Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had met twice before their wedding day.
The first time, they were both twelve, and their interactions were limited to observing each other curiously from across the room while the sect leaders discussed their shared future. The second time, they were nineteen, and seated side-by-side for dinner. It was an engagement party, meant to celebrate their imminent union as well as to provide an opportunity for them to become better acquainted.
No more than ten minutes into the meal, Wei Wuxian put his hand on Lan Wangji’s thigh, and very nearly got his arm cut off.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian said, once Lan Wangji’s sword had been sheathed again and their startled relations reassured that there had been a simple misunderstanding. His eyes were shining as he said it, mischievous and gleeful.
Lan Wangji gave a curt nod, despite Wei Wuxian’s obvious lack of remorse. It had still been an inappropriate overreaction on his part; he couldn’t stop his heart pounding, even now, after several steadying sips of tea. Servants entered the hall with their next course, and he welcomed the distraction, until Wei Wuxian leaned in much too close, speaking quietly beside his ear.
“It’s only that it’s hard to control oneself,” he said, “when one’s fiancé is so handsome.”
He flashed a delighted grin when Lan Wangji whirled, hand automatically going to the hilt of his sword again. Then a tray was set on the table in front of him, and he remembered himself.
“Wei Wuxian certainly is interesting,” Lan Xichen said later that evening, as they walked together in the direction of their rooms.
Lan Wangji didn’t answer at first. He could still feel the place where Wei Wuxian’s hand had touched his leg, and swiped at it uselessly, trying to brush the sensation away.
“Yes,” he agreed eventually, when Lan Xichen lifted an eyebrow at him.
It was a full year until their wedding, but no amount of meditation could help Lan Wangji prepare for it.
The ceremony was short and simple, attended only by their respective sect leaders and immediate relations. Wei Wuxian was dressed in very fine red robes, and on him the effect was resplendent; it made Lan Wangji feel almost dull in his own, which were a complementary red and equally grand but suited him far less. They knelt across from one another at the front of the Yashi, and Lan Wangji folded his hands in his lap carefully, hoping not to betray any nervousness.
The memory of their last meeting had left him concerned that Wei Wuxian might do or say something improper even here, but he conducted himself perfectly—seemed almost shy, in fact, when they each cut a lock of hair to be joined, and it was afterward tied in a bag and given to him for safekeeping. He only once met Lan Wangji’s eyes, at the end of the ceremony, when they took each other’s hands. Though he radiated familiar mischief, his smile was soft and genuine. Lan Wangji allowed a small smile in return, and felt himself begin to relax.
It wasn’t until they had finished dinner and bid their guests goodnight that his worries returned. A servant attended them to ensure the Jingshi was adequately prepared, now that two would be living there, and as soon as she was thanked and dismissed, Wei Wuxian took a seat on Lan Wangji's bed.
“Isn’t there any wine?”
Lan Wangji frowned; he was certain Wei Wuxian had been instructed in the Lan Principles in advance of the marriage. Still, he took care to answer with patience. Patience and respect were fundamental to harmonious spousal relations.
“Alcohol is not permitted in the Cloud Recesses.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, but at Lan Wangji’s continued frown, abruptly stopped. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “It’s our wedding night.”
He had to fight the instinctive bristling at the sound of his given name coming from Wei Wuxian’s mouth. After all, they were married.
“It is not permitted,” he repeated. As a test, he cautiously added, “Wei Ying.”
“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian—Wei Ying— looked momentarily caught between irritation and satisfaction, but soon brightened, clearly giving in to the latter. “Alright.” He continued smiling even as he began to shrug out of his robes.
“What are you doing?” Lan Wangji’s voice had taken on a much higher pitch than usual, and he had to stop himself from rushing forward to physically apprehend his husband.
Wei Ying looked equally startled, frozen with just one arm out of the sleeve. “Lan Zhan,” he repeated, slowly, as if speaking to a child. “It’s our wedding night.”
Lan Wangji had to close his eyes, bracing himself against a flash of real anger. “Did you read any of the Lan Principles?” He was at once ashamed of his tone, and paused to draw a breath. Wei Ying was, thus far, not bringing out the best in him.
“How could anyone read them all? There are thousands, and they’re all horrible.” Wei Ying laughed again, not in the least abashed, before adding, “And you can’t tell me sex is forbidden even after marriage. New heirs have to come from somewhere.”
“My brother is responsible for producing the next Lan heir,” Lan Wangji said, cheeks growing hot despite his best efforts. “The purpose of our marriage is to form a union between our sects.”
There was more to it than that, but he didn’t think he had the strength just now to expand upon filial duty and setting a moral example for the community, with Wei Ying’s face contorting in mingled shock and outrage.
“Are you telling me we’re meant to be married for the rest of our lives and never once share a bed?”
The heat was spreading to Lan Wangji’s ears now. “The purpose of sex,” he said, with difficulty, “is procreation. Anything else is fornication, and forbidden. Which you would know if you had read the Principles.”
Wei Ying stared at him a moment longer, then scoffed, shrugging his robes back on. With his face turned to the side, Lan Wangji could see the start of an embarrassed flush creeping up his neck, and felt suddenly guilty. His brother had warned him that their Principles were strict by the standards of most other sects, and might take his husband time to get used to. And he must not, after all, overlook Principle One Hundred and Twelve: In a marriage joining members of two sects, the customs of each must be treated with equal respect.
Lan Wangji approached the bed, kneeling before Wei Ying in an apologetic bow. “I shouldn’t have expected you to internalize every Lan Principle before your first night in the Cloud Recesses. Forgive me.”
There was an awkward silence, and then Wei Ying’s hand brushed against his cheek, startling him. Lan Wangji blinked up, as Wei Ying tucked a lock of hair behind his ear.
“I’m at least allowed to do this,” he said, stroking lightly across Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon. “Right?”
It made Lan Wangji tense, in the same, reflexive way he had at the sound of his name. Once again, he had to remind himself they were married.
“Yes,” he said, swallowing.
Wei Ying’s mouth curved in a new, different kind of smile, and he wove the fingers of both hands into Lan Wangji’s hair, tracing along the sides of his head until they met in the back. He worked, unhurried, to untie the ribbon, finally drawing it away with a flick of the wrist, and held it out until Lan Wangji extended a hand to receive it. It looked unfamiliar, draped casually across his palm.
“Well?” Wei Ying got to his feet. “Are you going to take me to wherever I’m supposed to sleep?”
Lan Wangji nodded, somewhat belatedly, and stood to show his husband to his bed.
Wei Ying was not particularly dedicated to adapting to life at Cloud Recesses.
At meals, he complained that the food was too mild and not filling, regardless of the dish. When it was time for meditation or study, he would disappear, conveniently returning just in time for the meal he would then disparage. If asked to help instruct the junior disciples, he would do so eagerly, but was as likely to teach them lewd jokes as cultivation techniques. After only a few days, Lan Qiren pulled Lan Wangji aside.
“The disciples who just returned from instruction with Wei Wuxian,” he said, rigid with anger, “are using talismans to set one another’s robes on fire.”
Lan Wangji bowed at once. “I will speak with him,” he said.
“You have spoken with him every day since his arrival,” Lan Qiren snapped. “It is clearly not enough. I don’t want him having contact with any more disciples until you’ve got him under control.”
The phrasing made Lan Wangji hesitate. “It is not my place to discipline him,” he said, recalling Principle One Hundred: A marriage is a union between equals.
“He married into this sect,” his uncle reminded him. “His actions reflect on us now, and I will not have the Lan name sullied because Jiang Fengmian apparently saw fit to have his disciples instructed by wolves.” Lan Qiren’s expression softened minutely, perhaps in sympathy. “I’m confident he just needs more time under your influence. But it would be best if you both remained in the Jingshi, until he has fully adjusted.”
Lan Wangji bowed again, but stayed in the same place long after Lan Qiren took his leave, troubled. The prospect of being confined to quarters with Wei Ying for an indeterminate amount of time made his throat constrict, and he had no doubt Wei Ying would like the arrangement even less.
“We’re not children,” Wei Ying said, with predictable outrage, when Lan Wangji informed him of the decision over dinner. “Lan Qiren can’t just ground us.”
He could, but Lan Wangji didn’t waste time arguing the point. After less than a week of marriage, he was learning quickly to choose his battles. “It isn’t intended as a punishment,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for me to better acquaint you with our customs.”
Wei Ying huffed, pushing away his plate of vegetables, only half-finished. Lan Wangji considered reminding him of Principle Sixty-Five— Do not be wasteful —but decided now was not the time.
“What about my customs?” Wei Ying said. “Aren’t you supposed to be honoring those, too?”
Lan Wangji paused with his cup of tea halfway to his mouth. “You’ve been reading the Principles?” Thus far, he had seen Wei Ying do nothing but sleep or draw nonsense during their time spent in the library.
“I’ve skimmed a few,” Wei Ying said, waving a dismissive hand, but he had averted his eyes, like a child caught in a lie. Lan Wangji decided not to press.
“You’re right,” he said, setting down his cup and bowing his head. This could be an opportunity for peace, he realized, if handled carefully. “Please instruct me in your customs as well. It’s my duty as your husband to make you feel as welcome and comfortable here as possible.”
There was an unusually long stretch of silence. When at length Lan Wangji looked up, Wei Ying was studying him with narrowed eyes, appraising. There was a faint bloom of color across his cheeks.
“You really mean that?” he asked.
“In the Jiang sect,” Wei Ying said, breaking into a slow smile, “it is customary to kiss one’s husband.”
Lan Wangji’s shoulders stiffened, and he wished at once, too late, to reconsider his offer. “The Lan Principles—” he began, but Wei Ying interrupted.
“The Lan Principles forbid promiscuity,” he said, much too pleased with himself, “and fornication. There’s nothing at all about kissing.”
He was, strictly speaking, correct. Lan Wangji frowned. “You have the Principles committed to memory,” he observed. It wasn’t a question.
Wei Ying’s smile split into a grin. “It would make me feel much more welcome and comfortable if you would kiss me.”
Lan Wangji turned his head to the side, hands fisting in his robes. He had devoted his entire life to the teachings of his sect, and yet nothing he had to draw on could present him with an appropriate response to Wei Ying. Promiscuity was wrong, but honoring your spouse was imperative. Principle Two Hundred and Eight instructed: Seek compromise in every conflict. What compromise was there to be found between water and fire?
“Very well,” he said at last, turning again to face Wei Ying. Not every problem could be resolved with a Principle, as his brother often reminded him; if there was no evident solution, it was his duty to seek one.
Wei Ying’s eyebrows rose, but his surprise did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm. He moved almost at once, sliding across the floor and around the table between them until he was at Lan Wangji’s side. Lan Wangji drew a sharp breath, but did not pull away, even when Wei Ying pressed close. His chest was flush against Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying said. He lifted a hand to touch Lan Wangji’s jaw, and although his tone was playful, his gaze felt earnest.
It was a strange contrast, but one he was not given long to consider. Wei Ying leaned forward and, with a finger, encouraged Lan Wangji to tilt his chin. Their mouths met, only barely, staying pressed together for the space of two breaths. Lan Wangji didn’t remember closing his eyes, but he had to open them when Wei Ying drew back.
Wei Ying was studying him again, intent, his gaze flitting between Lan Wangji’s eyes and his mouth.
“I’d like to do that again,” he said, after a beat. He shifted, framing Lan Wangji’s face in both hands now, and Lan Wangji allowed himself to be guided in.
This time, Wei Ying’s lips were parted. “Open your mouth,” he said, the words ghosting across Lan Wangji’s skin.
He obeyed without thinking, inhaling Wei Ying’s gasp, startled to realize he had, in the same movement, tipped forward. Wei Ying reclined under him, wrapping arms around his neck, so Lan Wangji had to put bracing hands on the floor, on either side of Wei Ying’s waist. In response, Wei Ying hummed, approving, and sucked Lan Wangji’s lower lip into his mouth.
Heat flared inside him, starting in his stomach but spreading everywhere, so fast and overwhelming that he was paralyzed at first. When he finally wrenched himself back and out of Wei Ying’s reach, he was breathless, his chest heaving, too stunned for speech. Wei Ying had nearly fallen, but caught himself at the last minute, and now, propped on his elbows, regarded Lan Wangji with dark eyes.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying said again. He extended an arm, holding the forehead ribbon between them, until, helplessly, Lan Wangji reached out to accept. He hadn’t noticed it being taken off.
Wei Ying took a few moments to fix his hair, then stood, dusting off his robes. Lan Wangji had to look away, but still he sensed it when Wei Ying approached, and immediately stiffened.
“You’re a good husband,” Wei Ying said, bending to press a brief kiss to the top of his head. “Good night, Lan Zhan.” He crossed the room and disappeared behind the screen that shrouded his bed.
Lan Wangji remained where he was, unmoving, until servants came to collect the dishes. Once they had gone, he left, too, for the river. Bathing in the Cold Springs at night was forbidden, but although it was his first time to intentionally violate a Principle, he did not dwell on it.
Wei Ying did not complain about the food at breakfast, and finished everything, despite frowning in considerable distress at his first bite of congee. He even stayed mostly quiet as they ate, for which Lan Wangji was acutely grateful; he had returned from the river late last night, and slept poorly.
“So, what are we supposed to do all day, now that we’re not allowed to leave?”
Lan Wangji had been wondering the same thing, but tried not to appear uncertain when he answered. “Study,” he said first, because it was what brought him the greatest comfort. “Meditate. Practice music and cultivation.”
Wei Ying’s shoulders had drooped at “study,” but he perked up again at the end. “Can we start with sword training?”
Lan Wangji nodded, glad to have a distraction, and followed as Wei Ying eagerly led the way outside. The grounds around the Jingshi were not ideal for training, but Wei Ying looked more than satisfied as he found solid footing on the stone path, then unsheathed his sword and extended it fully, waiting.
He did not wait long. Lan Wangji had scarcely touched the hilt of his own sword before Wei Ying was moving, and only just managed to lift it in time to deflect a surprisingly forceful blow. The deflection sent Wei Ying backwards, but he drifted effortlessly to the roof of the Jingshi, beaming when Lan Wangji looked up sharply. It was the first time he had allowed himself to really observe Wei Ying all morning; his stomach gave an unfamiliar jerk, and his sword wavered.
“You’re not finished already, are you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying’s tone was light and playful, but his stance remained alert, inviting an attack.
It was unwise for Lan Wangji to continue like this, disoriented, quite possibly unwell. But he flew to the roof heedless of his better instincts, and Wei Ying laughed in real delight at his first strike, dancing out of reach of the second and third. He was an artful fighter, skilled enough that Lan Wangji had to devote his entire focus to their swords, in a way he rarely had before. Whenever he managed to push Wei Ying back, he found himself on the defensive again as suddenly as the fight had begun; it was alarming, but also a relief, sufficiently distracting that he could not dwell on his unease.
Lan Wangji could not have said how long they fought. He had just backed Wei Ying up to the edge of the roof when Wei Ying twirled off, sheathing his sword and lifting hands in the air as he landed on solid ground. Following his example, Lan Wangji followed his example and drifted down to the courtyard, alighting several paces away. They were both breathing hard from exertion, which made Lan Wangji suspect they’d been at it a long time.
“Your skills weren’t exaggerated,” Wei Ying said, approving.
Lan Wangji had heard nothing of Wei Ying’s skills before, despite the fact that they were at least a match for his own. They might have been superior. He did not reply, and eventually, Wei Ying turned away.
“Time to study, Lan Zhan!” He headed back to the Jingshi with a contented smile, reaching up to tuck a few loose strands of hair into place as he went. Lan Wangji waited for his breathing to return to normal before following.
The rest of the day passed, at least on the surface, more peacefully than any other since Wei Ying’s arrival. Since he evidently already knew the Principles, Lan Wangji gave him history to read, in the hopes that more context on the founding of the Gusu Lan Sect might help him take its rules seriously. He himself settled down with a few treatises by the founder of the Yunmeng Jiang, which a disciple had located in the library at his request. It was a fair compromise, and, he hoped, a gesture of equal commitment to doing what he asked of his husband. Wei Ying’s eyes did indeed shine appreciatively when the disciple announced what he was dropping off.
And yet, despite Wei Ying’s unprecedented quiet and attention to his work, Lan Wangji found himself unable to focus. Flashes of their fight invaded his thoughts. He grew reluctantly fixated, not only on Wei Ying’s swordsmanship but on entirely insignificant details: Wei Ying’s wrist, curved to parry a blow; his excited flush that spread, inexplicably, when he began to lose the upper hand; the sound of his laugh when he nearly fell. The images were vivid and consuming.
They would not leave him.
Lan Wangji’s eyes snapped open, and he stiffened upon finding Wei Ying crouched next to him, very close. He smiled and tipped his head toward the doorway, where two servants stood, bearing trays.
“It’s time to eat.”
If the servants were here with dinner, that meant it had been over two hours since they started meditating. Despite never having successfully cleared his mind, Lan Wangji had lost track of time completely. All day he had been preoccupied and unsettled; worse, as they sat down to eat, he could feel Wei Ying’s eyes on him, watching closely. It was likely he had noticed.
“Well?” Wei Ying said, startling Lan Wangji into looking up from his bowl. He had eaten very little, but his husband’s tray was already empty, and he was leaning across the table with an impatient, expectant air.
At Lan Wangji’s bewildered silence, Wei Ying scowled. “Didn’t I do well today?”
For a moment, Lan Wangji thought he might laugh, and had to set down his bowl and chopsticks in an effort to suppress it. It was so like a question one of the junior disciples would ask after a hard day of training, and not at all what he had been expecting—particularly from someone as proud and accomplished as Wei Ying was proving to be.
“You did well,” Lan Wangji agreed, with a small smile.
Wei Ying’s scowl vanished at once, and he leaned back, seemingly gratified. “And what about you?” he asked, arching an eyebrow. “Have you learned anything about the Yunmeng Jiang?”
In hours of reading, Lan Wangji had committed nothing to memory. He was suddenly embarrassed by the thought of Wei Ying observing his poor example all day, and bowed yet another apology.
“I will require more time with the texts.”
“Or,” Wei Ying said, “I could teach you.”
There was no mistaking his tone. Lan Wangji flushed and straightened up, intending to remind Wei Ying of a number of relevant Principles. He forgot them all the moment Wei Ying climbed into his lap.
He had much more to say, but Wei Ying swallowed the rest in a bruising kiss. His legs straddled Lan Zhan’s hips, and from this angle he had to bend to meet Lan Wangji’s mouth; it was a stark contrast to their kissing the night before, both in position and intensity.
The same disorientation that had plagued Lan Wangji all day returned to him in a rush, making it impossible to connect thoughts to actions—when he intended for his hands to push Wei Ying away, they gripped tight at his waist instead, and rather than turning aside, his head tipped back, allowing easier access for Wei Ying to nudge his mouth open and lick his way inside.
Lan Wangji had given little thought to kissing in his life. Nothing could have prepared him for it to feel like this; he was helpless under Wei Ying’s touch, hardly even registering the gasp of breath he let out when his back hit the floor. Wei Ying held him there, relentlessly firm, stretching along the length of Lan Wangji’s body as he scraped teeth over his bottom lip. There was a distant, desperate noise that Lan Wangji only realized he had made when Wei Ying responded with an encouraging hum.
And then Wei Ying’s thigh was between his legs, pressing, and Lan Wangji jolted with abrupt, ice-cold awareness. He shoved Wei Ying off and scrambled backward, chest heaving.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying sounded genuinely shocked. “What—”
“Wei Ying. This cannot happen again.”
Wei Ying’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “But—you were kissing back!” There was an angry flush spreading up his neck.
“It’s indecent,” Lan Wangji snapped, glaring down at his trembling hands. He hardly recognized the ferocity of his own voice. “The Principles—”
“Oh, of course, the Principles. Heaven forbid we violate a Principle.” Wei Ying got swiftly to his feet, hands curling into fists at his sides. “You pushed me!”
“No. It’s fine. Never mind.” He whirled around and stormed toward his bed. Just before disappearing behind the screen, he stopped and threw over his shoulder, “I wish I had never agreed to marry you.”
Lan Wangji could find nothing to say. A nauseating lurch unsteadied him, and he had to close his eyes until it passed. When he was finally able to open them again, the first thing he saw was Wei Ying’s silhouette, dark through the paper of the screen: He was sitting on the window ledge, looking out. Lan Wangji battled a shameful desire to go to him, and retreated, instead, to bed.
“I would like to invite Lan Xichen and Wen Qing to have dinner with us.”
Wei Ying did not look up from the scroll he was defiling with sloppy brush strokes. “Alright,” he said, coldly.
It had been three days since the kiss, and Wei Ying had spent them sullen and petulant, never speaking more than two words at a time. Nothing Lan Wangji tried seemed to even approach appeasing him, and, bound as they were to the Jingshi and its grounds, there was very little he could offer.
Lan Wangji hesitated, then stepped outside to call for a servant. He was desperate for the advice of his brother, but unsure how to arrange for them to be alone. He couldn’t well explain why it was imperative that they speak privately, and would just have to trust that some opportunity would present itself at dinner.
Fortune took mercy on him in the form of Wen Qing. Lan Xichen had been married for a little over a year, and although they had passed a fair amount of time in each other’s company, Lan Wangji still did not know his brother’s wife very well. Wei Ying had only met her once, a fleeting, formal introduction, yet his mood lifted almost the moment they began talking. Wen Qing had spent some time in Yunmeng, and Wei Ying was thrilled to reminisce about it. For most of the meal, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen listened politely, contributing little. It was easy to leave their spouses to their conversation and step outside when dinner was done.
“It’s good to see Wei Wuxian has lost none of his spirit in isolation,” Lan Xichen said, with a sideways smile.
They were taking a turn around the Jingshi grounds, but Lan Xichen stopped abruptly—something in Lan Wangji’s expression must have given him away.
“Am I mistaken?”
Lan Wangji frowned at the stone path under his feet, unsure of how to answer. “I fear I have misunderstood the Principles pertaining to marriage,” he admitted.
Lan Xichen looked taken aback. “That’s hard to believe. Why do you say so?”
“Wei Ying is unhappy, and I don’t know how to please him. There is no compromise I can find that satisfies us both.”
“What have you tried?”
Lan Wangji couldn’t possibly tell his brother the full answer; it made him burn with humiliation just thinking about it. He explained about their mutual studies of their respective sects instead.
“That’s a fine gesture,” Lan Xichen said, furrowing his brow, “but it may not be enough on its own. Wei Wuxian gave up the life he knew to live here as your husband—have you asked him why?”
“Why?” Lan Wangji didn’t understand.
“Why he wanted to marry you,” Lan Xichen elaborated. “Even if it was arranged, he could have refused if he found the match objectionable.”
Lan Wangji stared at his brother, speechless. Their uncle had informed him of his engagement to Wei Ying when he was a child, and he had spent the rest of his life waiting for marriage. It had never occurred to him to think of it as a choice.
“He seems fond of you,” Lan Xichen went on, in the face of Lan Wangji’s silence. “I’m sure you can find a way to make each other happy.”
“Are you and Wen Qing happy?”
He hadn’t meant to ask anything quite so bold, and felt at once apologetic, but Lan Xichen didn’t seem offended.
“I think so,” he said, with an easy smile. He hesitated before adding, “But not every marriage will always reflect what you read. Wen Qing and I understand one another, and I think that makes us well-matched. It’s not difficult for us to compromise because we have similar needs.”
Lan Wangji would have liked a more straightforward answer, but they had made their way back to the entrance of the Jingshi, and could see Wei Ying and Wen Qing watching them from the veranda. Lan Xichen stopped just far enough away that they wouldn’t be overheard and faced him.
“I know you take your responsibilities as a husband very seriously,” he said. “With time, I’m sure you’ll figure out what you both need. For now—maybe a change of scenery?”
He gave Lan Wangji a final encouraging smile before returning to the veranda, where they all stood to say goodnight. Lan Xichen and Wen Qing had scarcely disappeared down the path before Wei Ying began talking in a rush.
“She’s wonderful—did you know her entire clan specializes in medicine? She has her own room just for herbs, separate from the Hanshi. She said she’ll show me once we can leave here again.”
Lan Wangji had of course known all this, and while he was happy to see Wei Ying so enthusiastic, he also felt a twinge of annoyance. He couldn’t explain it, but some impulse told him to change the subject.
“Wei Ying,” he said. “Would you like to visit Lotus Pier?” His brother’s advice had given him the idea.
Wei Ying turned to him, eyes wide. “What?”
“I’ve never been, and I would like to see your home.”
Wei Ying reached out, clasping both Lan Wangji’s hands in his own. “Yes,” he said, breathless with joy. “Do you mean—when?”
Warmth pooled in Lan Wangji’s chest. “I’ll speak with my uncle tomorrow,” he said. He suspected Lan Qiren wouldn’t mind if they left the Jingshi for a while, as long as it was for somewhere outside of the Cloud Recesses.
“Thank you.” Wei Ying seemed almost to be glowing, and did not immediately let go of Lan Wangji’s hands. For a moment, it looked like he might try to initiate another kiss; he tilted his head, contemplative, and Lan Wangji felt his breath catch. He had yet to decide what to do about it when Wei Ying released him and took a step back.
“I’m going to write to Jiang Cheng,” he said, flashing one last grateful smile before hurrying inside.
Relief wrapped around Lan Wangji like a cloak as he watched Wei Ying go. He slept more easily that night than he had in a week, the warmth in his chest lingering.
Lan Qiren was predictably amenable to the proposal of a trip that would take Wei Ying out of Gusu for several weeks. After receiving word of his blessing, Wei Ying begged to leave the next day, but eventually agreed to wait long enough at least to send his former sect proper notice. They left as soon as they received a letter back welcoming their visit, finally arriving in Yunmeng one week from the day Lan Wangji had suggested they go.
Lotus Pier was very different from the Cloud Recesses. The moment they stepped off their boat and onto the docks, Lan Wangji was captivated by the loudness and liveliness of everyone and everything; already, Wei Ying made more sense. He came to life in this place, like a wilting plant that had been given water. It would have been gratifying to watch him grinning over his shoulder as he guided them through the crowd, except that it was such a stark contrast to the Wei Ying he knew. Lan Wangji wondered what it would take to make him smile like this in the Cloud Recesses.
A group of ecstatic disciples were there to show them to their room when they arrived at the main entrance. They jostled Wei Ying and joked with him in a way that would have been entirely inappropriate in Gusu, but seemed natural here, then left to alert the sect leaders of their guests’ arrival. Wei Ying closed the doors behind them, turned, and suddenly froze. The grin that had been brightening his face for the past hour slipped away.
Lan Wangji turned as well, following the line of Wei Ying’s gaze. They had been shown to a bright and spacious room, with sliding doors that were opened to a peaceful view of lotus flowers blooming on the surface of the water outside. There was incense burning, and tea set out on the center table, and two lanterns glowing on either side of the single bed.
“Ah,” Wei Ying said, fixing his smile back into place. “I’ll call for a servant—”
“It’s alright.” Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what made him say it. A distinctly panicked twist in his stomach insisted it was not alright, but it felt important to be open-minded while he was a guest here. After all, Wei Ying was expected to live by the customs of the Gusu Lan for the rest of his life, not just a short visit.
Wei Ying lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Isn’t sharing a bed violating at least two Principles?”
“I will endeavor to follow the Principles of the Jiang sect,” Lan Wangji said, “while in Lotus Pier.”
To his surprise, Wei Ying laughed at that, but it sounded warm, not teasing or mean-spirited. “You are very unpredictable, Lan Zhan.”
Two disciples arrived just then to escort them to the main hall, sparing Lan Wangji from having to respond.
They dined with Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan, and Jiang Cheng that evening, on a pavilion surrounded by mist and lit by lanterns mounted in drifting boats. The food was heavy, but not unpleasant, and although Lan Wangji was firm in his refusal of the wine, he couldn’t help but appreciate how much pleasure it brought Wei Ying to drink. It didn’t seem like such an indiscretion, to allow him the occasional alcohol in the Cloud Recesses; Lan Wangji decided to determine later how hard it would be to bring some back.
He was lightheaded with exhaustion by the time they returned to their room, having stayed up much later than he was accustomed to, and had forgotten about their sleeping arrangements until Wei Ying collapsed on top of the bed. Though he was pink-cheeked and somewhat unsteady, he was still remarkably coherent, considering how much wine Lan Wangji had watched him drink.
“If only Shijie were here, everything would be perfect,” Wei Ying sighed. Jiang Yanli was recently pregnant and unable to travel, but Wei Ying had made no secret of the fact that she was the person he missed the most from his previous life over dinner. Lan Wangji didn’t know him well enough to be sure, but he didn’t think Jiang Cheng found it very amusing.
“We can visit Lanling when the child is born,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Ying lifted his head from the pillows to blink at him. “You’re becoming quite the devoted husband,” he said, after a beat.
Lan Wangji felt his ears going warm and turned to shrug out of his outer robes. He didn’t turn back right away, even though there was nowhere else to go; his exhaustion had abruptly fled, leaving him tense and alert. He took his time folding his robes and putting out the lights in the lanterns, then stood, very still, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. “Come to bed.”
The bed was big enough to accommodate two comfortably, and Wei Ying did not crowd Lan Wangji when he lay on his side, facing away. Still, he could feel Wei Ying’s breath dance across his shoulders when he sighed, could hear the bob of his throat when he swallowed.
“Do you like Lotus Pier?” Wei Ying asked, settling the blanket over them both.
“Yes.” He realized it was the truth as he said it.
“Do you think you’ll be able to survive two weeks without abiding by 3000 Principles?”
Lan Wangji huffed out a quiet laugh. “Yes.”
Wei Ying shifted behind him, and although they still weren’t touching, his mouth seemed closer when he spoke.
“Do you think we might be able to compromise on just a few Principles,” he said, hardly above a whisper, “when we go back to Cloud Recesses?”
Lan Wangji rolled over, and found Wei Ying’s face in the dark, and kissed him.
Wei Ying gasped into his mouth. Despite his surprise, he opened up to the kiss at once, pressing close, hands spreading across Lan Wangji’s chest.
“Lan Zhan,” he said, maybe a prelude to something more, but he was cut off as Lan Wangji kissed him harder. He couldn’t risk speaking right now, couldn’t risk letting Wei Ying question him; if he stopped to think for even a moment, he feared he would break apart. So he drank in Wei Ying’s eager gasps instead, and smoothed a hand down the small of his back, and tried not to shudder too obviously when their legs tangled together.
Then the weight of Wei Ying’s hand was on his stomach, low, just above the sash of his robe. Lan Zhan grabbed his wrist on instinct, and although Wei Ying’s fingers curled over the thin fabric, he did not otherwise move.
“Right, right,” Wei Ying huffed, his laughter a little strained. “Have to wait until marriage.”
Embarrassment burned hot up Lan Wangji’s neck, and he faltered, pulling back. He couldn’t find a single word to say.
“Sorry, I’m sorry.” Wei Ying lifted both hands to Lan Wangji’s face, gentle but firm, stopping him from retreating any further. “If I promise to behave, will you kiss me like that again?”
All the lightheaded impulsiveness of moments ago had fled at Wei Ying’s laugh, and Lan Wangji swallowed, considering him, his head distressingly clear. It was the first time he could ever remember wishing for impaired judgement. He was surprised, then, to find himself sliding closer, his nose nudging against Wei Ying’s, too breathless to otherwise answer. He let Wei Ying guide this kiss, could only just manage to ignore the hot ache that urged him to roll his hips if he closed his eyes and held on, gripping tight at Wei Ying’s sleeves.
True to his word, Wei Ying behaved himself, keeping the touch of his hands and legs gentle and light. The soft, needy sounds he made were a far cry from innocent, but perhaps that couldn’t be helped; even Lan Wangji couldn’t bite back an unbidden moan at the scrape of teeth across his lip.
“We—might need to stop,” Wei Ying said, his voice gravelly, and Lan Wangji stared, bewildered, as his husband drew back. It took staggering willpower not to chase his mouth.
“Or I won’t be able to,” Wei Ying clarified, at Lan Wangji’s continued silence. Understanding dawned slowly, and at last he nodded, flustered, releasing handfuls of Wei Ying’s robes.
Wei Ying smoothed out his sleeves carefully before shifting back, away, the air cooling immediately with some space between them. He took his time with his robes, and Lan Wangji watched, not trusting himself to move, until Wei Ying looked up again, arching his brow.
“Kiss me again tomorrow,” he said, with inscrutable calm. It might have been an invitation as easily as a command. Lan Wangji didn’t now what kind of expression he made in response, but Wei Ying seemed to like it; the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “Good night, Lan Zhan,” he said, and rolled over, taking most of the covers with him.
“Good night,” Lan Wangji echoed. It took longer for his heartbeat to slow than it did for Wei Ying’s breathing to shift, his back rising and falling with the deep, relaxed rhythm of sleep. Lan Wangji watched, and tried to count his breaths, and couldn’t. He watched and thought, instead, about touching the place between Wei Ying’s shoulder blades.
Two weeks at Lotus Pier was just enough time for their days to take on a familiar routine. In the morning, they rose—or, Lan Wangji rose, and took breakfast in their room, and sometimes walked or instructed a few eager disciples, until Wei Ying rose hours later. Wei Ying then ate quickly, often while walking, which Lan Wangji marveled at, and rounded up as many disciples he could find, along with Jiang Cheng. They followed after him like goslings, Jiang Cheng the only exception to their collective devotion, but even he took very little prodding before agreeing to whatever activity Wei Ying suggested, from swimming to archery to sword fighting.
They didn’t generally return to the main promenade of Lotus Pier until well after dark, and dined in the company of the sect leaders, at an hour when the Lan would normally be preparing for bed. Some evenings they went out again after that, and generally Lan Wangji would watch while Wei Ying drank, giving the younger disciples sips of his alcohol, introducing others to talismans he’d invented. The hour of their return varied, but never what happened next: Wei Ying climbing into bed, taking down his hair, and waiting, expectant, for Lan Wangji to join him. Lan Wangji hesitating, but never for long, before climbing in beside him.
They kissed with familiarity now, too. He knew to expect Wei Ying’s hands in his hair, and how to angle his chin so their mouths fit better together. He knew where it was safe to put his hands, and where it wasn’t, either because of Wei Ying’s reaction or, at least as often, his own. He knew approximately how long they could make it before they had to drag themselves apart, trembling and dazed.
And he knew a shadow was descending on them, heavy and oppressive, with every day that brought them closer to their last in Lotus Pier.
“You’re quiet today,” Jiang Cheng observed. He was leaning against the opposite end of the long boat they had taken out after dinner. Wei Ying sat in the middle, already on his second bottle of liquor, and Lan Wangji, at the far side, glanced up a little too sharply.
“He’s always quiet,” Wei Ying said. His smile was swift, but didn’t reach his eyes.
“I don’t mean him.” Jiang Cheng took a drink from his own bottle—he’d had less than Wei Ying, but seemed more sensitive to alcohol, his cheeks already stained a deep crimson.
“I’m just mourning the loss of food with flavor when we leave tomorrow.” Wei Ying sounded lighthearted, but Lan Wangji felt a small stab of guilt anyway.
“You’ve got plenty of peppers to take back with you,” Jiang Cheng reminded him.
Wei Ying just sighed, which made Jiang Cheng roll his eyes and glance toward Lan Wangji apologetically.
“I’m going for a swim,” Wei Ying announced.
“What?” Jiang Cheng set his bottle down. “Don’t be stupid. You’re drunk, and it’s dark out.”
“You’re drunk,” Wei Ying corrected. “I just have a little color in my cheeks. And it’s my last night in Lotus Pier for who knows how long, and all the water in Cloud Recesses is freezing. I’m going for a swim.”
Jiang Cheng scoffed and tried a few more halfhearted protests, but Wei Ying was already standing, his outer robes halfway over his head. He tossed them carelessly aside, and Lan Wangji just managed to save them from falling into the lake before Wei Ying was gone, disappearing under the water with an effortless dive. Lan Wangji watched after him, brows furrowed slightly. Wei Ying surfaced several seconds later, an impressive distance away from the boat, and waved.
“There’s so many lotus pods over here!” he called.
“If you drown I’m not going in after you!” Jiang Cheng called back.
Wei Ying ignored him and turned away, swimming out farther. Gradually, seeing him move with ease, Lan Wangji began to relax.
“He’s fine in Gusu, though,” Jiang Cheng said abruptly, picking up his liquor again and looking very interested in the design on the side of the bottle. “Right?”
Lan Wangji frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean—he’s happy.”
It took a moment for Lan Wangji to realize this was meant as a question. Jiang Cheng seemed acutely embarrassed, and downed another large swallow of his drink rather than meet Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“It has been a difficult adjustment for Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji admitted. “But I believe—I hope—his opinion of Cloud Recesses is improving.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and looked back out over the lake, toward the now very small pool of ripples that marked where Wei Ying was swimming. “He causes trouble wherever he goes,” he said, scowling even though the words didn’t carry much heat. “But I—we wondered. My sister was worried.” He scoffed into his bottle. “He threatened to call it off for so long, no one was really sure what was going to happen.”
A sharp, roiling heat crashed against the walls of Lan Wangji’s chest, and he found himself grasping the edge of the boat, looking for something to steady him. “Call it off,” he repeated, numbly.
“I’m sure he never really meant it,” Jiang Cheng said quickly, perhaps sensing he had revealed too much. “He’s always been like that—he complains about everything. And anyway, he stopped after your engagement dinner. Then he wouldn’t shut up about how he was marrying the most handsome cultivator of the century.”
Lan Wangji remained quiet, not trusting himself to speak. Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. Wei Ying was swimming nearer, still out of earshot but clearly on his way back to the boat, one arm brimming with lotus stalks.
“He’s obnoxious, and full of himself,” Jiang Cheng added, in a rush, like he was desperate to get it all out at once. “I’m sure the Lan hardly know what to do with him. But—he’s loyal, and he cares about people.” Clearly, this speech was pushing Jiang Cheng to his very limit; he glanced again in Lan Wangji’s direction, hands fidgeting awkwardly in his lap. “Those have got to be part of the Principles, right?”
They were. Lan Wangji nodded, slowly. “I—”
There was much he wanted to say, but all at once he was dripping wet, his lap full of lake water and lotus stalks. Wei Ying, climbing over the edge of the boat, sloshed even more water across his feet.
“You’re welcome!” Wei Ying beamed, waiting for the boat to stop rocking before turning his smile on Jiang Cheng. “What’s that look for? I brought some for you too!”
They ate lotus seeds while Wei Ying finished his drink and he and Jiang Cheng bickered, and didn’t return to Lotus Pier until much later, after the moon was already starting to set. Lan Wangji had only been up so late for night hunts before. He was bone-weary by the time they crawled into bed, and yet his mind wouldn’t settle, his thoughts returning relentlessly to what Jiang Cheng had told him.
“You’re still going to get up at the same ungodly hour in the morning, aren’t you,” Wei Ying said, sliding close and tilting his chin up toward Lan Wangji’s. He went still when he caught sight of his face. “What is it?”
Lan Wangji studied Wei Ying, uncertain how to answer. There was a concerned crease between his eyebrows, and before he knew it, Lan Wangji was stroking his thumb across it, pleased at least to find it gone when he pulled back.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Ying stared, his cheeks going faintly pink. “For what?”
But Lan Wangji couldn’t bring himself to say more—wasn’t even entirely sure, himself, what he meant. Thank you for not calling off our betrothal before I knew what it felt like to share a bed with you? Just thinking the words made him uneasy. He leaned in again instead, and found Wei Ying’s mouth, and Wei Ying was, thankfully, content to be distracted.
They kissed until the sky was shifting toward light purple. For the first time in memory, Lan Wangji did not, in fact, get up with the sun.
It was a long journey back to Gusu, and one they passed mostly in silence. On the way to Yunmeng, Wei Ying had talked endlessly, his mood brightening with every step that brought them nearer to his former home. In contrast, he seemed to grow quieter and more withdrawn the closer they got to Cloud Recesses, his head bowed and eyes cast down toward his feet.
Lan Wangji had quietly packed a few bottles of alcohol to bring back, and briefly considered taking one out to offer him, but it felt like an empty gesture when they both knew the reason for his mood. So he merely walked at Wei Ying’s side, keeping his own gaze lowered, and thought again of Jiang Cheng, the question that hadn’t sounded like one: He’s happy.
Wei Ying was perfectly friendly to the Lan disciples who greeted them upon their return, and his smile seemed genuine, not forced. But it didn’t brighten his eyes like greeting the Jiang disciples had, and he didn’t laugh once, all the way back to the Jingshi. Nearly every moment of every day in Lotus Pier was punctuated with the sound of Wei Ying’s laughter. Lan Wangji found himself wondering, selfishly, when he would hear it again.
“Well,” Wei Ying said, stepping into their room, “we’re back.”
Lan Wangji entered behind him, studying the side of his face. It was drawn and colorless.
“Wei Ying,” he said, and Wei Ying turned, at once fixing a smile in place. It hurt somehow more to see this forced attempt at happiness, so easy and automatic.
“Thank you,” Wei Ying said. “For visiting Lotus Pier with me.” He hesitated, his mouth still open, on the edge of saying something more, but then his eyes shifted away, to something over Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Lan Wangji turned, to find several servants bringing a bath. Generally, he looked forward to bathing after travel, but he was unusually irritated by the interruption, tight-lipped and impatient as they waited for the water to be prepared and the servants to depart again.
“You go ahead,” Wei Ying said, nodding toward the wooden tub, steam rising from the water’s surface. He didn’t wait for Lan Wangji’s response before turning away, retreating behind the screen that shielded his bed.
Lan Wangji stood looking after him for some time before undressing, with less care than he usually took to ensure privacy, and climbed into the bath. The heat should have been soothing, but it did nothing to relax the tension in his shoulders. His stomach, too, continued to twist with the ache of days of restless worry he had no idea how to resolve. He had prided himself once on his skill for mediation, had studied meticulously the ways in which his uncle and brother guided smaller clans and villages away from conflict. And yet here, in his own home, he was unable even to find the right words to comfort his husband.
“May I wash your hair?”
Startled, Lan Wangji turned his head. Wei Ying stood a few paces away from the tub. He was dressed in Cloud Recesses white now, and instead of pointing out that changing into clean robes before bathing was a waste, Lan Wangji merely nodded. He straightened up as Wei Ying approached quietly behind him and stilled, but did not flinch, at the first touch of fingers to his scalp.
Wei Ying dipped a bowl into the water and poured it over his head, cupping one hand over Lan Wangji’s brow to protect his eyes as if he were a child.
“Your hair is so beautiful,” Wei Ying said. “Is mine going to look like that after a few years? Is it the Lan oils?” He began to massage oil into his scalp as he said it, and Lan Wangji shivered, closing his eyes.
“Hmm?” Wei Ying’s hands continued to work the oils in. There was nothing improper about his touch—certainly he had done much bolder things with his hands more than once during their stay in Lotus Pier—but still Lan Wangji found it difficult to focus, his skin too sensitive, words coming slow and heavy on his tongue.
“You’re not happy,” he managed at last.
Wei Ying’s hands went still. “What do you mean?”
“At Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said. “You wish to return to Lotus Pier.”
After a moment, Wei Ying’s fingers resumed their work, combing gently down Lan Wangji’s hair. “I get homesick,” he conceded, “but it’s not that bad, really. I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t stay in Yunmeng forever.”
“Then—” Lan Wangji couldn’t quite finish the question, and didn’t expect Wei Ying to answer it, until he did.
“I was just thinking it will be lonely,” he said, “sleeping in different beds again.”
A beat passed, and another, before Lan Wangji realized he was holding his breath.
“Don’t worry,” Wei Ying said, hands falling away as he took a step back. “I won’t—”
But Lan Wangji was already reaching out, catching Wei Ying’s wrist before he could move any further, and he went abruptly silent. The silence lasted only until Lan Wangji pulled, and then Wei Ying was gasping, scrabbling to catch the edge of the tub with his free hand as he fell more or less into Lan Wangji’s lap, his robes going heavy and translucent in the water.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying’s mouth was open and his cheeks were flushed, already beaded here and there with water droplets from the splash. Half of his hair was still tied on top of his head, the other half wet and dripping, falling into a curtain around both of them. Lan Wangji let go of his wrist, reaching out to push a damp lock behind his ear, and discovered his hands were shaking.
Instead of pulling them back, he cupped Wei Ying’s jaw and drew him even closer, into a kiss that sent waves of water sloshing over the sides of the tub all around them. Wei Ying came to life with it, surging against him, exhaling into his mouth.
“Lan Zhan,” he said, his hands running down Lan Wangji’s neck, then to his collarbones and down his chest, under the water. He chased them with his mouth, kissing the wet skin fiercely, his lips hot and feverish. “Lan Zhan—Lan Zhan, I want to touch you—”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, feverish himself. It earned him another kiss on the mouth, Wei Ying rocking up against him, his robes damp and cold between them in a way that should have felt unpleasant but wasn’t, couldn’t be. He dragged a hand along Lan Wangji’s ribs and lower, to his stomach, then lower still. Lan Wangji cursed when Wei Ying’s touch found him, hard and wanting, in a way he had never allowed before.
His back arched and his head fell, hitting the edge of the tub too hard, but he had forgotten what it was like to feel pain with Wei Ying kissing down the side of his neck, soothing, whispering nonsense into his skin. Wei Ying’s hand on him was eager, and quick, and burning hot. The water spilled over all around them, masking at least some of the more embarrassing noises coming from Lan Wangji’s mouth. By the time he realized he was close, he could do nothing more than clutch desperately at Wei Ying’s back and shake, and then he was spilling over too, and Wei Ying was praising him, calling him beautiful, holding onto him as he gasped, nearly sobbing.
Wei Ying was shaking as much as Lan Wangji, he realized with dawning clarity, trembling in his lap. With great difficulty, Lan Wangji shifted in the tub, struggling upright and slipping an arm around Wei Ying’s waist, tugging at the damp front of his robes with the other.
“Yes,” Wei Ying said on an exhale, straining to help as Lan Wangji peeled the robes away from his skin. “Yes,” he repeated, Lan Wangji’s hands dragging down his sides now, hesitating at his hips. “Lan Zhan— please, Lan Zhan, touch me—”
It was nothing, to obey him, easy and instinctive to find him hard, to touch him the way he wanted. Wei Ying buried his face in Lan Zhan’s neck and dug nails into his skin and moaned, and whimpered, and asked for everything, panting out urgent directions, “Yes” and “faster” and “don’t stop.” They both cried out when finally he came, much to Lan Wangji’s embarrassment; he hadn’t known he was holding his breath along with Wei Ying, watching his face as he got close, and might have pulled away, overwhelmed and at once on edge, but Wei Ying wouldn’t let him. He caught Lan Wangji’s jaw with both hands, keeping him firmly in place, and kissed him.
They kissed until Lan Wangji’s shoulders began to relax, his hands falling back to rest loosely at Wei Ying’s waist. Both of them were still panting, and Lan Wangji could feel his skin prickling, the air now much too cold, with half the water spilled out of the tub and onto the floor.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, wetting his lips even as he continued to gasp for breath. “Sleep with me tonight.”
A panicked lump rose in Lan Wangji’s throat. He swallowed it down, pushing wet hair out of Wei Ying’s face once again, even though it fell back in front of his eyes as soon as he had done it. Finally, he nodded. Wei Ying brightened at once, eyes shining, his mouth curving in a cautious smile.
It wasn’t a smile Lan Wangji had ever seen him make in the Cloud Recesses.
He took Wei Ying’s hands and drew them both upright, and after they’d done the best they could to wring their hair dry, wrapped them together under a towel. He let Wei Ying pull him, then, toward Lan Wangji’s bed, the one nearer the tub, and down, into his arms. It was the first time he had ever allowed another person into his bed, and the first time he had ever pressed the entire length of his naked body, skin to skin, with another.
And yet, impossibly, his heartbeat started to slow. His mind went clear for the first time in months, and he fell asleep like that, in blissful peace, lulled by the rhythm of Wei Ying’s pulse.
He couldn’t remember anything in the first moments after he woke. The weight of another body in his bed registered slowly at first, then jolted him upright in sudden alarm, causing Wei Ying to groan and roll away. The memory of the night before returned to Lan Wangji in a rush, and he stared at where the tub should have been, stunned to find it gone. He wondered, briefly, if it could have been a dream. But he was very much naked, as was Wei Ying beside him; he was stretching now, and scowling, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“The bath,” Lan Wangji said, stupidly. Wei Ying laughed a little.
“The servants came and took it,” he said, causing Lan Wangji’s skin to prickle with cold fear. But when he looked again, even the floor around where the tub had been looked dry and clean.
“I cleaned up first,” Wei Ying said, maybe noticing Lan Wangji’s concern. “And set up your screen so no one else got a look at you.” His eyes traveled down Lan Wangji’s body as he said it, his smile turning mischievous. “Your skin really hides nothing, Lan Zhan! I’m going to have to be more careful in the future.”
Lan Wangji followed Wei Ying’s gaze to the pink and purple marks trailing obscenely down his stomach, his neck flushing instantly hot. When he looked up again, he spotted a single red mark on Wei Ying’s neck, small, maybe even small enough to hide under the collar of his robes. It was, inexplicably, infinitely more obscene.
“Then again,” Wei Ying said, sliding a slow hand across Lan Wangji’s hip, “as long as they’re low enough—”
Lan Wangji threw himself out of the bed, landing unsteadily on his feet. He was trembling, burning up, no room left even to be ashamed of his nakedness.
“Wei Ying,” he said. It came out desperate, closer to a plea than an admonishment.
Wei Ying’s eyes went wide, and he drew back slowly. A hard, closed-off expression settled over his face.
“I see,” he said. His hands curled into fists in his lap.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji tried again, but uselessly; he had nothing to follow it.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan, but I won’t do it.” Wei Ying threw the covers off, grabbing his abandoned robes as he stood, still wrinkled and damp. He yanked them over his shoulders anyway. “I won’t be the guilty mistake you only make in moments of weakness. I’m your husband, not your mistress.”
He was storming away now, across the room, and Lan Wangji paused only long enough to shrug on his own robes before following.
“Unbelievable—” Wei Ying was saying, kicking aside another article of clothing—it was impossible to say whose—as he went. “And after you said—I thought —”
“Wei Ying, I—”
“No,” Wei Ying snapped. “Stop. I don’t care. I don’t want to hear it.” Lan Wangji had seen him angry, but this anger was new, blinding in its intensity. Every word seemed to tear itself violently out of his throat. “If we have to have an arrangement, like your brother and Wen Qing, that’s fine. I won’t try to persuade you anymore.”
Lan Wangji stared at him, dazed, his brow furrowing.
Wei Ying must have seen something unexpected in Lan Wangji’s reaction, because he straightened up, narrowing his eyes. “Don’t tell me you don’t even—”
The sound of footsteps approaching the entrance to the Jingshi interrupted him, and they both whirled, eyes on the silhouette just visible outside.
“Hanguang Jun,” a disciple called, bowing even though a wall still separated them. “Wei Gongzi. Zewu Jun would like to welcome you back and invite you both to the Hanshi at your convenience. There will be a meal at noon.”
The silence that fell after this announcement was weighted, a shade too long. The disciple shifted, clearing his throat, and then Wei Ying was calling out in answer.
“We’ll be there!” he said. The disciple thanked them both, and bowed again, and left.
Wei Ying had already resumed walking away, his shoulders set in a hard line, by the time Lan Wangji looked up.
“Well? You’d better make yourself presentable, Lan Zhan.”
He disappeared behind his screen, and Lan Wangji let him go, knowing better than to follow.
Wei Ying walked several paces ahead of Lan Wangji on their way to the Hanshi, brisk and silent, but showed no sign of anger as soon as they were among company. He greeted Lan Xichen and Wen Qing with easy and perfectly convincing enthusiasm, leaving Lan Wangji standing stiff and quiet in his wake. His brother lifted an eyebrow, but spared him the embarrassment of asking questions, and Lan Wangji managed to compose himself well enough, at least, that Wen Qing did not comment on his demeanor.
“Forgive my rudeness, but I need a word with Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, bowing an apology to the rest of the group. Lan Wangji looked sideways at his brother, then down at his feet. “Perhaps Wei Gongzi would like to see your medicine room before lunch?”
Wei Ying jumped at the opportunity to leave them, taking Wen Qing by the elbow and leading her away without so much as a glance over his shoulder. Lan Wangji swallowed, simultaneously grateful to his brother and somehow more miserable than before.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, turning to him the moment they were alone. “What happened?”
An unexpected tightness closed around Lan Wangji’s throat. He shut his eyes and breathed deep. It was unfamiliar and unpleasant, feeling so reluctant to share something with his brother. He wasn’t sure he had ever struggled to tell him anything short of absolute truth before Wei Ying.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji said, and then faltered, uncertain. The next words spilled from his mouth before he could reconsider them: “What is the arrangement you have with Wen Qing?”
Lan Xichen’s hand was on Lan Wangji’s arm, leading them both toward the Hanshi, but he stopped and withdrew at the question.
“Never mind,” Lan Wangji said, mortified to have asked something so clearly inappropriate. “I shouldn’t have—forgive me.”
But Lan Xichen only smiled at him and resumed walking. “There’s nothing to forgive; it simply wasn’t what I was expecting. Let’s go inside.”
Lan Wangji felt embarrassingly young, being led to the table and sat down in front of it, gratefully accepting a fresh cup of tea as Lan Xichen settled across from him.
“A-Qing must have talked to Wei Gongzi,” Lan Xichen said, still smiling.
Lan Wangji hesitated, then nodded. Wei Ying hadn’t said as much, but it was the only possible explanation for how he knew what he knew.
“I apologize for not being more straightforward with you. It isn’t—or rather, I wasn’t sure you would want to know.”
“I don’t know anything,” Lan Wangji said quickly. “Only—Wei Ying said—” Even this much was difficult to get out. He paused, drawing a deep breath, and forced himself to continue. “He suggested we might also need an arrangement.”
Understanding dawned slowly on Lan Xichen’s face. Lan Wangji felt, ridiculously, envious; he was as lost as ever.
“I see.” Lan Xichen took a sip of his tea, looking thoughtfully into the cup. “I told you, before, that Wen Qing and I are well-suited because we have similar needs. For some needs, we both prefer to look . . . outside of our marriage.”
Lan Wangji frowned, and then his eyes widened, turning incredulously on his brother. “But then—an heir—”
“We both want a child,” Lan Xichen said, calm even as he interrupted, “and intend to produce one, when the time is right. But we are otherwise content to live companionably, rather than romantically.”
Countless questions sprang to mind, but Lan Wangji dismissed most of them outright, irrelevant or inappropriate or both. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from voicing the most pressing: “And—the Principles—?”
To his complete shock, Lan Xichen laughed at this, softly and without offense. “Tell me, Wangji,” he said. “When you were in Lotus Pier, how did you find the people there?”
Instinct made Lan Wangji answer right away, even without fully following the question. “Forthright,” he said, “and somewhat impetuous. But honest, generally, and generous. I don’t see—”
“They didn’t strike you as unprincipled or immoral?”
“No,” Lan Wangji said, surprisingly affronted by the insinuation. “Some of their customs are unconventional, but they are a virtuous sect.”
“Then, if the Jiang Clan can be virtuous people despite their customs—some of which go so far as to directly contradict several Principles—it must be possible to lead a life of virtue even without observing the Lan Principles.”
There was nothing especially remarkable about Lan Xichen’s logic, no connection he had drawn particularly hard to follow. And yet Lan Wangji was suddenly speechless, too muddled to reply, his thoughts too fraught to organize. He stared at his brother, brow furrowed, and willed himself, desperately, to understand.
“I care about our Principles,” Lan Xichen said, covering one of Lan Wangji’s hands with his own. “But the world is too big for the teachings of our founder to encompass everything, Wangji. It’s possible for your moral character to be enriched by outside influences, rather than tainted. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job of teaching you that.”
Lan Xichen gave Lan Wangji’s hand a gentle squeeze, then withdrew, standing to prepare a fresh pot of tea. Lan Wangji used the moment to try and recover; his hands, he had only just noticed, were unsteady. He smoothed them down the table’s surface, gripping tightly at the edge, until his knuckles turned white. There was a wild, untethered feeling spreading out from his chest, coiling in his stomach, electrifying along his spine. Nothing in his experience could help him determine if the sensation was unpleasant or not.
“Wei Gongzi is spirited,” Lan Xichen said when he returned, refilling Lan Wangji’s cup with newly steaming tea. “I’m sure we could find someone discrete to— satisfy him, if—”
“No,” Lan Wangji said, much too loud. The force of it startled them both.
“No,” Lan Xichen echoed, careful, lowering the teacup he had been lifting to his lips. “Because it’s improper?”
“No. I—I want no one else to touch him.”
He wouldn’t have believed himself capable of even thinking the words an hour ago. Now they tore out of him, fierce and raw.
“I see.” Lan Xichen looked stunned for another moment, and then his face relaxed, his eyes warming. “We’ll try to keep lunch brief, then.”
An embarrassed flush spread to Lan Wangji’s ears, and his brother, generously, looked away, pretending to have found something outside the window very interesting.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said at length, once his cup was empty.
His brother merely smiled, and cleared the tea tray from the table, and led them back outside to wait for the others.
Despite Lan Xichen’s best efforts, their meal dragged on, and Lan Wangji was as taut as a wire by the end of it, stretched to his limit watching Wei Ying entertain Wen Qing. He regaled her with stories so riveting she seemed, in fact, to eat with exaggerated slowness, too distracted to attend to the food. It was approaching dusk by the time they left, and Lan Wangji could only watch, tight-lipped, as Wei Ying walked backwards, waving until they disappeared around the bend that led them back to their own home.
Wei Ying steadfastly avoided his gaze even once they reached the Jingshi, striding toward his bed the instant they were through the door. Lan Wangji nearly lost the courage to speak looking after him, abashed by the hard, uninviting edge of his shoulders. But not speaking was the only thing he could imagine that would feel worse than he already did.
“Wei Ying,” he called. It surprised him that this was all it took to stop Wei Ying in his tracks. Still, he didn’t turn, even just enough to look over his shoulder.
Very slowly, Wei Ying faced him, arms crossing in front of his chest. He lifted one skeptical eyebrow.
“I want to talk,” Lan Wangji said, a little uneven, floundering under the weight of Wei Ying’s gaze.
“Well, I don’t.” Wei Ying spun, making to walk away again, and something told Lan Wangji, with panicked urgency, that he had to stop him. That if he let him go this time, it would be the last.
“I love you,” he said. He had never spoken the words before, not even to his brother. They came out ragged, unfamiliar on his tongue.
Wei Ying froze. He did not fully turn around again, but at least tilted his head enough that Lan Wangji could see his cheeks had gone faintly red.
“Alright,” Wei Ying said. “And?”
Lan Wangji frowned, and opened his mouth, then closed it, lost.
“I have no doubt you love me, as is your duty, according to Principle Four-Hundred and Twelve or whatever it is.”
He had landed impressively close to the correct number, but Lan Wangji did not think he would appreciate being informed of this. He remained quiet.
“You can love me all you want,” Wei Ying continued. The color in his face was rising, but his voice stayed impressively steady, the tight grip of his hands on his elbows the only other indication he was at all upset. “I’ve done my bowing. I’ll play husbands with you and attend your dinners. But you can’t have me if you’re going to make me feel like some filthy seductor the morning after. I’d rather never touch you again than be something you live the rest of your life ashamed of. I’d rather we had never touched at all.”
It surprised Lan Wangji that he didn’t stagger when the words speared him, acutely edged, through the heart. He took a shuddering breath, and almost let Wei Ying leave him like that, nursing a wound he couldn’t pretend was not ultimately self-inflicted. And then, instead, he moved forward, catching Wei Ying’s arm before he could escape, holding tight when he tried to wrench it back.
“I love you,” Lan Wangji repeated, “and I want you, Wei Ying.”
His voice was trembling with the effort of saying it, but Wei Ying had, at least, stopped struggling to pull away. Now he cocked his head, eyes narrowed—suspicious, surely, but gleaming, too, with a hint of something that might have been hope.
“How?” he said.
Lan Wangji furrowed his brow.
“How,” Wei Ying repeated, impatient as always, “do you want me?”
Lan Wangji was speechless. He had always spoken sparingly, but before Wei Ying, never thought himself ineloquent; it was only when pinned by his husband’s gaze that he became struck like this, dumb and grasping, his mind wiped of all the words he knew. He had read more than half of the entire collection of books contained within the Library Pavilion, could recite hours of scripture without error before his seventh birthday. Wei Ying stole language from him, striking all he knew from memory with nothing more than a disappointed glance.
But it was words that Wei Ying needed from him now. Lan Wangji sank to his knees as he searched for them, desperate. He knew what was at stake if he could not get them right.
“Wei Ying,” he said at length, swallowing against the tremor in his voice. “I have spent every day of our marriage trying to deny the truth that there is no manner in which I do not desire you. Tell me instead,” he continued, cautiously testing words that felt sinful in his mouth, “how you would let me have you?”
Wei Ying was dangerously still. The only sign he had heard Lan Wangji at all was the catch in his breath; he seemed to continue holding it even as he took a small step closer, then another, his feet only stopping when they were half a pace from Lan Wangji’s knees.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. His fingers pushed into Lan Wangji’s hair, encouraging him to tilt his head back and up. “I thought I’d made it abundantly clear that I am yours to take.”
One of Wei Ying’s thumbs stroked down Lan Wangji’s temple, tender, until it slipped under his ribbon and pulled. Lan Wangji felt himself unraveling along with it, the taut wire in his spine going slack. He touched Wei Ying’s arm, gentle for a beat. And then he turned fierce, gripping Wei Ying’s wrist tightly, bringing the palm of his hand to his mouth.
It was only a kiss, but Wei Ying moaned into it, his knees buckling. Lan Wangji gathered him up eagerly when he collapsed into his lap, kissing his hand again, pushing up his sleeve so he could continue, open-mouthed, down his wrist to his elbow. He was dizzy, trembling, but it was not from fear; all his anxiety had fled, and in its wake, he felt only exhilaration.
“Wei Ying.” He found his way to Wei Ying’s neck and was rewarded with another moan, louder now, and nails biting into the skin at the base of his skull.
“Fuck, Lan Zhan.” The words hummed under Lan Wangji's mouth, a new sensation he immediately wanted to experience again. Wei Ying arched in his lap, clutching at him, trying, impossibly, to press closer. “I thought you’d never—thought I’d have to look at you every day for the rest of my life and never—ah, fuck— thought I’d have to settle for some disciple who looked like you—”
Lan Wangji bit back his own curse at this, and his grip on Wei Ying’s waist tightened tellingly, eliciting a gasp.
“Don’t,” he said. The force of it unnerved him; there was anger prickling under his skin.
Wei Ying leaned back, his hands sliding over Lan Wangji’s shoulders to curl in the fabric of his collar.
“Then fuck me, Lan Zhan,” he said. His eyes were dark. They did not invite discussion.
Lan Wangji stilled, then surged, pushing Wei Ying to his back on the floor and tearing at the belt of his robe. Wei Ying moved with him, just as desperate to strip away his clothes, finally letting out a low, stuttering breath once his chest was exposed and Lan Wangji could press his lips to the skin there.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, tugging at Lan Wangji’s belt even as he worked his way out of his own underclothes. “Lan Zhan— fuck, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—”
He had never heard his name used like this, a malediction, filthier even than Wei Ying’s accompanying curses. Lan Wangji shuddered, but his hands did not falter, nor did they rest until Wei Ying was stripped bare beneath him. Only then did he allow himself to pause, and finally, freely admire the sight of him.
It was different to look at him now, unhindered by guilt and denial. Wei Ying’s body was beautiful, vivid and anticipatory, lighting up under Lan Wangji’s touch. He tried to follow when Lan Wangji drew away, and the impressions of the woven mat could be seen against his skin, pink and obscene. Lan Wangji could see how fervently Wei Ying wanted him; he could feel it.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, his tone a warning. Lan Wangji brought his attention at once upward, back to those dark eyes. “Undress now.”
A pained, animalistic sound rose in Lan Wangji’s throat. He nearly tore a sleeve in his hurry to obey, and threw the silks aside without care, landing somewhere in the vicinity of his abandoned ribbon. Before he could push Wei Ying back to the floor, Wei Ying was rising to meet him, the force of impact jarring when their mouths connected.
“Touch me,” Wei Ying said, and even though Lan Wangji already was, he moved with urgency at the command, hands tracing down Wei Ying’s sides and lower. Wei Ying gasped when Lan Wangji grabbed and lifted, forcing their hips roughly together. He had forgotten what it was to doubt or hesitate—knew only that they needed to be closer, that the heat burning between them was still not enough.
Wei Ying liked the sensation, if his breathy gasps of encouragement were anything to go by, but he twisted away after a moment. He held Lan Wangji at bay, barely, with a hand to his chest.
“Oils,” he said, nodding toward the vanity. Lan Wangji didn’t question it; he lifted one hand, summoning the oil to his palm, and Wei Ying blinked, bewildered, before letting out a surprised huff of laughter.
“You used spiritual energy for that?”
Lan Wangji might have said that he wasn’t sure he could survive the absence of Wei Ying’s touch for even a moment longer, but it was simpler to kiss him again, deeply. He pressed, and Wei Ying yielded, and they kissed until they were both weak-limbed and trembling on the floor.
“Let me,” Wei Ying hissed into his mouth, plucking the oil from Lan Wangji’s hand. He continued to nuzzle helplessly against Wei Ying’s neck and listened, distantly, as if from underwater, to the sound of the lid being removed from the jar, the sharp inhale Wei Ying made after his hand slipped down between them.
After a few seconds, Wei Ying caught Lan Wangji’s wrist. He guided his hand, whispering encouragement, to his thigh, then lower, and lower still.
Wei Ying was slick already, and very, very hot. It was easy to press a finger inside him—easier still when Wei Ying’s head snapped back, clearly euphoric, a ragged cry dragging out of his mouth.
“Ah— Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan— that’s—it’s good, more, Lan Zhan—”
Lan Wangji did as Wei Ying asked. His only experience with even the concept of intercourse between men was restricted to whispered jokes overheard by visiting disciples, yet he needed no further instruction, only this: Wei Ying urging him on, the telling hitch in his breath, a tensing of muscles. Lan Wangji never had to pause for very long before Wei Ying he was arching against his fingers, desperate, impatient all over again.
“I’m ready, Lan Zhan—fuck me, please, fuck—”
He moved without hesitation, unsure where the inspiration came from as he lifted Wei Ying’s leg over his shoulder and pressed small, feverish kisses to his thigh and knee. Maybe this deep, aching want had gotten so familiar it couldn’t disorient him anymore; he had barely shifted forward, flush against Wei Ying, before he was pressing inside, and then there was nothing, there could be nothing, more than this.
It was transcendent, touching Wei Ying’s body this way. Lan Wangji moved, and Wei Ying moved with him, a kind of connectedness he hadn’t known could exist. There was no book, no meditation, no experience he had ever found that came close to approximating it. Wei Ying moaned his name, and Lan Wangji felt it, as clearly as he felt the shocks of pleasure that seemed, with every roll of Wei Ying’s hips, to shudder through them both.
He moved slowly at first, savoring it, but Wei Ying whimpered with predictable neediness.
“Faster— fuck, Lan Zhan, we’ve gone slow long enough—”
Shifting again, steadying both hands on Wei Ying’s hips, Lan Wangji did as he was told. Wei Ying’s hands found his, fingernails biting into the knuckles, and Wei Ying’s curses grew so loud it took Lan Wangji a moment to realize he was cursing, too.
“Wei Ying.” Just saying his name like this was a curse, but Lan Wangji didn’t stop himself from repeating it, wasn’t certain he would have been capable of even trying. “Wei Ying—”
He faltered, earning a keening protest. Already he was too near his limit, pushed almost past the limits of his endurance, and Wei Ying seemed to sense it. His grip on Lan Wangji’s hand tightened painfully.
“Not yet,” Wei Ying said, firm even despite his breathlessness. “Not yet— don’t stop, Lan Zhan, don’t—”
Lan Wangji bit back an answer. It was impossible for him to do this, impossible to be obedient here, like this, Wei Ying spread open and wanting underneath him, Lan Wangji straining to remain upright despite the tremors that shook him. And yet, impossibly, he did; he felt the heat building and held it at bay, kept his focus trained only on Wei Ying’s pleasure, the newly desperate register of his voice, the tensing of every muscle in his body.
Wei Ying cried out again after what was surely an eternity, and it was at once the most painful and beautiful test of strength Lan Wangji had ever undergone. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying gasped, burying his trembling face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder, capable of speech even now. “Lan Zhan —Lan Zhan—yes.”
It was permission, and Lan Wangji took it. He allowed the tremors to build and at last release, collapsing almost at once, helpless, over Wei Ying’s body. He was surprised to realize, distantly, that he had cried out too, and could hear Wei Ying, also distantly, soothing him now, whispering next to his ear.
“Lan Zhan —you’re so good, Lan Zhan. You’re so good; look at you.” He stroked down Lan Wangji’s hair, and either did not notice or did not acknowledge how the words overwhelmed him. If he looked now, Lan Wangji suspected he would be reduced to tears; he pressed his brow to Wei Ying’s collarbone instead, breathing him in. It was grounding in a way that made his chest ache.
When at last he was capable of lifting his head, Wei Ying framed his face in his hands, unnervingly serious as he searched Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“You know that, right?” Wei Ying said. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re perfect.”
Lan Wangji stared at Wei Ying—at his husband—and breathed in the scent and sight of him. It dawned, slowly, that the words caused him no unease. He felt nothing but a delirious happiness, being connected to Wei Ying like this. It was too divine to be wrong; he felt enlightened, holy. At length, he saw his silence had caused Wei Ying to frown in concern, and he dipped his head, kissing him soft and slow.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji answered when he drew back, all he was capable of in the moment. It seemed, at least, to be enough—Wei Ying brightened, and pulled him down once more.
“Come to bed with me,” Wei Ying said, as they broke from another kiss.
Lan Wangji drew away carefully, and then lifted Wei Ying into his arms, earning a startled but delighted laugh. He carried him all the way to the bed. They slept there together, limbs tangled, wrapped so close it should have been uncomfortable, but was not.
In the morning, Lan Wangji woke with Wei Ying still curled against his side, one thigh thrown across his legs, one arm stretched over his shoulder. He shifted as carefully as possible, only intending to turn so he could admire Wei Ying’s sleeping face without waking him. As he moved, his hand met something under the pillow. When he pulled it out, it took him a moment to register what he was seeing: A small red pouch, familiar, containing a single braid from two locks of hair. It was from their wedding ceremony.
He felt his heart stutter, running his thumb over the silk, considering the implications of this: Wei Ying, sleeping with this beneath his head every night, like a talisman to ward off evil. How long had he been keeping it there?
Wei Ying groaned and stretched, pressing closer, and Lan Wangji had the pleasure of watching him blink awake slowly.
“Good morning,” Wei Ying said. A relaxed, lazy smile spread over his lips, in a way Lan Wangji hoped he could commit to memory for the rest of his days.
“Good morning.” Lan Wangji was intending to lean in for a kiss, but stopped when he saw Wei Ying’s eyes land on the pouch.
“Oh, fuck.” Wei Ying laughed a little, but he looked nervous meeting Lan Wangji’s gaze, his cheeks flushing scarlet.
“You’ve slept with it every night?” Lan Wangji asked.
Groaning, Wei Ying rolled onto his back and scrubbed at his face. “This is too embarrassing for this early in the morning,” he said, muffled into his hands.
But Lan Wangji only felt relief, something warm and glowing replacing the worried knot that had been lodged in his stomach since their wedding night.
“You wanted to call off the wedding,” he said, surprising even himself.
“I—what?” Wei Ying dropped his hands and stared in horror. “Who—?” Realization dawned on his face, and he groaned again. “Jiang Cheng. I’m going to murder him.”
“For how long?”
“I didn’t really,” Wei Ying started, but he stopped, sighing, and tried again. “I don’t know. I just wasn’t sure. I didn’t know anything about you. And you seemed so cold when we were young.”
Wei Ying rolled onto his side again, so they were chest-to-chest, and jabbed a finger hard into Lan Wangji’s collarbone. “And then I turned eighteen and I saw you again and haven’t been able to stop thinking about you for a day since,” he huffed. “Of course, I might still not have agreed to marry you if I’d known it would mean enduring the endless torture of slowly falling in love with a husband who looked like he wanted to jump off a cliff anytime he touched me.”
Lan Wangji, stunned silent, could only stare at first, while the color bloomed further down Wei Ying’s neck. He reached out to stop Wei Ying before he could roll away again, bringing a hand to rest along the curve of his jaw.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Thank you for being my husband, Wei Ying.”
The words had clearly taken Wei Ying off guard. He exhaled shakily, his mouth curving into a crooked smile. “Does that mean you’re not going to run away from me anymore?”
Lan Wangji finally kissed him, like he’d been meaning to since waking. Wei Ying melted into it, finding Lan Wangji’s hands and covering them with his own. When they broke apart, Wei Ying was the one holding the pouch.
“I don’t suppose I have to sleep with this under my pillow anymore, since it seems to have worked.”
It wasn’t a love charm that had finally broken down Lan Wangji’s defenses, that had allowed him to look at Wei Ying like this—to look at him fully, naked and bruised from lovemaking—and feel only exultation, a strange, proud, creeping joy. But he did not say as much. He bent and pressed his lips to Wei Ying’s fingers, instead, where they curled around the pouch.
Wei Ying tossed it aside, his hands sliding eagerly into Lan Wangji’s hair as he dragged him back in for another kiss. Lan Wangji took him in his arms, and then in every other way, because it was easy, this morning, to stay in bed sharing pleasure with the man he loved.
They left the Jingshi well after midday, making for the grounds where the younger disciples were training without any real purpose. Wei Ying led a few paces ahead, pausing occasionally to cast quick, mischievous smiles over his shoulder. It made Lan Wangji regret agreeing to go out at all, but Wei Ying had insisted, and he suspected that there would be very few requests his husband made for the rest of their days together that he would not immediately accommodate. This did not trouble him.
A few of the youngest disciples ran up to Wei Ying at once, eager to show him their progress, and he let himself be led away while Lan Wangji joined his uncle on the veranda overlooking the grounds, both bowing in greeting.
“Welcome back,” Lan Qiren said. “You must be exhausted from your travels.”
He felt invigorated, not exhausted, but Lan Wangji did not say so, choosing instead to accept the excuse for their late arrival. He nodded once.
“Wei Wuxian is as spirited as ever,” Lan Qiren observed, frowning. Lan Wangji followed his gaze outward, to where Wei Ying was laughing as two disciples tried desperately to stamp out a small fire they had accidentally started on the grounds.
“He is,” Lan Wangji agreed.
“I trust you are learning how best to instruct him.”
“I have found,” Lan Wangji said, “that I have at least as much to learn from Wei Ying as I have to teach him.”
Lan Qiren turned at the tone of his voice, his startled gaze lingering until Lan Wangji turned to meet it. After a beat, his uncle looked down and away.
“I trust you know what you’re doing,” he said, with apparent difficulty.
Lan Wangji nodded once, and then Lan Qiren excused himself, muttering something about rounding up the disciples before they burned down the Library Pavilion. Wei Ying paused to greet Lan Qiren, then hurried back to Lan Wangji, beaming up at him.
“I suspect we’re still grounded?” he asked, reaching out to steady himself on Lan Wangji’s arm as he stepped onto the veranda beside him.
“No,” Lan Wangji said, although he had not asked.
He sounded almost disappointed, and Lan Wangji arched a questioning eyebrow at him.
“I was just thinking it wouldn’t be so bad,” Wei Ying said, grinning now, “having an excuse to stay locked up together for another week or two.”
By now, it shouldn’t have been so easy for Wei Ying to catch him unsuspecting like this, and yet Lan Wangji was overcome, once again, with a rush of affection bordering on reverence. He turned to Wei Ying, and closed the space between them with a single step, kissing him softly.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying’s eyes were wide when he stepped away, and they drifted at once back toward the grounds, where a few disciples still lingered. “We just violated at least two Principles in full view of the juniors.”
Lan Wangji did not bother following his gaze to see if they had noticed. He did not bother, either, to voice what they both already knew: There is more than one way to walk a virtuous path. “Let’s return,” he said instead, extending his hand.
Wei Ying took it, glowing with delight. They walked the entire distance back to the Jingshi just like that, arm in arm. There was no room for anything to burn in his chest but warm, simple pride.