He's not sure where the impulse comes from. LWJ leaves the burial mounds and WWX just sits in his stupid blood cave and thinks about what it would be like if he had stayed.
It's his own fault.
They have no money for food, let alone cloth or thread but suddenly it's the end of market day and they have one stupid radish left and he is suddenly down one radish and holding a strip of black silk and rough grey thread. WN kindly doesn't comment.
WWX has a rough needle they use to mend baskets, he threads it while sitting by his little fire one night after everyone is asleep. He stabs the beautiful black silk and the hole doesn't heal as he pulls the thread through. He throws the ruined silk to the ground and goes to bed.
In the morning- or the afternoon because this is WWX- he drags himself out to help with their stupid settlement. WQ watches him and judges. He ignores her and digs a lotus pond and judges himself.
He walks in on WQ holding the black silk remnant.
"This needle will ruin the silk," she holds it up, "I'll trim it for you, then you can try again with one of my mending needles."
She doesn't ask what he was making.
WQ's needle is smaller and has a delicacy that doesn't ruin the tight weave of the silk as he begins sewing again. He evens the edges, but the back of the silk is a mess. He laughs a little at the weird silk tube he creates, then flattens it.
After a moment he reaches up and ties it around his own forehead, looking into a polished silver to see his reflection.
He looks half dead, wearing a black forehead ribbon.
"Lan Zhan would be so angry to see me like this," he tells his haggard face, and pulls the silk off his skin before he gets used to it.
He is in a bad mood the next day and everyone notices.
He is dismissed by WQ who tells him to 'go work on your project before you make A-Yuan cry' which is all the warning he needs to make himself scarce.
He begins with the end of the tube, sewing it together unhappily until it's a sad poorly constructed strip, finished on all the edges, though a bit unrefined. Maybe a lot imperfect.
WWX decides it fits him and wears it while he works on talismans. At nightfall WQ shows up with A-Yuan and a bowl of radish soup. She doesn't comment on the strip of fabric across his forehead, but A-Yuan grabs the end and pulls curiously. WWX picks him up and holds him tightly, not stopping him but also feeling strangely raw about it, a bit like the raw silk.
The strange new accessory suits him well, but he still doesn't wear it again.
WQ takes him into town the next day over his protests, she takes him to a fabric shop they can't afford, but around to the back, where the ladies work meticulously. They are all very pleased to see WQ and she tends to them behind a privacy screen while WWX is fussed over by the older ladies.
They explain embroidery to him. Advise him to start small. Is there a motif he likes? Lotuses? Oh very good very good! Does he want to practice first?
He leaves with WQ a few hours later, bemused and with an assignment to embroider a lotus on some scrap silk. He teases WQ about his project and she scoffs and dismisses it, but asks about his design aesthetics and the like.
He does not embroider a lotus.
The scrap silk lies on his workbench for days while he goes about his business, mocking him every time he has to move it to a different part of his workspace to get at something or sprawl out better.
On the fifth day he breaks.
WQ brings A-Yuan in after an entire day of not seeing WWX. She brings the boy and some radish soup and sits with WWX while he shows them his embroidery.
"Ah," he laughs, "now I will make the best wife!" His little scrap fabric bears a small jagged crescent in grey with red lines over it that are meant to be-
"Is that the stygian tiger seal?" WQ asks, and she hides her amusement, but there's something sad in her eyes she's hiding too.
"Lotus didn't seem right," he admits sheepishly, "and I am the Yiling Patriarch!"
"The seal isn't what makes you the Yiling Patriarch," WQ chides.
He concedes that truth and fills the rest of the scrap fabric in with radishes.
The ladies laugh at his embroidery practice.
They give him more fabric and red thread to play with while WQ deals with the same girl from last time. They point out different stitches, show him beads and different ways to fill in outlines and use design elements. They tell him to draw a design and then transfer it to the scrap silk with chalk. They tell him to push himself.
WQ tells him not to embroider radishes.
"But I'm the Yiling Patriarch," he tells her, "master of radishes!"
The scrap of silk they gave him is white, and they gift him a small set of multicolored threads so he doesn't have to make everything red, white and grey forever. He tells WQ there's symbolism there on the way back to the Burial Mounds and she expresses serious doubt they meant it that way.
She doesn't dismiss his talk of embroidery.
In the coming months he embroiders radishes, a songbird, a butterfly, a lotus finally, some rabbits, then more rabbits, then radishes, then three lotuses together, then a better version of the stygian tiger seal...
He embroiders soft white clouds onto blue silk and decides if LWJ ever comes back he'll give it to him even though the clouds are misshapen.
JC shows up with their sister to show off her marriage robes unannounced.
WWX is cheerful through force of will during the visit, but as they're finishing up their soup WN moves closer to JYL. He holds a small scrap of fabric out to her.
"Wei-gonzi made this," he tells her, and she takes it, unfurling the three lotus and covering her mouth with a delicate hand.
"Aiyo Wen Ning!" WWX moves quickly to try and take it back. "I'm nowhere near skilled enough to give this as a gift to my Shijie!"
She keeps the fabric out of reach. It's deep purple with lighter purple lotuses and clashes horribly with the red and gold outfit.
"You don't want me to have it, A-Xian?" She makes her eyes wide, the makeup turning them large and dark and sad and accusatory.
She leaves with the embroidered lotuses.
As they go, JC turns to look at WWX, but he doesn't say anything.
WWX doesn't speak to WN for two days, during which he throws himself into work and WQ glares at him and bullies him relentlessly.
By the third day the whole thing is forgotten, though WWX drinks heavily in his stupid blood cave by himself through the date of the wedding.
The ladies say mean things about his embroidery as WQ feeds the girl in the back tonics and pokes her with needles. One of the older ladies smacks WWX's knuckles, but as a whole they are pleased with his progress. They bring him a strip of black silk with raw edges.
They tell him to embroider on it and bring it back to them.
He gives them embroidered radishes and they bustle around excitedly instead of mocking him.
They bring out a scrap of silk with a radish badly embroidered on it. They put the two radishes next to each other.
WWX is forced to admit he has improved.
They give him more scrap silk and kick WWX and WQ out.
WWX embroiders grey clouds onto the scrap silk. White radishes that turn into patterns that are so small they look like beadwork. He embroiders butterflies and pinwheels.
WQ brings him some of the rough robes that the Wens wear. Some of them have patches sewn on. She tells him to 'make them nice'.
WWX embroiders radishes onto the first set, and is inundated with Wens making vegetable requests for the rest of the day.
A-Yuan's robes have pinwheels on them. They have radishes and clouds along the collars. They're not very good, but they're unique and cute. WWX almost cries the first time he wears them to Yiling. A merchant compliments his mother's embroidery and A-Yuan looks shyly up to WWX who thanks the merchant with such intense sincerity the man gives them extra vegetables.
The black silk ribbon mocks WWX. It is pooled on his workbench and he hasn't touched it since he fixed it up a little less rough but just as unpolished.
LWJ shows up one day with an invitation to Jin Ling's one month celebration for WWX.
LWJ holds A-Yuan and examines the edge of his robes between his fingers. WWX waxes poetic about the invite, but LWJ just runs a thumb over the embroidered clouds on A-Yuan's collar and makes an inquisitive sound. WWX is overjoyed that LWJ noticed his new skill.
"Everyone needs a hobby, Lan Zhan, even the Yiling Patriarch!" He invites LWJ to stay for dinner.
LWJ pinches a cloud on A-Yuan's robe and accepts.
LWJ doesn't leave. He was supposed to and WWX makes fun of him for it. WWX makes fun of LWJ for meditating through the night, even lashes out at him a little for not being clear about why he's staying. He says words meant to hurt, but LWJ shakes his head once and says he still has business in the Burial Mounds.
LWJ helps the Wens move things, helps look after A-Yuan, uses his own money to buy them supplies in Yiling.
He comes back with a tray of expensive embroidery thread that he shoves into WWX's hands. Says "for your hospitality" and leaves WWX standing there with the gift.
LWJ helps with dinner. He helps with laundry and he absolutely doesn't leave.
WWX starts work on a charm for Jin Ling. LWJ frowns, just slightly. Watches as WWX embroiders little golden lotuses onto light purple silk, folds it into a small pouch. Observes closely as WWX embroiders sigils on the bottom in lilac so the pouch won't ever get dirty. Sits silently considering as WWX painstakingly embroiders a protection spell onto the inside lining of the pouch in red.
"You did all the embroidery yourself," LWJ says unnecessarily, the fact that he's speaking the obvious more uncharacteristic than if he had burst into song.
"Of course I did! Who else does any work around here, ha?" WWX laughs and waves it off.
LWJ works harder for the Wens, and in his spare time follows WWX around.
What was at first unnerving quickly turns into WWX's favorite quirk. He holds a potato out behind him without looking as he shops, feeling it leave his hand as LWJ takes it.
"Pay the nice man, Lan Zhan!" WWX steps nimbly to the side and LWJ transfers the basket to his arm to pay without haggling. Ever since LWJ showed up the merchants have stopped working with WWX's budget and merely request full price firmly from LWJ, who gives it to them.
His purse hasn't run out yet.
"You shouldn't let them hassle you like that," WWX chides as they head for the gates of Yiling. "They're taking you for all you've got."
"I could buy Yiling," LWJ reminds serenely, "and still have enough for a toy for A-Yuan."
WWX laughs all the way to the Burial Mounds, LWJ's smug smile accompanying him.
When LWJ shows up at the ass-crack of dawn half dressed in only three layers, holding a white robe on one arm. WWX thinks his sleep-addled brain has finally gone insane.
"Well aren't you a vision. The great Hanguang-Jun showing up nearly naked to see me!" WWX enjoys the flush that rises on LWJ's ears.
The man holds out his robe.
"White isn't really my color," WWX hedges, seeing 'come back to Gusu with me' in every line of the robe draped over LWJ's forearm.
"Mn," LWJ agrees, "raising the dead notwithstanding."
WWX looks closely at him to make sure he's joking before throwing his head back and laughing outright. LWJ waits patiently as he laughs himself out.
Upon further consideration, the robe isn't LWJ's usual but instead one of his fancier white second layers. It's the one he wears with his formal lace exterior robe.
"Uh," WWX, the genius, says eloquently.
"The collar," LWJ explains patiently, holding it out further until WWX takes the robe in both arms and whole heartedly resists bringing it to his face to smell. He smoothes the collar in one hand and finds a strangely neat slice on the back of the neck. Like a sword has stabbed it from the front. He isn't sure what to make of it.
"What happened here?" WWX feels the edge of the slit, checks the material. It's a very surgical cut, hardly any fraying. Must be a Lan fabrics thing.
"A tear," LWJ gives WWX a look that says he felt the word was unnecessary.
"Ahaha Lan Zhan. I can see that!" WWX gives him the smile he deserves, which is a little cheeky and helplessly affectionate.
"You do all the embroidery," LWJ reminds, and WWX's entire body is electrified as if he'd been struck by Zidian. He splutters at LWJ, who continues to wait patiently for him to acknowledge.
"You want... a radish?" WWX's mouth asks, ahead of his brain, which is still comprehending that LWJ is asking him to fix his robe. Like- like his wife. His housewife.
LWJ shifts his weight to the other foot in what would be a shriek of indignation from someone even half as good as LWJ. He straightens his posture somehow, despite it having been perfect before.
"If that is what Wei Ying wants to embroider," he agrees, eyes challenging.
WWX feels that challenging glare in his gut. His lips curl into a playful terrible grin.
"This might take more than one radish to fix. Perhaps a row of radishes? Radish trim? Radish trim is traditional in the Burial Mounds."
LWJ's eyes narrow.
"Whatever Wei Ying wishes to embroider," he repeats purposefully slowly, calling WWX's bluff.
"Great! I'll be finished by the time you head to Jin Ling's one month celebration, we can settle the bill then." WWX smiles nastily at LWJ.
"Happy to pay up front," LWJ reaches purposefully toward the purse in his robe and WWX, finally at the end of his rope, shrieks and waves him off sharply.
"Obviously you won't be paying, Lan Zhan! Stop stop!! When did your face get so thick?! I'm supposed to be the shameless one here!" He makes a shooing motion with his fingers, waving LWJ out the cave entrance. "Go help Wen Qing. I need total concentration for a job as important as dressing the famous Hanguang-Jun!"
LWJ, smug, half-bows making WWX blow a raspberry in his direction as he turns to go. As he leaves he hears WWX call "They'll be the nicest radishes ever!" and LWJ's fist clenches.
Their time is spent comfortably. Whenever WWX isn't working on LWJ's embroidery, they are together. LWJ helps organize the settlement, takes over accounting from WQ (who practically cries when he says he's good with numbers) and helps WWX experiment with his talismans.
WWX finds doing any embroidery at all difficult. Almost impossible for the first week, like giving himself a deadline and promising the craftsmanship to LWJ has somehow put a roadblock down between him and finishing. He sits in his cave and stares at the white robe.
He can't put radishes on it, that was just a joke. But he isn't skilled enough at embroidering clouds. Pinwheels is too juvenile. Lotuses aren't right for LWJ.
WWX turns away from the robe and embroiders clouds on every available scrap fabric he has.
And then his last scrap of fabric that isn't the robe is the black strip of silk he's left on his workbench for who knows how long now.
He picks it up and smooths it between his fingers. He holds it up to his forehead and looks in the polished silver. He sees a slightly less dead man in a black ribbon. Thinks of LWJ, all full and strong and beautiful in his perfect white and blue. WWX is black and grey like the decaying dirt of the burial mounds. LWJ is white and blue like the perfect clear sky.
He takes grey embroidery thread from the pack LWJ gave him. He practices clouds along the black forehead ribbon, big enough that they aren't too crowded. They're hardly misshapen at all.
The grey clouds look like billowing smoke making a mockery of the sacred Lan Sects healthy fluffy clouds, maybe a mockery of the forehead ribbon itself and WWX throws his knock off disdainfully on his workbench and buries his face in his hands.
He breathes through the anger at the project, himself, at LWJ. Maybe even a little at the Wens for- for existing.
He hates himself for that anger and turns sharply away from it all, heading brutally toward the hidden stash of wine.
WN is already there, sitting quietly as he places himself between WWX and the wine.
"I don't sleep," he says when WWX asks why he's there. "And jie said not to let you drink all the wine before the feast."
"What feast?" WWX demands, anger making his skin prickle.
"Wei-gonzi and Lan-er-gonzi are going to Lanling in a week for the Jin heir's one month celebration."
"Already?!" Wei Wuxian demands, shocked and confused. Where had the month gone?
"Mm." WN smiles tightly, his face hardly moving, but his expression telegraphing easily.
WWX stands there for a moment, then moves to sit with WN.
"What do you think of Lan Zhan being here?" He asks, because he's a fool and maybe WN isn't as foolish.
"Lan-er-gonzi has been a great help," WN reassures WWX as though he had been looking for some kind of fault in LWJ's stay in the Burial Mounds. "And A-Yuan really likes him."
"Why is he here?" WWX asks, not expecting an answer.
"He's observing, isn't he?" WN looks innocently at WWX, "he had his own reason for coming, but he's staying because he noticed things he could do to help."
WWX knows the Wens have been better off since LWJ arrived, which makes sense since on top of being one of the best people in the world LWJ also buys food, bought them a couple goats, agricultural tools, and better fabrics for impending cold weather.
WWX notices the changes to the Burial Mounds with LWJ in residence.
"Do you still want the wine?" WN asks, and WWX sighs dramatically and turns him down.
He'll just get LWJ to buy him wine in Yiling.
LWJ notices that WWX looks better for his presence. He knows better than to mention it.
A day before they're meant to go to Lanling, LWJ appears in the entrance to the blood cave and looks expectantly at WWX while WWX wracks his brain for what LWJ wants.
Eventually he realizes LWJ is looking at his workbench.
"Oh! Your robe! Yes!" WWX's manic energy kicks into high gear and LWJ frowns as WWX flutters around the room, pushing talismans aside, nearly overturning stacks of cinnabar. "I did my best Lan Zhan!" He turns toward the privacy screen he doesn't bother using very much anymore, behind which LWJ's robe has been hanging. He asked for WQ's help (and the help of the ladies in Yiling) to know how to air it and get the creases out after he'd embroidered it... enough.
He finds himself nervous to show his attempt to LWJ.
LWJ doesn't follow him as he goes to fetch it.
Instead LWJ gravitates toward the workbench, where a strip of black silk is hanging off the side, held precariously down by a pile of forgotten inventions. He lifts it, sliding the silk from under the pile without disturbing the rest of the controlled chaos. He pulls it taut as he lifts so the rough pattern on one side resolves itself into clouds of smoke rolling across the forehead ribbon- because there's no mistaking it- ending in edges that have been finished by an unskilled hand.
LWJ carefully spreads the ribbon across both hands while WWX calls apologies from where he is doing last minute smoothing of LWJ's forgotten robe to sooth his own wrinkled composure. The sound doesn't make it to LWJ's ears, even WWX's chatter drowned out by the rushing of his blood in his body. LWJ reaches up and shakily removes his own forehead ribbon, draping it next to the rougher one WWX has.
The two of them lie in his palm, black and grey next to white and blue. Like a bright day and the darkest night.
"Oh." WWX is holding LWJ's robe, standing only steps away, staring at the ribbons in his hands. LWJ can almost feel WWX's manic energy becoming manic anxiety. "Lan Zhan- I swear- I don't mean any disrespect! I was- It just-"
"Who is this for?" LWJ asks, voice obeying him by force of indomitable will. His tone is deep, demanding. Hot instead of ice cold.
"What?" WWX is so lost, so confused. The tone sounds like the question surprises him. It's actually LWJ's tone that gives him pause. Like a sharp blade right between his shoulders.
"Who did you make this forehead ribbon for? Is it for-?" LWJ's hand clenches around both ribbons, holding them together crushed between his fingers. He looks sharply at WWX. He's never been more tense in his life. His eyes blaze. "Who is this for?"
"I don't know," WWX admits, something like intimidation swooping in his stomach. "At first- at first I thought it was for me." He smiles like it hurts, "but Lan Zhan it would- I thought of-" He laughs airily, shaky like the breath is having trouble coming out, "I embroidered the clouds thinking of you and- and I think it'd look better on you anyway."
They stand in silence.
A silence where WWX is questioning whether he's ruined perhaps the best thing in his life.
A silence where LWJ mentally screams and doesn't get past that point in the thought process.
A silence where WWX looks for a cue from LWJ and gets none.
"I'll burn it," WWX decides wretchedly. "I didn't mean to upset you Lan Zhan. Please. Give it to me, I'll burn it immediately."
"No!" LWJ hasn't yelled since he was a teenager. He and WWX are unsure who is more shocked by the development. LWJ holds both ribbons close to his chest, and Bichen rattles aggressively in its sheath.
Bichen has never rattled in his entire life.
"Lan Zhan-" WWX holds up his hands placatingly, resettling the white robe on his arm so it doesn't brush the ground. LWJ sees flashes of silvery grey at the collar. "Okay! Okay! I won't burn it!"
Another silence where LWJ continues to mentally scream and WWX starts- finally- putting the pieces together.
"Lan Zhan," he asks, deceptively calm, almost conversationally, "could it be that you... like the ribbon?"
LWJ's expression darkens even while WWX bursts into startled laughter.
"Oh Lan-er-gege!!!" He flounces forward and LWJ- once burned twice shy- pulls both forehead ribbons even closer to himself suspiciously. "I won't touch your ribbons, even though I made one of them! Does two mean you're twice as stuffy Lan Zhan? Didn't you once say the ribbon symbolizes control? Are you twice as controlled?"! He laughs.
He has no way of knowing LWJ is seconds away from becoming unhinged.
LWJ waits for WWX to stop laughing before he maintains eye contact with WWX while he puts the black ribbon in his mouth, holding it between his lips as he gathers his Lan forehead ribbon and- almost painfully- replaces it on his forehead.
WWX's mouth has gone dry, but he has to swallow or he'll asphyxiate. He squirms under the stare and swallows with visible effort, the line of his throat bobbing under LWJ's intensity.
LWJ reaches up and lets his thumb brush his lip as he takes the black ribbon in his fingers, the silk slithering into his hand.
"Uh," WWX says again, unsure why he feels so hot all over.
LWJ wraps the black ribbon around his wrist, knotting it eight times and pulling it taut with his teeth. He tugs once, extra hard, and hears WWX whimper. He holds up his naked forearm to show WWX the ribbon's new home.
"Uh," WWX says, because it's all that's left in his vocabulary.
"Only me," LWJ warns roughly. "No one else."
Luckily, WWX's brain kicks back in and he's fluent in LWJ's cryptic statements.
"You don't want me to make any more forehead ribbons?" He tries not to smile and fails. "Well well Lan Zhan! Claiming a personal token from this humble seamstress! I hope you're going to take responsibility!"
LWJ thinks about this for a moment, but before WWX can laugh it off he's nodding.
"Mn," he confirms, striding confidently into WWX's space and reaching up for his forehead ribbon. "A trade," he decides.
WWX yelps and grabs LWJ's wrist before he can loosen his forehead ribbon. He's going to say he was kidding, but LWJ's eyes narrow again and abruptly it is his wrist captured in a tight grip. LWJ squeezes lightly, and WWX's heart pounds harder at that. He fights the urge to surrender his weight to that grip. Fights the urge to move closer instead of shrinking away.
This silence is easier, at least WWX knows that instead of ruining whatever they have he's- done whatever this is to it. Whatever it is seems to be good, LWJ is still as intense as ever but now he seems happy about it and focusing all that tension on WWX himself. WWX smiles, breathing a sigh of relief. All he ever wanted was LWJ's attention.
LWJ's mental scream has quieted to a mental keening whine. He can feel the flow of qi in the universe. He is closer than ever to cultivating to immortality. He has Wei Wuxian's forehead ribbon around his wrist.
"I did embroider your robe," WWX mutters, embarrassed although he can't figure out why. "Not that you need it anymore."
"I want it." LWJ is reaching for the robe with his free hand already. WWX squirms out of reach, trying to pull out of LWJ's grip. LWJ has never been angrier about something so trivial in his life.
"Don't look that way Lan Zhan!" WWX whoops with laughter at whatever LWJ's face is doing- which is hopefully nothing but more likely scrunching into pure fury.
"It is my robe," LWJ inclines his head as he steps toward WWX again, backing him toward the wall of the cave as he continues to fail at escaping LWJ.
"Aiyo but I've modified it! And you did say we should trade? You have my forehead ribbon-" LWJ almost stumbles- "and I get to keep your robe!"
LWJ is so close to immortality he can taste it. His mouth is dry and wet, his skin is hot and prickling, he's aching in places he's not allowed to think about in public, his vision has contracted to WWX in front of him and nothing else.
"If you keep it, you must wear it," LWJ bargains. WWX hadn't thought he knew how to haggle, but as always he's delighted to be surprised by LWJ.
"So I can keep it if I wear it," WWX muses, then holds the robe farther away haughtily. "What if I want to wear it to Lanling for the one month celebration?"
He thinks he has LWJ there. LWJ will be so embarrassed.
LWJ's nose flares.
WWX didn't even know LWJ could flare his nostrils.
"Done." LWJ looks like he won their game of chicken and WWX can't help but realize he's played himself after the fact.
He's going to have to wear the hand-embroidered Gusu Lan white robe to Jin Ling's ceremony.
"Ahaha Lan Zhan-"
"It is done. The trade is complete." He inclines his chin magnanimously, as though he is the one doing WWX a favor, when in reality he has finally successfully beaten WWX into submission.
LWJ may not survive the one month celebration if he sees WWX proudly parading around in his robe.
He will take that chance.
"Ugh," WWX smiles at him, a heartbreakingly honest smile, a flash of the boy LWJ fell in love with shining through the half-mad frenetic energy that now swirls around WWX constantly. "Lan Zhan how are you even real?!" He huffs. "Well. Don't think you're getting a preview then! You can wait until tomorrow to mock my terrible embroidery skills!" He laughs it off and LWJ is dismayed to realize he desperately wants the preview he didn't know he was getting that he is now being denied.
He is still holding WWX's wrist.
WWX crashes into him instead of applying even the smallest amount of spiritual pressure to stop him.
Pressed against LWJ's chest, WWX looks almost frightened suddenly. As though he miscalculated.
LWJ wonders if his demonic cultivation has permanently damaged WWX's golden core.
"Let me go, Lan Zhan." WWX is no longer smiling, and LWJ does not release his wrist anyway. He pushes spiritual energy into WWX through their connection at his wrist to kickstart his golden core. WWX pulls with genuine effort to get away.
The spiritual power slides into WWX's body and-
The spiritual power drains away.
LWJ is so surprised that when WWX pushes him away he lets go of his wrist.
"Wei Ying-" he begins, but WWX's eyes have gone red, and fury is in every line of his body. LWJ has seen him like this before.
"Get out, Lan Wangji." WWX's whole body is tense, coiled like a snake ready to strike.
"Wei Ying." He tries again. Will try until he gets through to WWX. They can fix this. They have to be able to fix this. "We can fix this. I will help you."
"There is no going back, Lan Zhan," WWX hisses, but the sound of his given name gives LWJ hope.
"I will wait for you tomorrow morning to travel to Lanling," LWJ says, and starts to leave WWX to his shivering. He stops dead in his tracks. He's made this mistake before.
"Go, Lan Zhan." WWX is rooted in place, but his eyes are a soft grey again when LWJ looks.
"I won't," LWJ turns back to him, sees confusion and something else in WWX's gaze. "Not without you. Not again."
WWX's brain takes a moment to contextualize LWJ's words, then he exhales a painful laugh.
"You'd just stand there all night, wouldn't you?"
"Mn." LWJ knelt outside his mother's house for years. What is a night? What would a year be? What would ten years be?
"We'll go to Lanling together tomorrow Lan Zhan, but please. Don't- don't ask me to-"
"We do not have to go to Lanling." LWJ actually hates Lanling. Hates the Jin a bit. Hates them more for what they've driven WWX to.
"Yes we do Lan Zhan." WWX exhales. "If- if you promise not to ask me about-" he waves a hand toward himself, touches his wrist meaningfully.
LWJ waits him out.
"If you don't ask I promise to tell you. In my own time." WWX has never trusted someone so much in his life. He wrings his hands, not realizing it until LWJ's gaze darts down and then back up. WWX stops fidgeting.
"If you will tell me, I will not ask."
When LWJ leaves, WWX stumbles behind the privacy screen and crawls into his bed. He shakes under the threadbare covers and pulls the white robe over his body for extra warmth. He shivers under the robe on his uncomfortable bed. His mind is a mess of white noise.
He starts processing the words in the middle of the night. There's a covered tray of food someone left him at the mouth of the cave, but he ignores it, pacing back and forth, the robe held around him like a blanket.
I will wait for you LWJ had said. Not 'come back to Gusu' not 'oh god what happened'. He had said 'I will help you.' And he'd meant it.
WWX sits at his workbench, staring sightlessly into the middle distance.
"Wei-gonzi?" WN, bless him, carries the tray of food he hadn't touched and is standing back until WWX acknowledged him like approaching a feral animal.
"Wen Ning." WWX forces a smile, but WN shakes his head once. The smile drops. "Ah, I'm not hungry."
"Jie will be angry if you don't eat. Especially before such a dangerous trip." WN brings the tray closer, then places it on the workbench at a precarious angle. The stack of talismans under the tray collapses and WWX dove to catch the food before it was wasted.
Which meant the food was in his hands. As WN had intended.
"Fine fine, if only to spare my poor workbench!" WWX eats quickly under WN's supervision.
"I think- I think I should go with you," WN blurts. "I-It's not that I don't trust Lan-er-gonzi b- but-"
"No no I know you trust Lan Zhan." WWX had stopped eating, replaying LWJ's words in his mind over and over again. "I do too. Who wouldn't?" He put the rest of the tray aside, the food having no flavor. He never thought he'd be sorry to be unable to taste radish soup. With LWJ's money it wasn't only radish soup anymore, but WQ still used the vegetables they grow themselves more times than not.
"Lanling is- is a viper's nest." WN's cold hands clench. "It feels like- like a trap."
"It does, doesn't it." WWX agrees. He hadn't looked at that particular fact too closely, too overjoyed to even be invited to Jin Ling's celebration, but having LWJ there was a subtle but unmissable reminder day in and day out that though they had been invited, the cultivation world still stood apart. Unsullied by the resentment of the Burial Mounds. White robed and pristine.
"You can escort us as far as Qionqi Pass, but it won't be safe for you in Lanling." WWX smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes.
"It will not be safe for you in Lanling," WN points out almost petulantly.
"No I guess it won't." WWX pats him on the shoulder and they spend the rest of the night working on talismans.
LWJ has never been more excited about clothes in his life. He waits outside the cave with his arm folded behind him and Bichen clenched in his grip. He maintains control and doesn't stare at the cave entrance. He looks at the sky. The crops. The goats. The embroidery on A-Yuan's little robes as the boy holds his leg.
"Xian-gege!" A-Yuan perks up and LWJ plays it super cool, taking a quick breath before turning to look.
WWX is wearing the white robe as a second layer, the one on top is grey and translucent, embroidered with- white radishes and lighter grey skulls. LWJ almost laughs. The embroidery is the only opaque part of the robe and it's somehow understated and ostentatious at once.
LWJ might be in love.
Underneath, the white robe has been tied into arm bracers so WWX will have more ease of movement. The Gusu style isn't quite right for him, and the slight but meaningful modifications he's made don't hide the fact that they are Gusu Lan robes he's wearing.
LWJ might faint.
As he gets closer, the light catches on the robe through the sheer outer layer and thin silvery lines representing water paint flowing curved lines down the collar, bursting into swirling mist at the bottom hem.
He looks like a walking waterfall when the light hits the shimmering threads just right. There's blue in there too. Blue and grey and white and a little bit of red under the back collar, like there's something on the inside that isn't quite a waterfall but isn't skulls or radishes either. LWJ isn't sure how he pulled that off.
LWJ wants to bite him. Rip him open and see what's inside for himself.
"Regretting that trade yet, Lan Zhan?" WWX is still grinning but it's tight, as though he isn't sure how LWJ will act after the night before.
LWJ remembers he has two forehead ribbons now. He might need them both.
"Mn. The workmanship is excellent. I will have to trade Wei Ying something else and reclaim the robe."
He wants those robes. He wants them off WWX and on the floor of the Jingshi. Wants WWX holding onto the headboard and begging LWJ to give him his forehead ribbon. Wants him begging begging begging for LWJ.
LWJ wants a lot of things. He knew that already.
"We should go," he says when WWX stands there preening.
WWX insists they stop in Yiling, where he goes straight to the seamstresses who taught him embroidery to show off.
They critique his work and LWJ almost loses his temper at a bunch of aunties and feels desperately badly about it. He angrily insists the workmanship is exquisite and WWX just has to stand there while LWJ's own Gusu robes are abruptly under scrutiny.
They are the literal best robes possible in Caiyi with hand embroidery stitched by masters of their craft and LWJ is suddenly less offended when the ladies pronounce his own robe mediocre at best. They praise WWX's robes as vastly superior and LWJ finds himself heartily agreeing with them, which pleases them excessively.
As they're leaving, one of the aunties tuts at him. She points to his wrist, smarter than to reach for it herself. He obediently pushes the sleeve back to show the black ribbon.
"Ah ha!" The oldest of the women crows loudly and the others all cluster around LWJ. "So that's why that silk was so special to him. A token for his cultivation partner!" They all rabble around him and LWJ is too floored by 'cultivation partner' to do anything other than stand there and take it.
"You're lucky Lan-gonzi," one of the other women tells him conspiratorially, "you almost had a ribbon embroidered with radishes!"
They bring out the shoddy first-radish and LWJ can only then comprehend how much work has gone into what he wears.
He is going to bite WWX. The desire is no longer a fantasy, but an inevitability.
"Thank you for showing me," he tells the ladies. "I will have Wei Ying embroider all my robes from now on."
He leaves to a chorus of shrieking laughter, and WWX looks at him as though he hung the moon.
"How did you do that?!" He nudges LWJ lightly, impressed. "They dislike everyone! And they don't even laugh at my jokes!"
"Maybe Wei Ying simply isn't very funny," LWJ says, floating in the clouds on his forehead ribbons.
WWX barks a surprised laugh and LWJ flies even higher.
Qionqi Way is a trap. LWJ should have known.
He tries to tell WWX that he didn't know, but WWX's anger is deep and vicious and he doesn't hear the words. He calls forth the souls of the dead, ripping through Jin Zixun's forces with the ease of the man who won them the war.
WN had just been ready to turn back, but he defends WWX savagely while LWJ works his way toward Jin Zixun to cut the snake off at the head.
Jin Zixuan shows up, and WWX is lost in his rage. WN goes straight for him.
LWJ is smart. And fast. Arguably the strongest cultivator in Gusu Lan. But he is halfway across the battlefield. He sees WWX's horror as WN's inhuman hand goes straight for Jin Zixuan's chest.
The Chord Assassination technique rings out over the battlefield, mowing Jin forces and WN down in the process. LWJ didn't even realize he had summoned Wangji.
The men stay down.
WN does not.
LWJ and WWX run over to Jin Zixuan's prone body. The man has been struck by LWJ's attack.
LWJ is usually smart. That... was not smart. But LWJ is also fortunate. Lucky, he'll admit years later. So very very lucky.
"Wrap him in my robe!" WWX is already yanking his beautiful waterfall Gusu robes off. "Lan Zhan! Now!" He's shaking, the resentment making him manic, like a relapse into aggression. He shoves the robe too hard at LWJ.
Without hesitation LWJ obeys, throwing the beautiful robe to the ground over Jin Zixuan's too still body.
"We have to get him to Lanling." At WN's soft stuttering, WWX grabs his friend by the shoulders. "I have to answer for this Wen Ning."
"I struck him," LWJ reminds harshly.
"For me, Lan Zhan! Don't think I don't know it was for me!" WWX is yelling, the panic in him eclipsing even his genius intellect.
"Of course it was for Wei Ying," LWJ hears himself snap back. "Wei Ying could not have lived with himself if he cost his Shijie's husband's life!"
WWX is struck dumb. He shakes as LWJ bundles Jin Zixuan into the robe and lifts him.
"I will go to Lanling by sword." LWJ is ready for anything. "Come and meet me."
"You still want me to-"
"I did this for Wei Ying," LWJ says brutally, and WWX cringes away from the truth. "Take responsibility."
WWX isn't sure if he's joking.
Still isn't sure as he flies away on Bichen, leaving WWX alone with WN in a field of bodies.
It isn't WWX's first time alone in a field of bodies, but he still spares a moment to wonder if he should be more traumatized.
WN picks up Jin Zixun's body and carries him toward Lanling.
LWJ arrives at Lanling and Jin Zixuan is immediately taken away. LWJ is rooted in place at the top of the stairs of Koi Tower, staring back the way he came.
When asked, LWJ says Jin Zixun tried to stage a murder and LWJ and WWX intervened.
He is almost surprised when WN and WWX arrive. They have a grim set to their eyebrows and WWX's hand is clenched around Chenqing. When he sees LWJ there's relief and trepidation in his eyes.
Jin Guangshan has already decided WWX is guilty, even though Jin Zixuan hasn't died yet.
WWX doesn't look like he'll go down without a fight, at least not until he looks at LWJ. Then he nearly cowers, if WWX were capable of that.
LWJ wants him to fight. Wants him to fight LWJ and then surrender when LWJ wins. LWJ wants to pin him down until he admits all he ever wanted was to submit to LWJ for judgement.
And then LWJ will judge him to be perfect and kiss him.
"Lan Zhan-" Jin Zixun is taken from WWX's arms, and all the Jin and Lan disciples look a mixture of scared and awestruck. WN hangs back nervously.
"I told them the truth: I struck the blow to Jin Zixuan. Jin Zixun staged the ambush and attempted murder." LWJ has not lied. That is what Jin Zixun did. He just intended to murder a different target.
The man isn't alive to defend himself. Good riddance.
"Lan Zhan! You shouldn't have said that!" WWX shakes his head, "even if I didn't strike the peacock it wasn't- you weren't- you were protecting me!"
"So that's the truth," an annoyed voice snaps behind LWJ. JC walks up, scowling at WWX. "So Lan Wangji protected you, Jin Zixun and Jin Zixuan were caught in the crossfire, and now Jin Guangshan's blaming you? Can you ever be not a pain in the ass Wei Wuxian?!"
"It's my fault, Jiang Cheng. You can't let the Jin blame Lan Zhan for this!"
"Tch, what do I care if they blame him?" Jiang Cheng gives LWJ a dry look, "he doesn't look sorry at all."
LWJ nods once. He isn't sorry. He'd kill a thousand Jin Zixuns just for another day of wearing WWX's forehead ribbon.
"There you go." JC rolls his eyes. "Let him take the fall! He wants it!"
"I accept responsibility," LWJ disagrees serenely, picturing his own forehead ribbon binding both WWX's wrists.
"Lan Zhan!" WWX looks helplessly between the two of them, but luckily for once LWJ and JC are absolutely in agreement. "Jiang Cheng you have to speak up for me!"
"Who does?!" JC scoffs. "You ditched Yunmeng Jiang to form your own sect. I don't owe you anything!"
"Ditched!?" WWX is outraged. "I did it for Yunmeng Jiang!"
They're about to start bickering. LWJ remembers Cloud Recesses. He remembers how bad they were then.
"A-Xian! A-Cheng!" Their sister- carrying the baby- comes rushing out of the main pavilion, her mother-in-law chasing her nervously. When she sees the three of them Madame Jin hesitates, then storms forward in Jiang Yanli's wake.
"Shijie I'm so-" WWX begins, immediately throwing everything he is into an apology... that she ignores.
"Thank you, Lan-er-gonzi," she says sharply, cutting WWX off. "If your robe hadn't been on A-Xuan... he wouldn't have survived the trip. Those sigils stitched into the hem staunched the bleeding even before you arrived. Regardless of what happened- you saved his life." She almost bows, but LWJ is already grabbing WWX by the wrist and yanking him forward.
"Wei Ying did the embroidery," he says, feeling as though he has been waiting to make this winning move to the game for literal years.
"Wait what?!" JC stomps up next to his siblings, looking sharply between them, "I thought those charms were Lan medical cultivation!"
"Ah-haha..." WWX looks sheepishly at LWJ, who is staring at him with a newfound appreciation. He will not rip the robes off WWX. He will gently, tenderly strip him down to his skin. Will lick every bit of him. Will show respect to these artisanal robes. And then deeper respect to the artist.
"A-Xian?" JYL thinks for a moment, then reaches into Jin Ling's swaddling, pulling out the three lotuses poorly embroidered. The fabric is a bit stained, not having survived a baby for very long, but when he sees it, Jin Ling's little hand reaches, curling around it and crumpling it to his mouth. "I should have known." She smiles so gently, so gratefully that WWX forgets to breathe. "Thank you for saving him."
WWX is about to play it off, laugh and dismiss her gratitude. LWJ can tell. He tugs WWX by the wrist, shocking him into silence.
"Jin Guangshan will try to pin the incident on Wei Ying," he tells them, then realizes Madame Jin has been there the whole time.
But she's already nodding.
"If Wei Wuxian is the one who saved my son, I will pay my debt to him," she tells the Jiangs instead of LWJ or WWX himself. "Don't worry about my fool of a husband. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji will be thanked for their service to the Jin." Her eyes blaze at LWJ, and he is very very happy to have her on their side of the coming internal war. He and WWX bow politely and thank her.
"You're half naked," JC says after Madame Jin has hustled away.
"Well I did have to give up my robe to that damn peacock," WWX's adrenaline high is fading, leaving him strung out. LWJ can tell.
And apparently so can the Jiangs.
"Tch. You look ridiculous in that weird skull robe- are- are those radishes?!" JC can't decide between anger and embarrassment. "Wait. Wait. Lan Wangji said you did the embroidery. Did you make those stupid robes?!"
And then WWX faints. As if the embarrassment was too much for him finally.
But he faints into LWJ's arms, so it isn't a total loss.
In the resulting pandemonium, LWJ, JYL and JC are abruptly made aware that WWX's golden core has apparently vanished completely. The doctors theorize the resentful energy ate it.
JC has another theory that he doesn't share, just sitting by WWX's bedside stone still, eyes wide, a hand over his own golden core.
LWJ won't leave WWX's side, and when the doctors (and JYL) try to coax him out, he pushes his sleeve back and aggressively displays the black ribbon around his wrist.
They let him stay with WWX after that.
And that's all LWJ ever wanted.