Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.
— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
The instant Nie Huaisang and Qiaolian scuttle out of the room, Lan Wangji shuts the door behind them with an audible click.
When he turns back, his eyes are determined.
“Let me see,” he says, coming over to kneel next to Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian bats him away. At Lan Wangji’s disbelieving look, he motions to the half-empty bottle of alcohol in his hand.
“Lan Zhan, at least let me finish my drink!”
Lan Wangji does not look amused at that. To be fair, he hasn’t been amused since Nie Huaisang started saying, I don’t know, I don’t know, over and over again, with varying degrees of helplessness. Even Wei Wuxian has to admit that it’s not the best quality.
“We really are fine,” Suibian reassures them, not for the first time. Bichen huffs. “No, I mean it! We’ve had way worse, right A-Xian?”
“Right!” he says cheerfully, smiling as wide as he can.
Strangely, that does not seem to make Lan Wangji or Bichen happier. If anything, the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth twitches down, and Bichen flattens her ears.
Shoot. That backfired.
Then again, nothing about tonight has gone according to plan, including the room that they’re now sharing. When Lan Wangji had told him, calm and firm, one room, Wei Wuxian had entered a stage of disbelief that he did not think was possible for mere mortals. He had told Lan Wangji, multiple times, that he was joking about needing to be looked after. That Lan Wangji didn’t actually need to keep an eye on him; that Wei Wuxian would probably keep Lan Wangji awake and it was unnecessary to sacrifice his personal space.
Lan Wangji hadn’t listened. He’d said, simply, “Hn.”
That had put an end to the whole argument. I was only gone for a few hours, and you got cursed, so clearly you do need to be supervised were encapsulated just fine in that single syllable, and Wei Wuxian really was not about to try and counter something like that.
“I would like to hear more about Suibian’s favorite foods,” Bichen had added, Suibian’s ears perking up with excitement, and well, that had been that.
So he’d let himself get steered him toward the stairs, into a single inn room, and then deposited in front of a table that had held a kettle of tea, a bottle of alcohol, and a very anxious Nie Huaisang.
Now, with Nie Huaisang and most of the alcohol gone, Lan Wangji is back on his single-minded mission. When he reaches out and starts pushing away Wei Wuxian’s lower robes, Wei Wuxian jerks his foot back.
“Hey, hey! At least buy a guy dinner first, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji, bless him, does not point out that he did buy Wei Wuxian dinner. He just gazes at Wei Wuxian with a carefully controlled expression.
Wei Wuxian blinks back as innocently as he can.
“Wow, this room is big,” Suibian breathes, as if she hasn’t been in here with them the whole time, and scrambles away to start sniffing the furniture. She’s a traitor like that. Bichen quickly follows, shadowing her as she examines the space underneath the bed. “Whoaa, it’s huge! Bichen, I bet you could fit under here too!”
Bichen looks dubiously at the narrow space.
“You go ahead,” she says, and sits down next to the bed. “I will stay here.”
Suibian giggles as she wriggles under the bed, only the tip of her tail sticking out, and starts detailing the apparently enthralling amount of dust there. As always, she’s delighted to have an audience; ever since they left on this trip, A-Sui has been soaking up Bichen’s attention, quiet as it may be, like a sponge. Even now, there’s a fond look on Bichen’s face as she watches A-Sui’s tail twitch while she talks.
It makes something in Wei Wuxian’s chest tighten.
Wei Wuxian’s heart does a little skip, like it always does when Lan Wangji unexpectedly says his name. He tears his gaze away from their daemons to see Lan Wangji still looking at him, waiting. Every single line in his body is tense.
With a sigh, Wei Wuxian acquiesces. “Alright, alright. You don’t need to worry so much, though.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t reply, which is just as much of an answer.
He kneels down in front of him and reaches out, his sleeves falling back to his forearms and exposing his wrists, his strong fingers. Wei Wuxian braces for pain when the robes over his ankle are moved aside, but it’s unnecessary: Lan Wangji’s touch is delicate and careful as he starts to examine the grey, leathery skin.
It’s so light, so intentional, that it doesn’t even hurt at all.
Wei Wuxian is oddly struck by that. A pleasant warmth settles in his stomach; even with all his sternness earlier, Lan Wangji is still being so kind to him.
He’s too good.
As always, the first rush of spiritual energy makes him shiver. There’s a pureness to it, something rooted deep in sensation; like he’s placing a cube of ice in his mouth on a hot day and slowly letting it melt, running his tongue around the grooves and curves of it. Lan Wangji’s brows are furrowed as he concentrates, and Wei Wuxian soaks in the sight of him, remembers how it had felt when he touched his face.
He always feels so full and flustered, whenever Lan Wangji puts all his attention on him like this.
He doesn’t want it to stop. Ever.
Time trickles by in a slow, easy flow. For a while, there’s just the sound of A-Sui’s muffled voice from under the bed, the tender brush of Lan Wangji’s fingers, and an occasional rattle from the sword spirit. It’s been acting up ever since he got cursed, and Wei Wuxian has about a dozen theories on why that could be.
It’s hard to focus on any of them, now that he knows Shijie is waiting for him.
The discussion conference is a month from now; it’s pointless to go earlier and risk drawing too much attention to themselves. When the time comes, he’ll go as a guest of the Lan, standing side-by-side with Lan Wangji. The thought is comforting—for so long, it was just him and Suibian against the world. He’d always thought that it would stay like that. But now he has Lan Wangji and Bichen, and maybe, if he’s lucky, Jiang Cheng and Sandu won’t be too mad about the escape tonight and will be willing to help out.
After all, Jiang Cheng had said it: We’re going to figure out exactly what you did to her.
We. The four of them.
He thinks it’ll work out. It has to.
“You know,” he starts, because his thoughts are turning macabre and they have a more immediate matter at hand now thanks to Nie Huaisang, “I feel like Nie-xiong wasn’t telling us the full story about that blade shrine.”
“Mn?” Lan Wangji does not look up from his examination.
“Like, I believe all the stuff about the blades needing sacrifices,” he continues, and looks away from Lan Wangji’s face, trying not wince when he spots the steadily growing pile of dust being kicked up from under the bed. “And I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just in the area because Jin Ling triggered the trap. But if they already have a shrine that is built to contain resentful energy, then why didn’t they bury Nie Mingjue there when he passed?”
That gets Lan Wangji to look up at him again. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he says, and motions to where Nie Huaisang and Qiaolian bolted out of the room, “didn’t Nie-xiong mention that he personally saw to Chifeng-Zun’s funerary rights?”
It’s one of the things that had taken him by surprise to hear, especially as some offhand comment from Nie Huaisang as he was busy whining, I don’t know, I really don’t know, I hardly knew how to bury da-ge, dealing with these things is way above me, Hanguang-Jun.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji seems to remember it as well. “A private ceremony, in Qinghe.”
Lan Wangji pauses. “Sect only. Jin Guangyao and Xiongzhang were not invited.”
It is clear from his tone that the decision caused some tension. Given that the three were sworn brothers, even Wei Wuxian will admit it’s a strange choice.
“No one thought that was weird?” he asks.
“It…” Lan Wangji hesitates. “He was grieving. It was forgiven, later.”
“Huh.” Wei Wuxian ponders over that, frowning.
In a way, it makes sense. Nie Mingjue’s death must have been traumatic on so many fronts; the years leading up to it, the death itself, and the scene afterwards. By the time Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen arrived to try and help, Jin Guangyao was already sobbing over his lifeless body, and Baxia was so long gone that there wasn’t even a trace of her dust left over to gather. You’re supposed to bury a person with some of their daemon’s dust, to help guide them into the next life together; Wei Wuxian can’t imagine how deeply it would sting to not be able to, especially for your brother.
The body is the only thing Nie Huaisang has left of him.
“Well then,” he decides, because if anything, that just gives more credence to his theory, “if it was that private, then Nie-xiong could have picked wherever he wanted to bury him, right? He may be a know-nothing now, but he’s not stupid—even he would see that the shrine would be the perfect place to house a spirit that suffered from such intense deviation.”
Lan Wangji makes another noise of agreement, thoughtful this time. Wei Wuxian can see his brain turning over the information.
“And it’s not like the secret would have been revealed either: if no one else was at the funeral, he could have just lied to the Sects about where it was. Did he tell anyone the location?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian continues, on a roll now, “you and I both saw that there weren’t any bodies in the coffins—just those blades! And the wall was all skeletons, so he wasn’t there either. Which means the body isn’t where it should be, at least when thinking about how best to contain its resentment. So, then, where is it?”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, thoughtful, then adds, “And why?”
“Yes!” Wei Wuxian looks down at him, grinning. “Something is going on with that, it’s too odd of a choice. He’s involved, somehow. Ah, I knew we’d be thinking the same thing! Lan Zhan, why are you so smart?”
Lan Wangji lowers his head, but Wei Wuxian sees the small twitch of his mouth upward.
Satisfied, he slouches back against the table. He starts to reach for the bottle of liquor, intent on pouring himself another glass; but then Lan Wangji’s fingers move to the top edge of the curse, where his healthy skin blends into the mottled grey, the pad of his thumb tracing along his thigh as he examines it.
Wei Wuxian’s entire body goes hot.
Started, he looks back down, a pleasant flutter building in his stomach when he sees Lan Wangji still so close, so focused.
Huh, he realizes, staring at Lan Wangji’s fingers as they trace his skin. Lan Wangji’s hands are so big.
As soon as he thinks it, his stomach flips wildly.
“A-anyways!” he says, voice a tone too high even for this new body, and forces his mind back on topic. Wow, where did that thought even come from? “It’s definitely connected somehow. Hey, Lan Zhan, what if something happened to the body after Nie Huaisang buried it, and now that’s where the sword spirit is leading us?”
Wei Wuxian nods, still flushed. Lan Wangji is right: they can’t jump to any conclusions yet.
He takes a deep, steadying breath, resisting the urge to glance down. The thought of seeing Lan Wangji’s hand on his leg again is suddenly just—aah. He needs to focus.
He can’t focus.
Maybe the curse is impacting him more than he thought.
He’s saved from himself by Lan Wangji moving his hand back down to his ankle. The blue, almost-white energy seeping into him swells, so strong he can taste it, the clear spring tint that’s so characteristically Lan Wangji. The pain from his leg lessens almost immediately; when he dares to look, the smoking, grey skin has transitioned to a taupe-like shade.
It’s easy to pretend that his sigh of relief is only about that, and not the new location of Lan Wangji’s hand.
“We will do that tomorrow night, also,” Lan Wangji informs him, tone making it clear this is not up for discussion. Wei Wuxian’s stomach loops again at the thought.
“Right. Sure.” His mouth feels oddly dry. Lan Wangji’s fingers are so warm. Belatedly, he adds, “Thanks, Lan Zhan. You really didn’t have to, I could have done that myself."
Lan Wangji looks closely at him before settling back onto his heels.
“It was not a problem.”
“Right,” Wei Wuxian repeats, and jumps when Lan Wangji reaches out and takes his hands. “Lan Zhan?!”
“You are still injured from Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji murmurs, sounding more than a little angry about having to say Jiang Cheng’s name. To Wei Wuxian’s complete shock, he starts to press more energy into the small cuts and scrapes from when he tried to find purchase in the gravel, the soft silk of his sleeves draping onto Wei Wuxian’s knees.
Wei Wuxian tries to jerk his hands back, pouting when Lan Wangji doesn’t so much as twitch. “Lan Zhan! Come on, I’ll heal in a few days, these are fine—”
Wei Wuxian pauses halfway through what he was already planning to say, startled at the vehemence in his voice. Lan Wangji’s eyebrows are drawn together tight, his shoulders tense; when Wei Wuxian ducks forward so he can see his face, his golden eyes seem to glint and shine like freshly cut amber. There’s a heat held there; a heat, and something else he doesn’t know how to read yet. He’s been trying to, every time it appears, but—
“Aiyo, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers, because he looks so—so—. “They’re just ripped robes and some scrapes.”
Lan Wangji shoulders somehow tighten further. He doesn’t reply.
Wei Wuxian frowns at him.
“Are you mad?” he asks, trying to figure out what’s going on, and Lan Wangji’s eyes finally flick up to his. Wei Wuxian shifts slightly, stomach fluttering all over again. “We didn’t run into them on purpose, I promise. I know you don’t, uh, like them very much, but seriously, it could have been way worse, this was nothing! And we can pay for the robes and the bath tonight! Or, well, ok, once we get money, we can pay for the robes and the bath, but! So if you’re worried about money, we’ll make it up to you, alright?”
Lan Wangji blinks, just once, an expression of utter disbelief crossing over his face.
Wei Wuxian blinks back, confused.
“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji mutters after a few beats of silence, and the next wave of spiritual energy is so strong, so all-encompassing, that Wei Wuxian is almost dizzy with it. Together they watch, Wei Wuxian increasingly more incredulous, as the scrapes stitch themselves back together, thin crisscrossed lines of red fading back into smooth, unblemished skin.
“You’re so stubborn,” Wei Wuxian sighs, trying not to smile.
Lan Wangji hums, unmistakably pleased, and before Wei Wuxian can protest, starts checking the rest of him over too.
“Really?!” he yelps, the heat from before turning into a fire as Lan Wangji studiously examines his palms, his wrists, pushes up his sleeves to expose his forearms. To his relief, Lan Wangji doesn’t touch his legs again, but his hands are everywhere still. “Lan Zhan, you’re worse than the Aunties at Lotus Pier, you know that? I’m fine, stop, stop!”
Apparently satisfied that Wei Wuxian isn’t in mortal peril from any remaining hidden papercuts, Lan Wangji draws his hands back.
His mouth is a stubborn line when he says, “You will not pay for the bath. Or the robes.”
Wei Wuxian laughs and shakes his head, exasperated. “Fine, fine, I won’t pay!” He slouches back against the table again and wags a finger at him, trying to ignore his own flaming cheeks and the way his body feels like it’s tingling all over. “Er-gege, you need to be careful! If you keep this up I’m going to become a spoiled brat, expecting you to pay for everything!”
Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch.
“Hn,” he says, and reaches across the table, grabbing the bottle of liquor and refilling Wei Wuxian’s cup. With his hair still arranged in its ornate headpiece, the silver glinting in the warm light surrounding them, Wei Wuxian can just make out a hint of pink through the inky strands: a blush, dusting the tips of his ears.
Wei Wuxian watches him, feeling too hot.
This room must not have proper ventilation.
He turns towards their daemons as Lan Wangji starts to pour himself tea, tugging at the collar of his robes and determinedly not thinking about anything at all. A-Sui is currently entertaining herself by tapping Bichen’s paws from her space under the bed, retreating before Bichen can do the same to her and giggling wildly. From the look of it, Bichen isn’t even trying to reciprocate the action; she’s just sitting patiently as A-Sui’s feet pop in and out of sight, tail occasionally twitching.
Honestly, he thinks, watching the entire thing play out over and over with the same predictable rhythm, Bichen probably doesn’t know she’s supposed to be doing anything. He gets the feeling she and Lan Wangji didn’t have a lot of time to play growing up.
“Aww,” he says, because that thought is just too depressing to dwell on, and turns to Lan Wangji with a grin. “Look at them, next thing you know they’ll be full-on wrestling.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t respond; he’s busy watching their daemons with a soft, pleased expression, the steaming tea cupped between his palms. Wei Wuxian has so often heard Lan Wangji described as cold–had loudly declared that himself, in his past life—but now, he wonders how people don’t see it, the way all the icy parts of him are melting along the edges when he looks at Bichen and Suibian.
He seems so…so happy. It’s a beautiful look on him, too: all smooth skin and relaxed lips, golden eyes slightly narrowed with contentment.
He’s just—something else. Wei Wuxian has thought it many times before, but the sentiment seems to settle into his bones tonight.
“I’m calling it,” he says, overly-loud, and shoots the rest of the wine. He’s felt so weird all evening, and it’s been a wild day, anyways. Maybe sleeping it off will help.
A-Sui whines in disappointment. “Another hour, A-Xian, please?”
He tuts at her, rising to his feet. “We’re sharing a room tonight, so we’ll go to bed at the normal-person time. Lan Zhan, do you think they’ll give us extra blankets? The floor is nice, but I got a bit spoiled after all the beds, it wouldn’t hurt to add some padding here.”
Lan Wangji’s soft look shifts into a sharp one.
“Wei Ying,” he says, in the tone he takes when Wei Wuxian has just said something completely unbecoming. “I will take the floor.”
Wei Wuxian looks incredulously at him, scooping up A-Sui and brushing some of the dust off her fur. She chitters at Bichen, a pleading ak-ak as her tail droops. “What? No way, you paid for the room. I’ll sleep on the floor, it’s fine.”
“You are injured.”
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, already nudging aside the table so he can make a space for him to sleep. “Please, as if I haven’t slept on worse things. I’ll deal.”
The words make Lan Wangji’s eyes widen, then narrow. “You will take the bed.”
“Nope!” Wei Wuxian says, cheerful.
“Buyer gets the bed. It’s the rules, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji’s expression quickly turns dismayed. Wei Wuxian is feeling very good about his chances, here.
“If you both want the other person to have it, why can’t we just share?” A-Sui asks, sounding confused. They all turn to look at her; she tilts her head over to the piece of furniture in question, apparently oblivious to why they’ve all collectively gone silent. “It’s huge! I bet we could all fit, right?”
“Er, yeah, I mean,” Wei Wuxian says after a moment, because she’s right, “I guess we could?”
Bichen and Lan Wangji are doing their best impersonation of statues.
“It is… an idea,” Lan Wangji offers eventually, eyes on Wei Wuxian’s face. Wei Wuxian is too busy trying to figure out why he’s so nervous about the possibility of sharing a bed to really think about what that specific look means.
A-Sui swivels her head between all of them, head tilted.
“Do you not want to share with us?”
“That’s not—” Bichen starts, some heat in her tone, and abruptly stops. She looks at Lan Wangji.
Suibian frowns, ears pressing back against her head. She scrambles onto Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, her claws digging into his robes and making him wince, and whispering in his ear without actually whispering, says, “But A-Xian, I really don’t want to sleep on the floor.”
It’s said in her best impression of being miserable and helpless, which, when he goes to check, does not match the feeling in their bond at all.
It’s at that exact moment that Wei Wuxian realizes they’re being played.
“You—” he exclaims, but Lan Wangji and Bichen have already sprung to action.
“We will share the bed,” Bichen’s says, firm, and rises from where she was sitting. Suibian’s tail starts to wag; before Wei Wuxian can try to stop them, Lan Wangji rises as well, shoulders stiff.
“You may bathe first.”
Caught off guard, Wei Wuxian can only protest as he’s steered towards the washroom, Suibian letting out a happy yip and rushing ahead of them, her paws scrambling against the wooden floor.
“Hey, hold up!” he cries, as Lan Wangji’s hand presses firmly against his back, urging him forward. “Listen, she’s just messing with us—”
The words have no effect; he gets nudged into the room with no effort whatsoever, a rush of steam hitting his face. Before he can so much as let out another squeak of protest, Lan Wangji shuts the door behind them with a click.
For a moment, Wei Wuxian just gapes at the now-closed door, mind whirling so fast that he’s almost dizzy with it.
Then he turns to A-Sui.
“What are you doing?” he hisses to her, as she clambers to the edge of the already-drawn bath and waits expectantly for him to clean her, nearly knocking over a few vials of oil and soap in her haste. The steam condenses in the air around them, a sandalwood-scented haze over his vision; when he glances at the tub, he sees a heating talisman stuck to the side, Lan Wangji’s perfect handwriting etched across the paper. He must have ordered this before he even found them.
Suibian perks up her ears at him. “Helping. Isn’t it obvious?”
“You’re welcome,” she adds, clearly pleased with herself. “Come on, I want a bath!”
“Please, I’m so dirty, I feel gross.”
He huffs at her, crossing his arms. “And whose fault is that, hmm?”
“Yours!! You’re the one who shoved me in the onions!”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, looking pointedly at the dust coating the soft fluff of her underbelly. She blinks up at him, the picture of innocence.
He sighs. Still trying to figure out what on earth she’s thinking but knowing when a fight is lost, he begrudgingly gets to work.
By the time they’ve washed up, Lan Wangji and Bichen have straightened up the room, all their clothes properly laid out and dust conspicuously gone from underneath the bed. They both look up from where they are settled around the table, and Lan Wangji freezes when he sets eyes upon Wei Wuxian.
And he doesn’t look away.
Wei Wuxian pauses in the doorway, uncertain. Lan Wangji’s mouth is slightly parted, his eyes wider than normal. He glances down at himself, wondering if he somehow forgot to tie a sash or something; his red underrobes are sticking to him slightly from the leftover condensation, but nope, all ties are tied. There’s an awkward moment where he just stands with one foot in the main room and the other in the washroom, robes spread slightly at the collar to cool off from the steam, hair dripping water onto the floor in a steadily growing puddle, wondering why he’s staring.
Then, so quick that it startles him, Lan Wangji rises up from the table and sweeps past them, shutting the washroom door behind him an audible click.
Ignoring Wei Wuxian’s confused look, she stands and goes over to the door. When she paws at it, the door opens a sliver; Wei Wuxian just catches a glimpse of Lan Wangji’s profile, ears bright red from all the steam, before she slips inside and it shuts once more.
“Should have expected that,” Suibian mutters, staring at where they just disappeared, and Wei Wuxian looks down at her.
“Never mind,” she sighs, shaking out her coat and sending droplets of water scattering across the wood floor. She pads over to the bed, leaving Wei Wuxian in his confusion; after a moment, still oddly flustered, he looks around for something to finish drying themselves off.
There’s a towel sitting on the nearby dresser; when he walks over to it, A-Sui darting to the bed and proceeding to get the entire pillow soaking wet, he notices a comb is nestled on top of the cloth.
It’s made of silver, an intricate design of gentians etched in pale blue coloring along the edge. Curious, he picks it up, running his fingers along the cool metal. This must be Lan Wangji’s; the style is distinctly Lan-like, all subtle lines and subdued beauty, absolutely flawless in terms of craftsmanship. Even in its simplicity, there’s an elegance to it that outshines anything he’s ever owned, like each curve was carefully thought out.
He goes to set it down, ready to find something else to wrangle his hair into submission—before he sees Lan Wangji’s outer robes folded on the other side of the table, with a different comb already laid primly out on top.
Oh, he thinks, a flutter in his stomach.
He looks back down at the silver comb. The placing of it was markedly intentional; something this nice doesn’t just show up on threadbare cloth, not like this.
Lan Wangji put this out for him.
A warm, wonderful feeling bubbles up in his chest. He stands there, holding undeniable proof that even when he was out of sight, Lan Wangji was thinking of him; and it’s shivery and grounding and too much all at once, like if he moves too fast, it will all shimmer away into nothing. A meal on an empty stomach, with no one trying to snatch away the bowl.
Lan Zhan, he thinks, and it is an actual ache, the fondness that follows. He lets the feeling sink in deep, spread across his lips like spun-sugar, syrupy and sweet and unexpected.
Lan Zhan, my zhiji. You’re too much.
Then, with a deep breath, he tackles the hair situation.
A-Sui is humming happily on the bed by the time he gets his hair mostly dry, patting the sheets with her paws to try and make a nest. When he walks over to her, she wags her tail and flips onto her back with a wriggle, spreading the wet spot even farther as she goes.
“You’re a menace,” he tells her, and throws the towel over her body before sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Hey!” She noses out from under the cloth so just her head is poking out, watching as he starts to run the comb through his hair. He’s learned to hate doing this; Mo Xuanyu’s hair tangles and knots under his fingers, no matter how gentle he tries to be, like a bird nest stuck to his scalp.
“This is your punishment,” he says, wincing as the comb catches on a particularly stubborn knot.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He makes a face at her. With a huff, she noses the towel to the side and clambers into his lap, rough fur still damp against his robes.
“Why are you so nervous?” she asks, nuzzling up against his stomach. It’s in the same tone as before—like she somehow knows something he doesn’t, or that she’s waiting for him to figure something out.
He frowns down at her.
“I’m not nervous.” It’s her turn to make a face at him, and he scoffs. “It’s just been a long day, and I feel weird. I think the curse threw me off, or something.”
Done with her tone, and this line of questioning, he places the comb to the side and tickles her as punishment instead.
When Lan Wangji and Bichen emerge from their bath –taking a lot longer than Wei Wuxian would have expected for the ever-efficient, no-worldly-desires Lans— he and A-Sui are breathless and giggling on the bed, thoroughly worn out from roughhousing. Wei Wuxian can’t even bring himself to be embarrassed when Lan Wangji blinks at the sight a few times in the doorway before going over to the dresser.
“What side do you want?” Wei Wuxian calls to him, as Lan Wangji methodically places his hair pieces on the polished wood. Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Come on, that’s an easy one to answer!”
Lan Wangji pauses only briefly before saying, “Closest to the door.”
He goes over to the side closest to the wall and leans back, watching Lan Wangji get ready. The candlelight mellows the lines of his body, his face, painting away any of the tension from earlier. He’s only in his underrobes too –all five outer layers have now been folded neatly and placed in the dresser—and it’s a comforting sight, almost familiar even though he’s never seen it before. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why he likes it so much, but something about Lan Wangji looking so soft always calms him down.
Lan Wangji must sense his gaze. He glances over to Wei Wuxian lounging on the bed and quickly looks away.
“It is rude to stare,” he says, ears still red from the heat of the bath, and Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Sorry, sorry. Am I not allowed to appreciate the rare specimen that is Hanguang-Jun?”
That has Lan Wangji actually turning partly away from him, like Wei Wuxian’s shamelessness is too much to bear. Wei Wuxian grins, pleased to have gotten a reaction.
Still, even he has his limits. When Lan Wangji starts to remove his forehead ribbon, the cloth draping delicately over the back of his hand, his heart skips. The sight seems much too intimate to look at, sacred and private in the same way that Wei Wuxian has always felt about seeing him and Bichen touch; he quickly averts his gaze, the quivery feeling back in his stomach. Lan Wangji has never taken it off in front of him before.
“Was the bath nice?” he asks, mainly just to distract himself. “No residual fox hair?”
Bichen pads over to them as Lan Wangji (now sans forehead ribbon) starts extinguishing candles, her fur damp and looking extra fluffy right out of the bath. A-Sui chitters happily at her as soon as she’s close, and Bichen chuffs in response.
“Ooh, you smell good,” A-Sui tells her, and there’s a loud clatter as Lan Wangji almost knocks over a candle. They all start.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, are you ok?”
“Fine,” he says, voice low, and blows it out. “I—tripped.”
“What a way to go,” Wei Wuxian teases as Bichen settles down on the floor. Seems like she won’t be cuddling up with them after all. “The great Hanguang-Jun, taken out by a loose floorboard. What would all the Sect gossipers say?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t reply, extinguishing the last candle and plunging the room into darkness.
Wei Wuxian blinks, eyes trying to adjust to the lack of light. Lan Wangji crosses the room like a ghost, so quiet that even the inn’s loose floorboards don’t creak under his weight. Wei Wuxian just sees the white shape of his robes breaking through the black as he comes to the edge of the bed and stands there, a bright spot that even the shadows won’t touch.
The sight feels so familiar, for some reason.
“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says, when Lan Wangji just hovers nearby without getting in. He’s pleased that he sounds much more confident than he actually feels. “Look, I left you plenty of room.”
There’s another moment of hesitation.
Then Lan Wangji climbs in with him.
Arranging themselves quickly proves to be a challenge. Even without Bichen, there’s a lot of limbs; Lan Wangji is a back sleeper, like a proper Lan, but Wei Wuxian likes to sleep on his side, and A-Sui is used to curling up against his stomach. Making room for her without risking her and Lan Wangji touching means he needs to shift around, but every time he manages to find a position that’s both comfortable and practical, he brushes against Lan Wangji, making him tense.
The bed might not be as roomy as it looked.
“What about,” Wei Wuxian starts, twisting, and no, that doesn’t work. Wow, he really should have remembered how broad and tall Lan Wangji is. He tries to curl up but just knees Lan Wangji in the side on accident, eliciting a hiss. “Sorry, sorry!”
The wall is cold and unforgiving against his back, but he presses into it anyway, trying to create space. Lan Wangji shifts to the absolute farthest edge of the bed he can, practically hanging off it, stiff as a board.
Ok, so they’re not touching now. If that was the goal, then it has been accomplished.
They lay there for some time. Silent. Tense. Markedly uncomfortable.
“You know, I think the floor actually sounds great,” A-Sui announces, and clambers off the bed like it’s suddenly become cursed.
Wei Wuxian groans in response, Lan Wangji twitching at the noise. Suibian is right: they’re being idiots. Neither of them can sleep like this. Unable to take it any longer, he sits up.
“Here, Lan Zhan, let’s just—”
In a flurry, he scoots closer to Lan Wangji, tugging on his arm so he’s no longer hanging off the side. Surprisingly, Lan Wangji complies; or, Wei Wuxian realizes, as Lan Wangji makes a surprised noise in his throat, maybe he was just in a very precarious position of balance that Wei Wuxian disturbed.
Regardless, now they’re at least nearer to the actual center of the bed, which solves one issue.
Ok. Next step.
He scoots fully into Lan Wangji’s space, figuring it’s now or never. At the first intentional brush of their bodies, Lan Wangji somehow tenses further (and really, that should be a skill he brags about at this point), but Wei Wuxian is undeterred. Slow, trying not to spook him or be accused of being shameless, he lightly settles so he’s curled against Lan Wangji’s side, touching just enough so that they each have some room to stretch out if needed. Then he lays his cheek on Lan Wangji’s shoulder like a makeshift pillow, and waits.
It’s significantly more comfortable, if a bit close. Wei Wuxian finds himself not minding it at all.
Lan Wangji hasn’t pushed him off yet, which is a good sign, but he seems quite far away from any form of relaxed. There’s a long pause.
It’s clearly not: Lan Wangji is like a rock under him. Wei Wuxian frowns, shifting.
“Too close? I can move.”
He goes to do so, but the arm that Wei Wuxian accidentally trapped under him when he repositioned their bodies shifts. The firm press of a hand against his back stops him from moving away.
“It is fine,” Lan Wangji insists, still sounding stiff, and presses harder when Wei Wuxian makes a disbelieving noise.
“Lan Zhan, you’re like one of the rocks in Nightless City. If you get more tense, you’re going to give your Shufu a run for his money.”
There’s a few beats of silence before Lan Wangji draws in a long, intentional breath. Incrementally, slower than ice melting in winter, each part of his body relaxes. First his arms, then his legs, then, finally, the shoulder that Wei Wuxian is resting on.
It’s—surprisingly good, once that happens. Lan Wangji is so warm, and when Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and breathes in, he smells sandalwood.
“Mmm, now this is perfect, very good, Lan Zhan,” he praises, and curls slightly closer, bringing a hand to rest against Lan Wangji’s chest. The muscles under his palm stiffen, then relax. Lan Wangji’s heartbeat is steady and strong through the cloth.
Slow, Lan Wangji says, “Mn.”
It doesn’t sound as stressed as before. Wei Wuxian thinks that’s about as good as it can get for tonight.
For a moment, he just soaks it all in, the dark blanketing their bodies like a second skin. It’s the same feeling that enveloped him that night in the rainstorm, during the hug that Wei Wuxian is afraid to bring up even though he kind of wants to. Secure and familiar. Steady, too, like dry ground in a flood.
It would be nice, to hug Lan Wangji again. He’s wanted to since the moment they got back.
This is great for now, though.
“Lan Zhan?” he murmurs, and Lan Wangji makes a quiet noise, indicating he’s listening. “What you said earlier, about Shijie. Did you mean it?”
The response is immediate. “Mn. Wei Ying is smart.”
Wei Wuxian feels himself flush. Too good. Lan Wangji is too good.
“Aiyo,” he whispers, glad that it’s dark so he doesn’t have to hide his face in his hands. “Plenty of people are smart. Your brother, and Chifeng-Zun, and all the people who tried to help Shijie but couldn’t. They’re all smart.”
“Not as smart as you.”
Stubborn man. Wei Wuxian feels so good all over, a bone-deep kind of happiness. “Ah, now you’re just flattering me. When did you learn to sweet talk, er-gege?”
Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch on his back. “Hn. I am telling the truth.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, feels the brush of Lan Wangji’s hair against his cheek as he does, like silk on his skin. A yawn escapes him; now that they’ve figured out some semblance of a sharing system, he’s abruptly exhausted. Too much has happened today, with the blade shrine and his brother and Jin Ling. With the adrenaline from the action and the dog finally fading, and Lan Wangji’s presence so close, he finally, truly relaxes.
He feels… safe. It’s been a while.
“You’re so warm,” he sighs, only barely resisting the urge to tangle their feet so he can warm those up, too. Any of the weird nervousness he had before has ebbed, replaced by a deep sense of calm. “It feels so nice.”
There’s a lengthy pause.
Then, quiet, Lan Wangji asks, “Have you been cold?”
“Not the coldest I’ve ever been.” The promise of quickly-approaching sleep is making Wei Wuxian’s tongue feel loose and easy. “That was after. But Mo Xuanyu runs colder than I did when we were disciples. Skinny. Weak core.”
The hand on his back curls into his robes, just barely.
There’s another long pause.
“After what?” Lan Wangji murmurs to him, gentler than he’s ever heard it. Coaxing.
Wei Wuxian just hums slightly, confused. He’s having trouble keeping track of anything, tucked against him like this. After what? He doesn’t understand. When Lan Wangji shifts, Wei Wuxian is unexpectedly brought just a little closer, another degree warmer. He sighs, contentment working its way into his muscles, deeper than any bath could ever achieve.
“Wow,” he breathes, half-asleep, “why didn’t we do this earlier?”
No answer. Lan Wangji’s hand starts to move down his back, then up. Down, then up. It’s a very soothing motion, and unexpectedly nice. Wei Wuxian wants to tell him so.
“Keep doing that,” he mumbles instead, making himself more comfortable by touching their feet finally, and Lan Wangji makes a soft noise in his throat in response. The feet under his twitch, but don’t pull away. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you spoil me…”
Still no response.
It’s ok, though. Wei Wuxian falls asleep in seconds; he wouldn’t have heard it anyways.
Too short a time later, Lan Wangji wakes with Wei Ying in his arms.
It is, he quickly decides, the most wonderful feeling in the world.
Hours have passed, but he’s unsure how many. The sun has not yet risen over the horizon, and a comfortable dimness blankets the room, making everything feel softer, tender. Sometime during the night they must have shifted: Wei Ying is almost fully draped over him, deep in slumber and breathing slow. Both his hands are curled into Lan Wangji’s robes. He’s twitching slightly every few seconds, like his body cannot bear to be still even in sleep. His mouth is open; there is a small spot of drool gathering on Lan Wangji’s shoulder because of it.
Lan Wangji loves it. He never wants the warm, reassuring weight of Wei Ying’s body to go away.
He lays there for some time, soaking it in, almost illicit in the pleasure of it. His palm traces the shape of Wei Ying’s back, each curve and bump in his spine. Wei Ying mumbles, unintelligible, his breath fanning hot against Lan Wangji’s neck, and he shivers in response.
Wanting. Aching with it.
The most precious person, so close. If Lan Wangji could wake up like this every day, he would die happy.
There’s a low rumble from right near the edge of the bed, familiar in tone. Lan Wangji turns his head, slowly so that he does not disturb Wei Ying, and sees Bichen is awake as well. Her eyes reflect back at him in the darkness, blinking slowly.
She is curled up tight around Suibian, although it takes him a moment to spot the fox at all. With her new fur and smaller size, she blends in quite well to Bichen’s side. Like her pair, Suibian is fast asleep, twitching occasionally.
“She was cold,” Bichen murmurs.
It is a poor excuse. He understands anyways.
Before Wei Ying, Lan Wangji had never thought of himself as protective. And yet that is all that fills him now, Wei Ying finally safe against his skin: a burning, wild protectiveness, an urge so deep that he wishes he were a daemon himself, just so he could bare his teeth at the world that tried to hurt him.
Not just tried. Succeeded.
When they saw them on the bridge tonight, muddy and wet, eyes red-rimmed, Lan Wangji had thought—
(Too many things to name. Fear had obliterated any sense of rationale, of logic. He does not understand how Wei Ying can be so terribly hurt, in so many ways, and seem to think it so inconsequential. He wants to kill whoever taught him such a thing. Wants to scream and rage at whatever cruel hands and voices taught him to doubt that every single part of him is precious, deserving of love and care.
How dare Jiang Wanyin hurt him. How dare he steal him and Suibian away, where Lan Wangji and Bichen could not find him, make them go pale and shaking. He wants to break every single one of Jiang Wanyin’s bones. Wants to hide Wei Ying far out of his reach, forever, so he can never hurt him again. Wants to—
His mother, staring out the window. A hawk in a gilded cage.)
Lan Wangji takes a slow, steadying breath. Bichen shifts, her growl reverberating through the air. When he holds out a hand to her, she lifts her head from the floor, rubbing it against the offered fingers.
“We will fix that,” he murmurs.
Bichen rumbles her approval.
They lay there, Wei Ying’s deep breathing the only sound breaking the silence. Lost in the same thoughts.
There are thousands of things that Lan Wangji wants to know about the man in his arms. Wrapped together in the darkness now, with Bichen and Suibian curled so close, one question screams louder than the rest.
Tell me. Should I have taken her?
It is impossible to push away the memory of the last time the four of them were like this, in a very different kind of dark. Cold, scared. Dying. Shivering from energy loss and desperation, Suibian’s teeth stained red with Bichen’s blood.
They have never blamed her for that.
They have also never understood.
Wei Ying tried to give her to them in the cave. It is undeniable, and it does not make sense. For thirteen years he has tortured himself with the question of why; the regret of not knowing has wound itself around his bones. Yet now that they are together again, he cannot bring himself to find out.
Should I have said yes? Would you have hated me for it? Would it have saved you?
The questions are always there, yet he would rather take another thirty-three lashes than lets them fall from his lips. He does not think that Wei Ying remembers that night in the cave, and if this new life has rid him of that burden, Lan Wangji will not be the one to place it back on his shoulders by asking.
Even if Wei Ying does remember, false smiles and shifting sentences and clever distractions always block his way to the truth, even with the simplest inquiries. For such loud people, Wei Ying and Suibian have always been so very good at hiding
That was after, Wei Ying had said.
Lan Wangji can think of many afters, none of which bring him any comfort.
Bichen shifts, their bond trembling slightly.
Lan Wangji swallows. There are so many things he wants. To know what happened. To make Jiang Wanyin suffer for what he did to them tonight. To bring Wei Ying to his sister, now that he knows her fate. To stay by Wei Ying’s side throughout of it, forever, so that whatever plagued him in his past life cannot do so again.
All the feelings jumble up inside him, too much.
He never has the right words.
Bichen looks at him, tail flicking slightly as they lay in silence. He can feel the contentment in her warring with his own emotions; the joy of having Suibian close, fighting his own longing. Something clenches in his chest when Suibian twitches and, without any hesitance, Bichen leans down and nuzzles her head to soothe her.
The envy inside him catches him by surprise. His love for Wei Ying has lasted two wars and thirteen years without him; it should not matter that he is not able to show it in the same way they do.
And yet the desire fills him anyways.
What would he give to hold Wei Ying—not just in sleep, but always? To reach out and cup his face, hold his hands, for reasons other than tears streaming down his cheeks? To show affection as freely as Bichen and Suibian? To press his lips to Wei Ying’s neck and bite down, feel the way he would gasp and hold tight.
There are times he thinks he is not alone in the feeling. Moments where Wei Ying will meet his gaze, and smile, and he wonders—
Please, Wei Ying. Come back to Gusu with me. Please. I love you.
He draws in a slow, unsteady breath.
In his arms, Wei Ying sleeps on, oblivious to the turmoil in his heart. He is so warm, so alive. He smells, Lan Wangji thinks with a pleasant twist in his stomach, like sandalwood. No nightmares plague him tonight; Lan Wangji knows that he gets them, has listened in the dead of night to errant whimpers, cut-off gasps when they wake him from his slumber, seen the dark circles beneath his eyes the mornings after.
But not tonight.
Suibian shifts slightly, turning in her sleep. At the motion, Bichen curls tighter around her and growls, low. The sound is possessive and protective, too telling of the feeling in Lan Wangji’s own heart as he holds Wei Ying. It comes as no surprise, and there is no point in scolding her for it—were Wei Ying to try and get up now, Lan Wangji would growl too.
It is selfish, that Lan Wangji feels that way. There are so many ways in which he has failed Wei Ying; some of which he knows, some of which he doesn’t. In truth, Lan Wangji expected one to be revealed tonight.
Yet the question he was dreading never came.
Lan Zhan, what about you? Did you ever try to help Shijie?
The answer is built upon thirteen years of pain. How is he to explain to Wei Ying that when Jiang Yanli was first being cared for, so was he, his stomach pressed against the soft sheets of his bed as thirty-three whip lines burned and bled and fought infection? How is he to tell him that for many years after, those same wounds made such a trip impossible? That by the time he and Bichen were finally fit to ask for a visit, there were so many rules and regulations to her care, so much fear around worsening her condition by introducing a new energy, that they set only one foot inside Koi Tower before they were sent right back by an apologetic Jin Guangyao?
How is he to look at Wei Ying, the man he loves, and tell him that for thirteen years, he has failed to find an answer to save the woman he holds most dear in his heart?
There is no way to. Not one that is both honest and painless. If Wei Ying finds out about his scars, he will blame himself for Lan Wangji’s pain. He will not understand that Lan Wangji chose it gladly. That he would take thousands more, have the whips cut down to the marrow of his bones until he is nothing but a husk, were it to mean Wei Ying lived.
Too much. Wei Ying should not be burdened with such thoughts. He should not be burdened with anything, when Lan Wangji is there to carry the weight instead.
Wei Ying twitches again, their legs tangling together under the blankets.
“Lan Zhan,” he sighs, soft, and all of the dark thoughts in Lan Wangji’s head are broken into nothing.
He pulls Wei Ying closer to him, aching. Lan Wangji has read countless poems on love, and yet none could ever hope to describe the feeling he has in that moment, Wei Ying pressed against him, calling his name.
Bichen lets out a long, low purr. She is watching them, and there is something deeply satisfied in her gaze; a kind of knowing.
He cannot dare to hope she is right.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, a beautiful mumble, and Lan Wangji’s heart skips. When Wei Ying presses his face against his neck, he has to close his eyes so that he does not do something so incredibly foolish as shake him awake and kiss him. On the floor, Bichen nuzzles Suibian with a happy sigh.
“I am here,” Lan Wangji murmurs, a promise. “Wei Ying. I am here.”
The next morning, Wei Wuxian wakes to the smell of congee, Suibian’s weight leaning heavily against his feet, and a pair of brand-new, wool-lined robes sitting on the table, waiting for him.
“Come on,” Bichen says, when he opens his mouth to ask. Lan Wangji seems quite preoccupied with pouring tea, expression tucked out of Wei Wuxian’s sight. “Get dressed and eat, in that order. We have work to do.”