gets annoyed, you know me, I can’t stay out of trouble for long,” Wei Wuxian tells her, then narrows his eyes at the expression that crosses her face. “What?”
“I think,” she says, making each word slow the way she does when she thinks he’s being particularly daft, “that you have a cr—”
“Oi, oi! Hey!” Wei Wuxian says, crouching down to wave his fingers in front of her face. She’s twists her head away to stare somewhere past his shoulder, ears perked. “A what? I have a what?”
She’s not paying attention to him at all. Her nose is in the air, sniffing.
The audacity! He’s about to start lamenting about how cruel and unfair it is, really A-Sui, to leave him in suspense like this for no good reason, when the wind shifts, bringing the gentle breeze towards them instead of away.
The effect is instantaneous.
“Shit!” A-Sui squeaks and, in a moment of impressive acrobatics, gets half her body down the collar of his shirt before he can blink.
“Wha—” he starts, staggering to his feet in alarm, but all that does is get a layer of fur on his tongue and more fox down his shirt. He coughs, which just makes him inhale more fur through his nose. It’s a chain reaction from there.
She whines in his robes. “Shut up, shut up, they’re coming, I knew I smelled them!”
“What are you talking ab—”
A single, careful cough alerts him to company.
He spins around, Suibian’s fluffy tail still sticking out of the top of his outer robes, to see Lan Wangji and Bichen standing at the edge of path.
“Oh!” he says, surprise tucking itself into the word as he turns fully to face them. A grin breaks out across his face. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji and Bichen gaze at him, almost ethereal in the moonlight. Their stares make quite a pair, gold and blue, like rare jewels sparkling even in the dark. They don’t seem nearly as taken-aback as Wei Wuxian is, seeing them here so far from their normal place at the library or the training fields.
His question is cut off as Suibian wriggles and squirms against his skin, her tail smacking him in the face as she tries to hide further. Lan Wangji’s and Bichen’s eyes flick to her.
Wei Wuxian pretends very hard that did not just happen. He crosses his arms over his chest, trying to block all the movement going on under there, and puts on his best winning smile. He’s suddenly, viscously glad that Sandu isn’t here. She would never let them live this down. “I mean—unexpected, seeing you here at this hour! What a lovely night, huh? Good breeze.”
Another long, significant pause.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji acknowledges eventually, slow and low.
“That’s me!” Wei Wuxian says with a laugh. Lan Wangji’s eyes flicker quickly away and then back to him, posture straightening. Wei Wuxian glances to Bichen: her ears are pressed back against her head again, body half behind Lan Wangji. She seems fixated on the small tip of red still visible from Wei Wuxian’s collar. He hastily shoves it the rest of the way down.
“Ha, well, I was just coming back from the library!” he tries, grin still firmly in place. Smoothing down his robes is made considerably difficult with the fox-sized lump now residing in them, but the Jiangs always say to attempt the impossible, and he’s not going to stop now. “You’d be so proud of me, Lan Zhan, I copied all the lines Grandmaster told me to. All on my own!”
He wriggles his ink-stained fingers at Lan Wangji, hoping for a reaction.
Nothing. Just silence, the clenching of a jaw.
This is—starting to get weird. Even Wei Wuxian can admit that there’s normally more yelling or scolding going on by now, when it comes to him and Lan Wangji. But they’re just standing there, the bright white of Lan Wangji’s robes like a beacon in the dark.
Like they’re waiting for something, but what?
“Seriously, Lan Zhan,” and Wei Wuxian can’t fully keep the confusion out of his voice, “what are you doing here?”
He knows it can’t be for them, after all. Lan Wangji never wants to be near them longer than he absolutely has to be.
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow.
After a beat, he says, “Curfew is soon.”
“Ah, right, right,” Wei Wuxian agrees, trying not to wince as a fox foot jabs into his armpit. From the way Bichen’s ears twitst, he’s largely unsuccessful. “I mean, that’s more a statement of fact than an actual answer to my question, but that’s ok! Also, if you’re here to punish me, I object! It’s not nine yet.”
Lan Wangji hesitates. “That is true.”
“Close! But I’m not breaking any rules yet.”
They stare at each other, something hanging in the air. Bichen’s ears tilt back and forth between them.
“Is this about earlier?” Wei Wuxian blurts, unable to help himself, and yelps when Suibian bites his stomach. Lan Wangji’s left eyebrow lifts a millimeter, the expression quickly echoed by Bichen. Wei Wuxian laughs through the sting of teeth, a little breathless, “Sorry, sorry. Bugs! A single bug! A big one!”
They don’t look convinced.
“Anyways!” he says quickly, because he’s already committed to this path, judgmental Lan eyebrows or not, “Look, Lan Zhan, you know A-Sui didn’t mean to make Bi—Lan Bichen upset, right?”
Lan Wangji and Bichen stay quiet, so Wei Wuxian plows on.
“And if A-Sui were here,” (A-Sui wriggles under his robes), “I think she’d tell Lan Bichen that she really is sorry. It’s not her fault, Lan Zhan, don’t be mad! She’s just really curious and she’s not very good at controlling her impulses.”
Lan Wangji frowns. “Impulses must be controlled, or they control us. Rule—”
“Number four hundred and sixty-seven, I know, I know!” Wei Wuxian waves off what he’s sure is an oncoming lecture. Lan Wangji blinks. “It’s not in her nature, though! And she was just trying to play, but she did it wrong, and then she got scared.”
Somewhere during that last part, Lan Wangji’s mouth has twisted into something displeased.
His voice is quieter than before when he says, “Scared?”
“Oh, yeah, she definitely thought she might be eaten!” Wei Wuxian raises his voice a little to add, “And I’m sure she knows that is still a possibility, and that she’s very, very sorry, right?”
There’s a moment of silence, where Wei Wuxian looks down at his shirt and Lan Wangji and Bichen stare at him. Then the lump on his chest shifts and with a soft sigh, A-Sui finally pokes her head out.
“Yes,” she says, ears pressed back against her head as she looks at Bichen. Wei Wuxian can feel the nerves trembling through their bond, a genuine worry. “A-Chen, I’m very sorry, please don’t be mad at me.”
“Lan Bichen,” Lan Wangji corrects almost instantly.
“Sorry,” A-Sui mutters. “Lan Bichen. Right.”
Bichen, whose ears had perked up at seeing Suibian emerge from hiding, makes a faint chuffing noise in response.
“Like I said, she didn’t mean to be rude,” Wei Wuxian tells them. A-Sui shakes her head, dragging herself out of the folds of his robes and onto his shoulders. Ah, ow, there she goes again, those little claws! And Jiang Cheng is always asking how he has so many cuts on him—he’s lucky that Sandu never uses him as an impromptu climbing post!
Sandu is too big for that, now that he thinks about it. Can a wolf even climb things?
“What did she mean?”
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian blinks, yanked back into the moment. Lan Wangji is still gazing at him, the lines of his shoulders tense.
“By the attack.” Lan Wangji makes a short, aborted motion to Bichen’s tail.
It takes them both a moment to understand what he’s even talking about. When they do, Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, closes it.
“You thought—hold on, you thought she was—”
“It was dishonorable,” Lan Wangji continues, and he’s all tense lines again. “Opponents should not be attacked from behind—”
“Wait, wait, hey!” On his shoulder, A-Sui lets out a yip, overcoming her apparent shock to cut him off. Her ears flick across Wei Wuxian’s ear as she swivels them towards Bichen, the closest she ever gets to actual indignation. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t attacking her!”
Lan Wangji and Bichen turn their full attention on her. The effect is immediate: she flattens down and winds herself around Wei Wuxian’s neck, all nervous wriggles and nuzzling of the cheeks, the way she used to do when they were kids and a punishment was incoming.
He tugs gently on the tip of her tail: don’t be scared.
“Then what was the purpose?” Lan Wangji asks her, when she stays uncharacteristically silent on his shoulders.
A-Sui presses her ears back against her head at his tone.
“I was trying to be friends.”
Lan Wangji pauses. His face goes through a truly comical number of microexpressions, most of which Wei Wuxian can’t read. It settles into something closed-off and rigid.
“Friends?” he asks, very careful.
“Of course!” A-Sui says, and looks between them all. “I’ve been—I’ve been trying to play with you since we got here! Didn’t you notice?”
“I…” Lan Wangji looks almost uncertain now, if such a thing were possible. At his side, Bichen is openly staring at A-Sui, eyes huge. Wei Wuxian has never seen this expression on either of them.
“Me too, me too,” he adds quickly, grinning. He doesn’t like whatever this weird feeling hanging in the air between them is, needs to brighten it somehow. “We both want to be friends with you! That would be fun, don’t you think?”
He tries to make it teasing and playful—but Lan Wangji’s eyebrows furrow when he’s done. The softness of his face is replaced with an expression Wei Wuxian knows well: annoyance.
“Your version of fun does not interest me,” Lan Wangji tells him, cold as the springs they bathed in earlier. Wei Wuxian pouts at him.
“Lan Zhan! Come on, being my friend comes with lots of perks!”
Lan Wangji looks like he very much doubts that.
Still, Wei Wuxian rushes on, oddly excited by the prospect now that it’s laid out before him. “No, trust me, trust me! Here, I’ll introduce you to one of the perks now: I’m a great listener! As a demonstration, how about you tell me exactly what I need to do to be your friend! How does one go about wooing the famous Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen, hmm?”
He batts his eyelashes like the maidens in Nie Huaisang’s books. A-Sui snorts quietly. Lan Wangji clenches his fists and looks away from him.
“Ridiculous,” he hisses.
“I mean it!” Wei Wuxian insists, a grin curving on his lips. “Come on, tell me what we’re doing wrong! You love doing that, right? If you help me out, I can bring you another one of those books for us to look at in the library tomorrow, is that a fair exchange?”
The comment hits exactly where he hoped it would. Lan Wangji looks back at him, a familiar fire burning in his eyes. The fur on Bichen’s back raises.
“Shameless!” Lan Wangji snaps at him, ears tinted with pink. “Why must you be so unpredictable?”
Wei Wuxian, who was ready to fire back something that would get Lan Wangji to finally take out his sword and just spar with them again, pauses at that last part.
“Unpredictable,” he muses, philosophical. He turns to look A-Sui, the black of her nose taking up a decent amount of his vision as he does so. “I see, I see! Do you get it now A-Sui? Lan Zhan and Bichen want to be friends, too, but we picked the wrong tactic! We’ve got to be more predictable, and then they’re bound to be wooed!”
“That is not what I said,” Lan Wangji says, sounding distinctly horrified, even as A-Sui nods and wags her tail.
“I need to try a different approach!”
“Yes, exactly,” Wei Wuxian agrees.
Lan Wangji’s face is making an interesting pinched shape. Bichen is just as hard to read as he is, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure her ears are tilting in a way that isn’t normal.
“So it’s ok if she knows it’s coming?” A-Sui asks them, now wriggling with excitement. “A-Chen, what if I warn you? Oooh! I could yell ‘boo!’ really loudly before I pounce on it—”
Lan Wangji’s face settles into anger again. “Lan Bichen. Yelling is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses—”
A-Sui is undeterred. “I can whisper ‘boo!’ before I pounce on it! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“No tail pouncing.”
Bichen’s tail twitches as Lan Wangji says it.
“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says. His mouth hurts from how long he’s been grinning. He sways a little closer to them, winks even as Lan Wangji goes still as a statue. “But what about… ear nibbling? Daemons and humans could do that, right, Lan Zhan? What do you think? A little ear nibble, between you and me?”
“Shameless,” Lan Wangji spits again. His ears are tinging a deeper red; Wei Wuxian does his best to fight back his smile and scold his face into a serious expression, wagging a finger at him.
“Hey now! What’s some fun, between friends?”
“Not friends.” Lan Wangji’s voice is firm and final.
“Right,” A-Sui says, eyes now locked on Bichen’s ears. “Not friends.”