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Obedient and Bellicose

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It took a long while for Lan Wangji to realize that he was cursed. Maybe he should have realized sooner. Anyone else would have. Anyone but him. The reason it took him so long, took him years, was that Lan Wangji liked following the rules. He’d been called many things for it: diligent by his teachers, boring by his peers, the perfect disciple by elders who looked at him with just enough approval to make the other disciples despise him. He didn’t know why he liked following the rules. Perhaps he got it from Shufu because, according to everything anyone told him about his parents, he hadn’t gotten it from them. Xichen certainly wasn’t like that. He followed the rules, yes, but not so diligently, not so stringently. Lan Wangji had heard some older disciples once joke that he was secretly Shufu’s child since they were so much alike, but when he’d asked his uncle, he’d just rolled his eyes and said those disciples didn’t know what they were talking about.

Still, it made Lan Wangji feel left out, that he followed the rules so well. It shouldn’t have, seeing as their Sect was known for their rules, but Lan Wangji knew he was different, he didn’t struggle like everyone else in his agegroup. Lan Wangji saw the other children misbehave and never felt the urge to do the same, not even a little bit. Why would he want to be in trouble like they were, beaten with wooden rods or made to write lines until their hands cramped, when he could simply do as he was told? And never mind the punishment, why would be disobey when he always got a cool rush of satisfaction when someone told him to do something and he obeyed? Why would he trade the warmth in his chest for punishment and the disappointment of his elders?

“Sit up straight,” they said to Lan Wangji, who had fixed his posture before they’d even finished speaking.

“Do not speak during class,” they told Lan Wangji, who preferred not to chatter like his classmates.

“Keep your robes clean,” they commanded Lan Wangji, who despised being dirty.

Do not run in Cloud Recesses. Do not sit in an undignified manner. Do not eat more than three bowls. Be kind to animals. Be diligent in your studies. Respect your elders.

The rules went on and so did Lan Wangji, following them dutifully, happily, easily.

Because of this, he didn’t notice the curse until he was eight years old.

One evening on his way to his qin lesson, Lan Wangji, severe and quiet and boring as they called him, had found a little bunny shivering in the snow. He was nearly late for his lesson, hurrying but not running, but he stopped anyway to make sure the bunny was okay, having never seen one so little by itself before, especially not out in the cold. The tiny thing seemed uninjured, just scared and alone, so Lan Wangji waited with it for a while to see if its mother might come along to collect it before a fox happened upon it. He wasn’t quite sure how long he crouched there in the snow, long enough for his toes to fall asleep in his boots, long enough for the sun to have set behind the mountain, long enough for his lesson to have come and gone. Once the sun had set completely, Lan Wangji resolved to take the rabbit with him for the night, lest it freeze to death. He would carry it tomorrow to the back mountain where he knew there were more rabbits, hopefully returning it to its mother. He wasn’t technically breaking a rule since he wasn’t keeping it as a pet, just caring for it for the night. Kindness to animals was a rule anyway, so surely he was following their precepts like he should.

He felt almost proud of himself as he bundled the little thing to his chest and took it to his room to feed and get warm.

He was found with the little rabbit just before curfew when his teacher came to inquire why he had missed his lesson. The teacher took one glance at the white ball of fluff he had cradled in his lap before sneering and snapping a stern finger in the direction of the door.

“Lan Zhan, take that dirty thing outside and leave it there,” he barked. “I know you know that pets are forbidden.”

No, Lan Wangji wanted to say, but, as if someone else had taken ahold of his body, he stood to his feet and made his way outside. His heart raced as he tried to stay his hands, to keep the rabbit close to his chest, but he placed it onto the snow instead and turned back inside, horrified, shaking with all that was in him as the bunny started shivering again once it was deposited in the snow.

“Do not bring it back in here,” the teacher demanded once Lan Wangji was back in the room. “Get in bed and don’t move until the morning bell has rung as punishment.”

And then he was gone in a swish of pale blue.

Lan Wangji’s chest was tight as he obeyed, not even able to disrobe or take off his forehead ribbon. He didn’t know what was happening, he just knew that he couldn't’ stop himself from climbing on top of the covers and lying perfectly still. He found that he couldn’t even reach a hand up to move his hair when it fell and tickled his neck.

Lan Wangji spent the rest of the night trapped in his bed, terrified and unable to move. He wished someone would come in, his brother to fetch him for dinner or Shufu to tuck him in even though he hadn’t done that since Lan Wangji was very young, but he was left alone all night. It was cold, but he couldn't move to get under his blanket.

It was Shufu who found him like that the next morning just before the morning bell chimed, still awake, tears seeping into his hair, though he couldn’t move to wipe them. He was trembling, he ached from trembling all night long, but he lay there still.

Shufu froze when he caught sight of him there, Lan Wangji could see that much from the corner of his eye, and it just made him cry harder that he couldn’t turn his head to look at him, couldn’t open his mouth to ask for help or reach out for him.

“Zhan-er,” Shufu breathed as he stepped fully into the room. “What’s wrong?”

If he hadn’t already been crying, he would have started then, from relief though, rather than frustration and fear. He still wasn’t able to move, but Shufu was here now, and he would help.

Shufu dropped to Lan Wangji’s side immediately and pulled him into his arms, but Lan Wangji still couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t hold him back. The morning bell hadn’t rung yet.

“Zhan-er, tell me what’s wrong.”

The fresh command zinged through Lan Wangji and he opened his mouth to speak only for the morning bell to chime. One moment he was frozen there, and the next, he was able to scramble to his knees and throw himself at Shufu’s chest as he sobbed. Shufu pulled him close, and Lan Wangji squirmed against him, moving all of him now that he could as he clung to his uncle, wiggling his toes and wiping his tears and gripping the back of Shufu’s robe as tightly as he could.

He cried until he hurt with it, until he couldn’t breathe and felt like he was going to throw up as Shufu rubbed a soothing hand over his back and rumbled comforts into his ear. Once he had calmed down enough to be able to breathe again, Lan Wangji told Shufu about what had happened around hitching breaths, how he hadn’t been able to say no, how he couldn’t move all night, how he’d been so scared. Shufu grew very still against him, and before Lan Wangji had even finished, he began shaking like Lan Wangji was, though Lan Wangji didn’t know if it was because he was scared like he was himself or if he was angry.

“I need to speak to the Elders,” Shufu said in a tight voice once Lan Wangji had finished and returned to just trembling in the comfort of his uncle’s arms. Shufu was angry, Lan Wangji could tell from the tone of his voice, he just didn’t know who he was angry at. “Let’s go find your brother. I want you to stay with him. I am dismissing you both from classes for today.”

Shufu carried him to Xichen’s room instead of making him walk like usual, but Lan Wangji didn’t mind. He was still scared from what had happened and shaking. He wasn’t sure that his legs could hold him up if he tried to walk anyway.

He started crying again when Xichen wrapped him up in his arms. Shufu told him what had happened as Lan Wangji cried into his robes, and then he left Lan Wangji in his brother’s company so he could talk to the elders. Lan Wangji could see how Shufu’s hands were shaking as he stormed out of his room.

They stayed there for most of the morning. Xichen let Lan Wangji sit in his lap even though he was too old for that, and tried his best to distract him from his trembling. After lunch, Xichen held his hand as they went to see if they could find the bunny and take it to the back hills. It took a long while, but eventually they found it, still near Lan Wangji’s room, trembling in a thicket of dead branches. Lan Wangji cried again at the thought that it had been all by itself out here all night in the cold, and he tried to keep it as warm as possible cradled to his chest as he and Xichen made their way to the back hill.

Shufu didn’t return until later than evening. Lan Wangji and Xichen were finishing up their dinner when Shufu stormed in, his hands still shaking like they had been when he’d left. His eyes were red and his mouth was turned down in a frown but he was very gentle as he gathered Lan Wangji into his lap and held him close like he was afraid he was going to disappear. Xichen sat at their side as Shufu told them of a curse, a terrible curse that he’d never seen used but had read about once in the hidden chamber of the library. Though he had known of the curse before, he hadn’t known that the Elders had decided to place it on Lan Wangji when he had been a baby.

“I demanded that they remove it,” he said, squeezing Lan Wangji to his chest, “but it can only be removed by the caster, and they refused to reveal exactly which one of them performed the curse.”

He was still shaking, so Lan Wangji, resting his head on Shufu’s shoulder, patted him on the hand, hoping to comfort him.

“Why Didi?” Xichen asked, holding one of Lan Wangji’s hands in his own. “Why not me?”

“I like following the rules,” Lan Wangji said before Shufu could answer. “I don’t mind.”

That was a lie, though. Lying was against the rules, but Shufu didn’t scold him. He just took a deep breath and pulled Lan Wangji away from his chest so he could look him in the eye.

“You should mind. This is a terrible thing the Elders have done. And I promise you I will find a way to get this curse off of you if it is the last thing I do.”

Shufu and Xichen kept him close over the next couple of days, but eventually, they had to return to normal life if for no other reason than that they didn’t want to draw any attention to them, lest someone look too hard and notice something amiss. Lan Wangji returned to classes with a new sense of terror, but for the most part, they happened how they always had. He liked following the rules, so he wasn’t often trapped in a command like he had been that night.

Then one morning, without warning, Shufu woke Lan Zhan up when he wasn’t supposed to have any lessons. He seemed anxious about something.

“Zhan-er, get—” Shufu stopped himself before he finished the command, remembering the curse. He took a deep, angry breath before continuing. “Would you please get ready. We are going to see your father.”

Lan Wangji wouldn't necessarily have been affected by the curse since he would have followed his uncle’s direction anyway, but he appreciated the thought. Then, he realized what Shufu had said.

Fuqin?”

“There’s nothing I can do about the curse because I’m not the Sect Leader, but he might be able to convince them. Or at least override this decision.”

Lan Wangji was equal parts scared and excited to see his father. He hadn’t seen him in so long, he barely remembered him at all. The last time must have been his mother’s funeral, though even then, he hadn’t spoken, just stood solemnly to pay what respects he was allowed before slinking back to his seclusion. Lan Wangji had been so clouded in his own overwhelming grief that he hadn’t paid much attention to the thin, wistless man who wept with Xichen’s eyes and wore the ribbon of an inner clan member. He hadn’t actually known that it was his father until later when Shufu had grumbled about how he wouldn’t even stay long enough to check on his own sons and Lan Wangji realized he was talking about them.

His father didn’t look much better now. In fact, though his memory was shaky, he almost looked worse. According to Shufu, he had once been tall and strong, the most formidable cultivator in their Sect, in all the Sects really, rumored to be well on his way to cultivating immortality. But he’d lost it all once he’d locked himself away in seclusion. He stopped cultivating, stopped training and meditating and trying to improve himself, nearly stopped eating. Shufu said that if he hadn’t been such a strong cultivator, he would have already wasted away.

For some reason, Lan Wangji expected Fuqin’s home to be the same as his mother’s had been, but really, it was less of a home and more a barren cell. There were windows casting the stark afternoon sun around the sparse room, over the low table with tea prepared for one cup, over the simple bamboo mat on the floor and the guqin lying in abandonment in the corner, covered in dust save for a slight smear like someone had traced their fingers slightly over the wood. Where his mother’s prison had been made a home by her own efforts, Lan Wangji’s father’s home seemed to have been made into a prison by his. Lan Wangji didn’t know why that made him angry, but it did. He wondered if his father had ever loved his mother as much as Lan Wangji did. This wasn’t love, this was self-flagellation. Lan Wangji’s mother bore her entrapment with grace and how did Lan Wangji’s father bear his own self-seclusion?

Lan Wangji put it to the back of his mind to contemplate later lest he bring himself to rage or tears one.

“I have interrupted your seclusion today to beseech you on behalf of your son, Lan Zhan,” Shufu said once they were seated across the low table from Fuqin.

Fuqin’s eyes darted briefly to Lan Wangji and then moved away again. He didn’t offer them tea, but that may have been because he only had one cup.

He inclined his head to Shufu for him to continue but didn’t speak, which seemed to cause Shufu some annoyance if the purse of his lips was any indication.

“This is a delicate subject, but I recently discovered that the elders took it upon themselves to cast a curse on your son, one of obedience. Lan Zhan is incapable of refusing demands once they are given to him. I went to them demanding they remove it, but they insisted that it was for his own good.”

Lan Wangji watched his father’s face closely for any reaction, but there wasn’t so much as a twitch.

“What do you expect me to do about this?”

Shufu blinked at his brother, drawing his posture up straighter.

“What do you mean?”

Fuqin, like some sort of mirror that only showed a false reflection, an opposite reflection, stayed in his same hunched posture, his thin shoulders pulled close like a protection.

“Is there anything I can do about it?” Fuqin asked. “It seems that they’ve already made up their minds.”

Shufu’s hands clenched into fists where they rested on his knees, so Lan Wangji did the same, clenched his own fists. He watched with a timid curiosity as red seeped into Shufu’s cheeks the same way Fuqin’s own face remained blank and pale.

“They cursed him,” Shufu said, his tone raising just enough that Lan Wangji would almost consider it a shout. “You’re just going to let them get away with it? Do you feel nothing for your own child?”

Fuqin remained silent, keeping his slumped posture still, eyes averted.

Shufu continued in his agitated tone, “I can’t do anything because I’m not the Sect Leader, but you can fix this. Lan Zhan doesn’t deserve this. Please, Xiongzhang I’m begging you.”

True to his word, Shufu begged with his whole body, bowing low to the floor, his posture in perfect supplication. Lan Wangji wondered if he should do the same, but since Shufu hadn’t asked him to, he remained as he was.

“Cursed with obedience?” Fuqin asked in a soft voice, raspy from disuse and so unfamiliar to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji nodded since Shufu was still in his kowtow.

“Good,” Fuqin continued, causing Shufu’s head to snap up. “May he never know my grief, then.”

Lan Wangji had never seen his uncle engage in any type of physical violence before. Shufu didn’t even spar like most of the other disciples, so he was duly stunned when Shufu lunged across the table to punch Lan Wangji’s father in his sharp jaw.

Fuqin, gaunt, emancipated, ruined by years and years of grief, crumpled under his own brother's fist, flailing backwards into the floor with a startled exclamation. When he glanced up after catching himself on his elbows, his nose was already dripping red.

“You aren’t my brother,” Shufu seethed as Lan Wangji’s father tried and failed to sit himself back up. His skinny arm trembled beneath him, but Shufu didn’t move to help him, so neither did Lan Wangji. Besides, Lan Wangji wasn’t sure he wanted to touch this man who was supposedly his father. He was scared to turn him into something tangible, something into flesh and bones that Lan Wangji could feel rather than just look upon in terrified curiosity.

“Qiren—”

But he was interrupted, yet another rule Shufu had broken since they arrived.

“Lan Bairong died years ago. You aren’t my brother, you’re a demon feasting on what remains of my brother’s flesh until it withers to nothing.”

Shufu spit on the floor and then reached out for Lan Wangji’s hand.

“Let’s go, Zhan-er, before this monster tries to ruin us as well.”

When Lan Wangji took Shufu’s hand, it was trembling, but it matched his own shaking.

Fuqin was still sprawled on the floor when they left.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Shufu said once they were out of sight of Fuqin’s home, “I shouldn’t have brought you. I just thought if he could see you—” his hand cupped Lan Wangji’s cheek, “—he would realize how precious you are. How much you’re worth protecting.”

Lan Wangji didn’t feel resentment towards his father for refusing Shufu’s request, at least, not resentment like Shufu felt. Maybe he should have, but all he felt was mild discomfort that the skeleton in that house had been his father, that that was the great Sect Leader Lan of whom people spoke with such reverence, such pity. Lan Wangji didn’t pity that man. He didn’t despise him either, or love him. He felt nothing.

Shufu was angry, though, and after their encounter, he locked himself in the library for days searching for something to break the curse. Unsuccessfully, of course, they were never successful, no matter how many tomes they tore through.

And still, life went on.

It took Lan Wangji a while to find the limits of the curse because subjecting himself to it, trying to fight it but lacking the ability, frightened him. Being forced to do something against his will made his hands shake and his heart tremble, but eventually, as the years went on and the commands grew, Lan Wangji teased out the boundaries to his prison. He knew what happened when he obeyed: he got a thrill of cool satisfaction zinging down his spine, though he wasn’t sure if that was because of the curse or that he enjoyed following the rules. He couldn’t disobey. When he was given a command, he couldn’t even try to fight it. It would zing down his spine and he would be forced to complete it, he tried his best, but he could only ever delay it at best. Sometimes, he could deliberately misinterpret the command, but Lan elders had a nasty habit of being direct and specific, probably from years of young students trying to worm their way around the rules.

It seemed that no other than the elders who had placed him under the curse and his brother and uncle ever figured out that he was forced to obey. He secretly sent up prayers of thanks that he was a naturally obedient child in the first place. Comments about how he was diligent and stuck up and obedient came as relief now instead of filling him with a curling shame at being different. At least being different kept him safe.

He was still given commands, of course, but under the watchful eye of Shufu and Xichen, they worked their way around them, and, as he grew older, those commands became fewer until he almost felt like he had control of the curse. His brother, Shufu, and he still studied diligently in search of a way to break the curse, but until that day came, Lan Wangji was confident that he would be able to hide it from anyone who might abuse it and keep a sense of autonomy even as his spine straightened under every new command.

And then disciples from the other Sects visited.

At first, Wei Wuxian hadn’t made any more of an impression than any of the other Jiang disciples. They were all in shades of plum and violet, more familiar with each other than Lan disciples let themselves be in public, and loud. Lan Wangji heard them even from a distance. He’d approached and explained the rules, expecting to be met with understanding. They were guests, weren’t they? He was less than pleased to meet resistance, especially from the tall disciple with pretty eyes and a mischievous curl to his grin that Lan Wangji had learned how to recognize once he’d been instated as head of discipline. The disciple, who introduced himself as Wei Wuxian, started arguing in the same breath he’d said his greeting, beseeching Lan Wangji in a less-than-respectful tone to let them through the gates, even against the rules.

Lan Wangji deigned to ignore him, but Wei Wuxian had apparently taken offence to Lan Wangji turning his back to him because he shouted out, “You can’t just ignore me! Turn back around and face me!”

Lan Wangji’s already straight posture was jolted as he spun back around in a swirl of robes, trying to keep a mask on the rage that bubbled just under his skin. He met Wei Wuxian’s eyes with a fire that he wasn’t sure he could contain. How dare this disciple order him around, him, the Second Jade of Lan, Lan Wangji. Who did he think he was?

“That’s better,” Wei Wuxian said followed by an infuriating wink. “Now, can’t you just let us in?”

“No.”

He turned his back again and disappeared to the sound of Wei Wuxian’s muffled, offended noises. He was perhaps hasty in his use of the silencing spell, but his heart raced at the command and fear of any more he might encounter before he could compose himself. His fingertips tingled from the spell.

He didn’t see Wei Wuxian again until they met on the roof under the full moon that night, Lan Wangji still stinging from his own rudeness at the gates and Wei Wuxian trying to sneak in alcohol. Though sneak might have been too generous of a word seeing as he didn’t seem to even be trying to hide it. Lan Wangji was normally irked by those who disobeyed the rules, but Wei Wuxian was blatant and unapologetic enough about it to make his blood boil.

Lan Wangji drew his sword in record time, and he was thankful that it was past curfew so no one else was around to see him act so impulsively. Something about Wei Wuxian made him angry, jealous, resentful. His cocky smile as he popped the cap off his bottle of Emperor’s Smile made Lan Wangji want to punish him, made want to force Wei Wuxian to obey, made Lan Wangji want to break every rule ever forced on him by his Sect like Wei Wuxian seemed intent on doing. It was frightening, it was electrifying.

“Fight me!” Wei Wuxian demanded with a laugh, drawing his own sword. “Fight me like you mean it!”

Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what made his pulse thrill, the command or the realization that he had been planning on fighting with or without the command. His chest beat with his heart as he drew his sword and lunged, terrified that he was going to cut Wei Wuxian down right here, and thrilled that his sword met the other’s in such a satisfying clash of metal that his breath caught in his chest.

Their fight was exhilarating, ending with their swords crossed, both of them heaving with exertion, both bottles of wine smashed to the courtyard below, seeping into the ground. Though he hadn’t had anything to drink, Lan Wangji felt drunk, drunk on the moon, drunk on their fight and the sweat beading on Wei Wuxian’s upper lip. He had the brief maddening thought that he’d like to taste it on his tongue, but that thought was pushed away when Wei Wuxian opened his mouth.

“Wait,” he called out with a laugh. “Stop fighting, Lan Er-Gonzi. We’re so evenly matched that I fear we could spar for the next hundred years and neither of us could best the other.”

Wei Wuxian pulled back to sheathe his sword and Lan Wangji followed suit, no longer trapped in the command to fight, now captivated by an entirely different source, Wei Wuxian’s smile.

“You must be punished,” Lan Wangji blurted out before he could do something like grab Wei Wuxian by the waist and press his nose against the line of his throat to feel the way his breaths still heaved with exertion.

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to protest, but Lan Wangji silenced him before any more commands could spill from his lips.

He fell asleep to thoughts of Wei Wuxian’s sword gleaming in the moonlight.

Usually, Lan Wangji cut such an intimidating and strict figure that disciples his age would never directly order him to do something, but Wei Wuxian seemed to have been cut from different cloth. As the days turned to weeks turned to months, Lan Wangji discovered that Wei Wuxain spewed commands like a waterfall, like a monsoon, like a hailstorm. Most of them were spoken like a jest, but they straightened Lan Wangji’s spine anyway. It should have frightened him, and in a way, it did, the idea that Wei Wuxian might know his secret, that he would be able to command him to do anything, but it didn’t. It should have made Lan Wangji feel helpless, but instead, it made him feel rebellious. Never before did he have so many commands to fight, to work his way around, to misinterpret or manipulate. Never before had he felt like he was an active participant in his curse.

Most of Wei Wuxian’s commands were benign anyway, he would never wish him to do anything bad, even without knowing Lan Wangji’s curse. Most of his commands were about himself, too, Speak to me, look at me, fight me, join me, tell me, think of me. Not that Lan Wangji had to be commanded to do that last one. Since the start of the lectures it was like his mind had been consumed by Wei Wuxian, like all he could think about day and night was that smile, those eyes, the sound of his laughter.

Xichen laughed when Lan Wangji told him about it.

“That sounds like you like him,” he said.

Lan Wangji had wrinkled his nose.

“Never,” said Lan Wangji, but he burned at the suggestion.

The more he mulled it over, the more he realized, with mounting horror and all of his remaining denial slipping from his grasp, that it was true. The first time he let himself think of kissing Wei Wuxian he had flushed so red that he’d been lightheaded about it. He didn’t tell XIchen about that for no other reason than that he hadn’t wanted to be laughed at any more. He especially didn’t tell Shufu of his newfound infatuation. No doubt he would respond with some mixture of outrage and worry. Lan Wangji didn’t want to face a lecture on how dangerous it was to let someone near enough to figure out his curse.

He knew more than anyone. That didn’t stop his heart from racing when Wei Wuxian laughed, though.

Something in Lan Wangji told him that of all people to abuse it, Wei Wuxian would be the last. Even with no knowledge of the curse, half of the time, he tore back his joking commands before they had even had time to really take root. It was like the moment Lan Wangji’s spine straightened with whatever Wei Wuxian had demanded that day, the other boy’s eyes would already be crinkling with laughter as he waved away what he’d said with an, “Aha, Lan Zhan, that was a joke, you don’t have to!”

It was infuriating.

It was thrilling.

Lan Wangji would almost believe that Wei Wuxian knew of the curse if Wei Wuxian had been capable at all of tact. If Wei Wuxian knew, Lan Wangji would know he knew. At least, Wei Wuxian would either use the curse for some stupid prank or stop commanding him at all. Especially stupid little commands he used every day.

“Lan Zhan, speak to me!” Wei Wuxian whined like he did every day, throwing himself over the table.

The command zipped down Lan Wangji’s spine and he hoped Wei Wuxian could feel the fire behind his glare.

“No,” he said like he did every day, because it technically fulfilled the bounds of the curse.

Then he silenced Wei Wuxian as was their routine.

Wei Wuxian whined and rolled around on the floor and tossed paper at Lan Wangji’s forehead, but Lan Wangji ignored him completely. Well, not ignored him, it was like he was on fire noticing Wei Wuxian, he couldn’t have ignored him no matter what was going on, but he pretended to.

Lan Wangji loved routine. Routine comforted him, settled his soul, made him confident. This routine, however, wrecked him. This back and forth between himself and Wei Wuxian, between his curse and that teasing grin, ruffled his feathers and made him seethe in something between fury and delight. He never wanted it to end.

Of course, that was an impossible fantasy. This routine, like all routines, couldn’t last. In fact, it lasted even less time than it should have, ending at the very moment Wei Wuxian let loose his fist against Jin Zixuan’s arrogant, pinched face.

“Lan Zhan, tell them it wasn’t my fault!” Wei Wuxian cried as accusations tumbled from every direction.

“Do not!” Shufu snapped, stepping forward to intervene, already burning red with outrage. “Tell the truth, Wangji.”

Lan Wangji’s posture stiffened, and he saw the grimace Shufu gave at the command. He was normally very careful with avoiding commands, so he must have been quite upset. Lan Wangji was torn between understanding and resentment.

The whole thing was over too fast, Jin Zixuan sneering, red smeared over his face as he faced nearly no consequences other than the breaking of a betrothal he’d loathed in the first place. Wei Wuxian was punished as he waited for his Sect Leader to arrive and then kicked from the lectures. Lan Wangji knew that Shufu expected him to feel relieved that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t be hovering over his shoulder anymore, but he just felt a little bit lost. As much as he knew things being back to normal would be a comfort, he also knew that he was going to be bored. He had never really felt stifled before, but that was because he’d never really felt the kind of freedom Wei Wuxian unwittingly offered him.

Lan Wangji would deny it if anyone asked, but he loitered at the gate, hoping to catch Wei Wuxian before he left for Yunmeng in order to bid him farewell.

When the time finally came, Wei Wuxian rounded the bend at a truly pitiful pace, dragging his feet as he went, keeping several steps behind Sect Leader Jiang who had a tightness to his eyes, though he greeted Lan Wangji with a kind smile.

“Second Young Master Lan,” he said with a bow.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji returned, though his attention had shifted to Wei Wuxian who had startled from his slump when his Sect Leader had spoken.

He picked up his feet and bounded close to Lan Wangji with a rueful grin.

“Lan Zhan,” he said. “Are you here to say goodbye to me?”

Lan Wangji felt his ears flush, but he nodded anyway, pleased when his admittance caused a shy grin to cross Wei Wuxian’s face. He took another two steps closer to Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan, are you going to miss me?” Wei Wuxian asked, reaching forward to trap Lan Wangji’s sleeve between his fingers. “Tell me the truth.”

“Yes.”

Lan Wangji’s heart raced as Wei Wuxian flushed dark red at his immediate admittance, but it was worth the pink that crept over Wei Wuxian’s cheeks.

“Ah, then you have to visit me sometime!” Wei Wuxian said, grinning through his flushed cheeks.

That command zinged down Lan Wangji’s spine, but thankfully it was vague enough that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself. He nodded in confirmation, causing Wei Wuxian’s grin to become even wider and a little bit softer before he dropped Lan Wangji’s sleeve to clasp their hands together. Wei Wuxian met his eyes and gave Lan Wangji’s hands a squeeze before taking a step back and mounting his sword.

“I’ll miss you too!”

And then there was silence, a return to routine, a return to barely interacting with anyone other than Shufu and Xichen, a return to the mundane, overbearing nature of being the Second Jade. It dragged on and on, and he almost wished that he could just vanish, steal away to Yunmeng. He had mused about going a couple of times, but every time he even mentioned that he might like to travel, Shufu piled on duties until he hadn’t the time. Lan Wangji knew he was trying to protect him from the unknown, but it still irked him.

After a time, however, Lan Wangji’s careful routine was broken yet again, though this time instead of a rash punch on the side of a hill, the interruption came in the form of fire and death and chaos, ending in a broken leg and chains leading him towards Qishan.

When he’d been taken by Wen Xu, Lan Wangji had been terrified of being discovered. He had been saved, however, by the man’s habit of giving his commands in the form of mocking suggestions. It was his way to make it seem like Lan Wangji had a choice, that he was choosing to obey. However much it made him seethe, Lan Wangji found himself grateful. Wen Xu’s sneer of, won’t the young master graciously kneel for this humble one could have easily been, get on your knees. His I suggest you follow us without making a fuss could have been, Be quiet and follow me. The If I were you I would listen to me could have been a bark of, shut up and do as I say.

In the indoctrination camp, Wen Chao liked to make commands, but most of them fell on Wei Wuxian who seemed to intervene whenever Lan Wangji was caught in that slimy gaze of his. Lan Wangji briefly wondered if Wei Wuxian had figured out the curse, but he did the same things to keep Nie Huaisang or Jiang Wanyin from Wen Chao’s sights. He’d even done it for Jin Zixuan once or twice. This habit of self-sacrifice was infuriating, but Lan Wangji couldn’t say anything to Wei Wuxian about it out of fear that he might stop and then Wen Chao worm his way into knowing the secret of Lan Wangji’s curse. If that were to happen, Lan Wangji would die.

Even if he hadn’t been spending every day fearing the discovery of his curse, it still would have been an overwhelming relief to be away from Wen Chao if for no other reason than that he was the worst person Lan Wangji had ever met and he’d been introduced to a regrettably high number of insufferable people. Even being stuck in the rancid, dark cave of the Xuanwu of Slaughter was better than having to see Wen Chao’s greasy face. Of course, it was made better by the fact that Wei Wuxian was stuck there with him, warm and safe and alive, which was all Lan Wangji could ask for. Maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a blessing, but it did, even when Wei Wuxian tried to make him undress and then asked him if he liked Luo Qingyang of all people.

They spent days trying to recover their strength from their time with Wen Chao and trying not to lose hope at being trapped in such a place.

“Talk to me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said as he stirred their pitiful embers.

“No,” Lan Wangji responded just like he always had.

It made Wei Wuxian laugh, which warmed Lan Wangji more than the remnants of their fire. He wanted to hear it over and over again. He would be content to die here in this cave if he at least died to the sound of Wei Wuxian’ laughter. Though, perhaps the lack of food was just making him morbid.

“How long do you think it will take the others to get help?”

He didn’t look up from the fire, so Lan Wangji answered aloud, “I don’t know.”

Silence descended over the cave for a moment before Wei Wuxian finally looked up.

“We’re going to have to kill it, aren’t we?”

And as simple as that, they made a plan. It wasn’t a very good plan, Lan Wangji knew that much. Both of them were weak from hunger and injured, swordless and desperate. Just desperte enough, it seemed to make it work, though. Lan Wangji hadn’t realistically expected them both to make it out alive, either of them really, so he was reeling with shock when the Xuanyu lay dead in the murky water. He and Wei Wuxian retreated back to their little nook, and as they went, Wei Wuxian supported Lan Wangji’s weight even as he supported Wei Wuxian’s, like mutual crutches.

They collapsed into the ground in a heap of filthy, sopping robes and exhausted, heaving breaths.

“Sing me a song, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian asked, leaning his heavy weight on Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji was clearing his throat to sing even before the command zipped over him. Wei Wuxian’s eyelids fluttered as Lan Wangji sang, but he smiled at the tune anyway.

“Such a sweet tune,” he whispered.

Lan Wangji continued singing as Wei Wuxian continued drifting.

“Tell me what it’s called,” Wei Wuxian said, words slurred from the fever that was apparent from his heat pressed to Lan Wangji’s side.

Lan Wangji’s heart raced even as he was forced to respond.

Wangxian,” he replied, bracing himself for whatever Wei Wuxian’s response would be.

After a few seconds of Wei Wuxian’s silence, he grew concerned only to find that Wei Wuxian’s eyes had slipped shut and he was resting in sleep.

How Lan Wangji made it through the rest of the war, he didn’t know. Luck mostly. Through most of it, he was under his brother’s command who knew exactly how to avoid the curse, and for the rest of it, he was high enough ranked that he didn’t typically fall on the receiving end of commands. He was a good soldier besides. No one could think to order him around when he always took the front of the lines in battle, always stayed behind the longest, trained the hardest, protected those in danger, took the most dangerous missions.

And then word got to him that Wei Wuxian was missing, and he abandoned it all to join Jiang Wanyin in his search, despite the disapproval he could feel radiating from those who believed that he was too valuable to leave the front lines. Thankfully, no one approached him about it, though.

Two months into their search, he and Jiang Wanyin both were exhausted and drained, each getting calls to rejoin the battle, but each being too stubborn to quit. They were both running on stream and snapping at each other after every dead end. On one such evening, once they had returned to the room they had booked at an inn, Jiang Wanyin, in a fit of frustration and helplessness, kicked the low table in the center of the room over and whirled on Lan Wangji.

“Why are you even here?” He demanded. “Why?”

Lan Wangji was tired and frustrated as well, and on a good day he didn’t have what it took to baby Jiang Wanyin into calming down, and he certainly didn’t have it now. Jiang Wanyin turned to pacing as Lan Wangji righted the table so he would have a place to set their food down.

“To find Wei Ying,” he answered in what he hoped was a calming voice.

“Yeah, but why?” Jiang Wanyin continued. “I’m sure other people have a lot more use for you than chasing a ghost.”

Lan Wangji flinched at the implication, however accidental, that Wei Wuxian might be dead.

“There’s enough people helping fight. Not enough looking for Wei Ying.”

Jiang Wanyin growled and stopped his pacing to turn on Lan Wangji again. There were frustrated tears shining in his eyes, but Lan Wangji decided to pay them no mind.

“Just answer me!” He demanded, straightening Lan Wangji’s spine. “Why are you so willing to go this far? He’s my responsibility, of course I’m going to run myself to the ends of the earth looking for him, but why are you so worried about him, huh? Aren’t you the great Hanguang-jun? Tell me what gives you the right to waste two months searching for my brother?”

“I love him,” Lan Wangji admitted, the words ripped from him by manner of the curse.

His throat burned with the confession, and he turned away, unwilling to see whatever look Jiang Wanyin wore. That is, until the silence lingered too long. He glanced up wondering if perhaps Jiang Wanyin had somehow silently fled the room at Lan Wangji’s admission only to find him standing there, gaping. At least he actually seemed embarrassed and awkward at having to receive Lan Wangji’s confession, it was the least Lan Wangji deserved at being forced to admit to his feelings. Though Jiang Wanyin no doubt thought Lan Wangji had admitted his feelings willingly to the very last person he would wish to know.

“Forget I asked,” Jiang Wanyin mumbled as he plopped down on the opposite side of the table, refusing to meet Lan Wangji’s eye.

Not that Lan Wangji was trying to catch it. He would be perfectly content to never have to look into Jiang Wanyin’s eyes again, and if an embarrassing confession was what it took, then so be it.

Jiang Wanyin never brought it up again, thank god. Lan Wangji might have drawn his sword if he’d tried to talk about it. Lan Wangji would almost believe that he had forgotten until the night they found Wei Wuxian.

Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what state he expected to find Wei Wuxian in, but he had prepared himself for it to be bad. What he saw before him, terrorizing Wen Chao was dreadful, worse than he could think of but also eons better. He was gaunt and emaciated, his cheeks sunken and eyes wild, but he was on his feet, unbloodied, and smiling. His smile was strained and slightly manic, but it was better than a glassy-eyed corpse, so Lan Wangji refused to hate it.

“Wei Ying, please, come back to Gusu with me,” he begged.

In Gusu he could take time to rest and heal, to recover his energy so that he wouldn’t have to resort to ghosts and corpses and his dark flute that Lan Wangji’s eyes couldn’t stop catching on.

He was rejected, of course. Wei Wuxian would want to go home to recuperate. Why would he want to be taken to a half-burnt shell of a place that had punished him for being himself? Knowing that didn’t make the rejection sting any less, though.

On their way out, Jiang Wanyin gave Lan Wangji a sneer, but there was something like pity simmering under the surface. If Lan Wangji hadn’t been watching Wei Wuxian disappear, he might have sneered back. He didn’t want pity. He wanted Wei Wuxian safe and healthy.

He had the brief fear that Jiang Wanyin might mention what he knew to Wei Wuxian, but he put those fears to the back of his mind. Either he would or he wouldn’t, there was nothing Lan Wangji could do about it at this point. That didn’t stop his pulse from racing at the idea that Wei Wuxian might learn from Jiang Wanyin of all people that Lan Wangji was in love with him. He shuddered to think.

The war didn’t stop just because they had found Wei Wuxian, of course. There were still many battles, won and lost. Many enemies vanquished, many battlefields bloodied, and many lives lost. It was brutal and tragic, and everything Lan Wangji had trained for and more.

For most of the war, Lan Wangji and Nie Mingjue had fought on different battlefields. For nearly a month, though, Lan Wangji found himself fighting in close quarters with the Nie Sect Leader. It didn’t take Lan Wangji long to discover that Nie Mingjue was one of the only people who would actually give him orders.

“Wangji, scout ahead,” Nie Mingjue would bark. “Check for Wen troops and report back to me.”

Lan Wangji would grit his teeth as his posture straightened and he followed the command. Not that he had a problem with doing what he was told to do, but the fact that he had gone so long not worrying about commands to suddenly be thrust into battle where he was sometimes trapped in Nie Mingjue’s whims.

He blamed Xichen. If he weren’t such good friends with Nie Mingjue, this likely wouldn’t be a problem. Being Nie Mingjue’s closest friend’s little brother didn’t lend Lan Wangji quite the amount of respect that he was used to receiving. Not that Lan Wangji would ever begrudge his brother for making friends.

Still, Nie Mingjue never told him to do anything unreasonable, and most of the time, the commands were things he would have done anyway, so Lan Wangji bore it, however begrudgingly.

The first time Xichen had witnessed it, he’d winced at the command, and sent Lan Wangji a look of silent apology. Lan Wangji was used to it, so he didn’t react more than to shrug off his brother’s concern until that evening when the battle was over and the two of them were taking tea together in Xichen’s tent.

“Do you want me to ask A-Jue to stop ordering you around?” Xichen asked, as sincere as he always was about things regarding the curse.

“And tell him what,” Lan Wangji countered, annoyed and amused in equal measures. “That I’m an arrogant brat?”

Xichen winced.

“Then what should I tell him?”

Lan Wangji had an idea then, one he’d never had, one he’d never even considered having. He was just so fed up with these battlefield commands, and he was a little bit scared that he’d end up caught in a command that put him or others in danger. His heart raced suddenly, but he gave his suggestion anyway.

“If you really, truly trust Nie Mingjue as much as you’ve told me, I give you my permission to tell him of the curse.”

Xichen choked on his next sip, hacking out a cough while trying to give Lan Wangji a shocked look. Lan Wangji waited patiently for him to regain control over himself. It was kind of funny, and he could tell by the way Xichen flicked droplets of the tea that he’d spewed on the table in Lan Wangji’s direction that he’d caught the amusement on Lan Wangji’s face.

Once he’d recovered and cleaned the tea from the table, Xichen met Lan Wangji’s eyes, all joking from earlier gone.

“Are you sure?”

No, but he would leave the final call up to Xichen. If his brother truly trusted Nie Mingjue, then Lan Wangji trusted him.

“He should know.”

Besides, Xichen deserved someone to talk to about this. Though it wasn’t as big a part of Xichen’s life as it was Lan Wangji’s, it still impacted him. Surely he needed someone to release his thoughts and emotions to other than Wangji or Shufu.

“Really, Wangji?” Xichen asked, putting his cup down to clasp Lan Wangji’s hand in his own. “You don’t have to.”

“You may tell him, but no one else,” Lan Wangji said.

“Wangji, I would never tell anyone else,” Xichen said with those wide, earnest eyes of his. Lan Wangji believed him, of course. No one save Shufu cared for him like Xichen, no one else had spent countless hours trying to undo the curse, no one else had protected him at every turn.

“I know.”

And that had been that.

Once he’d been told, Nie Mingjue kept clapping Lan Wangji on the shoulder at every opportunity, whether in apology or commiseration, Lan Wangji didn’t know. It was both a bother and a comfort, a new kind of affection. Xichen was fond of a gentle hand on Lan Wangji’s elbow or the clasping of their hands, while Shufu preferred to show his affection through inviting Lan Wangji to morning tea. The only other person who regularly showed Lan Wangji affection, or had in the past, was Wei Wuxian who was just as likely to throw his arm over Lan Wangji’s shoulder as he was to wrap his arms around his middle just to bother him. So, this was nice. No prolonged contact, but affection nonetheless. Though, had Lan Wangji not been so strong of cultivator, he was sure he would have a hand-shaped bruise by now. Nie Mingjue apparently had impeccable aim, whacking him in the same exact spot every time.

There weren’t very many occasions to see Wei Wuxian throughout the war. Sure they saw each other, but mostly in battle, mostly when they were both worn out and snapping at each other and

“Wei Ying, please come to Gusu with me,” he’d beg when he’d catch blood dripping from Wei Wuxian’s nose after battle as he staggered to his tent.

“How about you go to hell, Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian would respond, like those words didn’t hurt, like every rejection didn’t shatter Lan Wangji to bits.

This new routine of theirs continued all the way through the war up until Wen Ruohan lay dead on his own palace steps and Wei Wuxian poisoned by his own corrupt seal until he collapsed.

Lan Wangji was the one who carried him to his shijie for care.

“You can go if you’d like,” she said, not looking up from where she was gently pulling Wei Wuxian’s dirty robes free. “I can care for him.”

Lan Wangji couldn’t think of a reason to stay that didn’t sound shallow in his own mind, but luckily, he was saved by Wei Wuxian reaching out and snatching his trailing sleeve in one of his trembling hands.

“Stay,” Wei Wuxian rasped, his voice barely more than a whisper.

The command was weak and fever-drunk, but it tingled down Lan Wangji’s spine anyway. Not that Lan Wangji had been planning on going, but now he had the perfect excuse to stay, especially if his brother came looking for him.

“I will stay,” Lan Wangji said with a nod to Jiang Yanli.

He helped her strip Wei Wuxian to his lowermost layer and then use a cloth to clean his face and hands, trying to lower the fever a bit.

“He looks so fragile,” Jiang Yanli whispered as she patted his brow with a damp cloth. “He’s always seemed so invincible, but he looks like a pat on the back would send him sprawling.”

“Cultivating resentful energy is bad for the body and mind,” Lan Wangji said and then regretted instantly when it just caused Jiang Yanli’s mouth to twist like she was trying to stop herself from crying.

“Do you know why he gave up his sword in favor of this?” Jiang Yanli asked. “He was so talented. Why would he just give it up?”

“I don’t know,” Lan Wangji answered, and then, “Was he really in the Burial Mounds?”

“I don’t know.”

They fell silent, working in a quiet harmony that Lan Wangji couldn’t help but enjoy, even with Wei Wuxian hot with fever and unconscious. Lan Wangji truly enjoyed people he could be quiet around and not feel like something was missing. There was a simple pleasantness to it, and he found himself wondering if he and Jiang Yanli might get along. He’d never thought of her as a friend, but he couldn’t help but think of it now.

The days passed similarly, Lan Wangji at Wei Wuxian’s bedside sometimes cleaning him of his sweat, sometimes playing for him, sometimes speaking in quiet tones to Jiang Yanli about music and poetry and stupid things Wei Wuxian had done in front of them.

Jiang Wanyin walked in more than once during that time, and every time he did, he took one look at Lan Wangji at Wei Wuxian’s bedside before making some scrunched face and then leaving the tent immediately.

Wei Wuxian woke after three days, blinking first up at the drape of the top of the tent and then at Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan?” he asked, trying to sit up, only stayed by Lan Wangji’s hand.

Lan Wangji was so overjoyed that Wei Wuxian was awake that he wanted to wrap him in his arms and never let go. He wanted to go find Jiang Yanli so that he could have someone who would share his joy. He wanted to run away before he and Wei Wuxian started arguing like they always did.

“What are you doing here?” Wei Wuxian asked, scrubbing a hand over his face.

Lan Wangji poured Wei Wuxian a cup of water from the pitcher on the table and helped him sit up just enough to drink from it.

“Playing,” he answered as Wei Wuxian took in gulps of water.

He pulled back with a gasp and wiped the few droplets that hadn’t made it into his mouth away from his chin as Lan Wangji helped lower him back to the bed.

“How long have I been out?” He asked.

“Three days.”

Wei Wuxian gave Lan Wangji a long, searching look.

“How long have you been here?”

Lan Wangji paused before answering.

“Three days,” Lan Wangji said, before adding with a little jump in his pulse, “You asked me to stay.”

Wei Wuxian’s face, previously pale from his weakness, flushed dark red before he buried his face in his hands.

“Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t have stayed just because I asked you too! Don’t you know that’s embarrassing?”

“I don’t mind.”

Wei Wuxian groaned, and Lan Wangji couldn’t help the little smile that grace his lips at the fact that Wei Wuxian was acting just like his old self. Rest must have done him good. Lan Wangji also couldn’t help but think Wei Wuxian was cute when he was embarrassed.

“Lan Zhan, don’t you know even my face isn’t thick enough for this?” Wei Wuxian asked. “How come you had to do what I asked? You should have ignored me!”

Lan Wangji opened his mouth to disagree, but Wei Wuxian continued before he could speak.

“Feel free to go now, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, pulling his face from his hands. He gave Lan Wangji a rueful smile. “Go see your brother. I’ve wasted enough of your time.”

Lan Wangji wanted to protest, but he was already standing to his feet and gathering his qin into his arms.

“None of this time was wasted,” he said in a low voice just before he turned to go.

He wished Wei Wuxian would call him back, but he left with no impediment, meeting Jiang Yanli at the entrance who gave him a sweet smile and a pat on the arm.

After that, Wei Wuxian had ended up ushered back to Lotus Pier before Lan Wangji could speak to him again, and so Lan Wangji followed his brother back to Cloud recesses to help his Sect begin recovering from the war.

More than once he wished to escape to Lotus Pier to seek Wei Wuxian out. He missed not seeing him, and he wanted to know how he was doing, to see with his own eyes. The only word he got of Wei Wuxian was from Jiang Yanli. She and Lan Wangji exchanged letters often, mostly discussing Wei Wuxian, but also how their Sects were faring and how they were dealing with reparing what had been lost in the war.

I hope to see you at the Phoenix Mountain hunt, Jiang Yanli wrote in one of her letters. A-Xian and A-Cheng are both excited about it. I will admit to looking forward to it as well.

Lan Wangji had been planning on attending, of course, as he was expected to, but he hadn’t been looking forward to it until he’d read what Jiang Yanli had written.

The first sight of Wei Wuxian in Lanling, stilled the breath in Lan Wangji’s lungs. He was beautiful. Of course he was beautiful, he always was, but more than that, he actually looked healthy, Lotus Pier having returned the color to his cheeks and the tan to his neck. He was still too thin, and the bags under his eyes were prominent even from a distance, but he was healthy and laughing.

Lan Wangji didn’t get a chance to truly speak to Wei Wuxian until the opening of the hunt. Wei Wuxian sidled up to Lan Wangji’s side as Jin Guangyao began his announcement.

“We haven’t seen each other in months,” Wei Wuxian whispered to him, tugging on his sleeve in a way that was liables to drive Lan Wangji insane. “Talk to me.”

“No,” Lan Wangji said just to hear that bark of laughter he knew Wei Wuxian would give.

He was not disappointed, and Wei Wuxian earned an elbow to the ribs from Jiang Wanyin at his disruption. Lan Wangji glanced in his direction to catch the suspicious narrowing of eyes Jiang Wanyin sent his way, but he decided to pay it no mind.

And then Jin Guangyao had announced a surprise.

Lan Wangji was so busy seething at the sight of the Wen prisoners being herded in front of them all like cattle that, had it not been a command, he might have missed Wei Wuxian’s next words to him.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, let me borrow your forehead ribbon.”

Lan Wangji’s heart stopped in that instant and then restarted again at double speed. He glanced to find Xichen, but he was too far away to do anything, laughing about something with Nie MIngjue.

Thankfully, Wei Wuxian’s eyes grew as wide as the moon when Lan Wangji reached behind his head to unfasten his ribbon, and he waved his hands frantically in front of him.

“Wait, no, Lan Zhan, I was only joking! Keep your ribbon,” he said, reaching up to stop Lan Wangji’s hands with his own. “I don’t want to get it dirty. I have just the thing here.”

Lan Wangji’s heart still pounded as Wei Wuxian covered his eyes with the wrappings from his own wrist and then took his shot to put an end to the barbaric game. In fact, his heart was still racing even as the hunt began and he was left wandering the hunting grounds, trying to calm himself down.

It was in his wandering that he came across Wei Wuxian lying across a tree branch.

“Who’s there?” Wei Wuxian asked when Lan Wangji stepped closer.

He didn’t move to take off his blindfold, and Lan Wangji’s heart started pounding anew. He didn’t think about what made his heart pound, he just drifted closer, twisting the pendant that hung from his belt between his hands which were starting to shake. He wasn’t normally one to fidget, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t normally one to drape himself over sturdy branches while blindfolded either, so he figured they were even.

“Shy are you?” Wei Wuxian continued. His lips stretched into that charming grin of his that Lan Wangji had seen him use once to flirt with the pretty lady who sold meat buns in Caiyi. “That’s alright. Are you here for the hunt?”

Lan Wangji drifted closer, and with every step, his heart jumped to his throat. Any second Wei Wuxian could casually command him to do something, and Lan Wangji would have to obey. He hadn’t yet, though, and that was making Lan Wangji bold.

“I’m afraid you’re wasting your time by hunting near me,” he said. “There’s not much left for you to capture.”

Lan Wangji hadn’t thought it through when he took his final step forward, pinning Wei Wuxian to the branch he was lounging on and capturing his wrists between his own hands before Wei Wuxian could reach for any talismans.

Wei Wuxian flexed his wrists in Lan Wangji’s grip.

“Hey, let—”

Lan Wangji covered Wei Wuxain’s lips with his own before the command could be completed. He regretted the kiss almost as soon as their lips had touched, his advance being both unasked for and unwelcome if the outraged noise Wei Wuxian made against his lips was anything to go by. His heart was pounding as hard as it ever had as he pressed harder against Wei Wuxian who squirmed in his grasp. He didn’t know what to do. Like this, Wei Wuxian couldn’t speak and so Lan Wangji was safe, unknown, some stranger laying siege to Wei Wuxian. But the instant he pulled back, Wei Wuxian could command him to do anything, and Lan Wangji was terrified to find what he would say when he realized it was Lan Wangji holding him there.

After a long moment of debate, Lan Wangji couldn’t handle the feeling of Wei Wuxian struggling against his lips, so he pulled back. In that very moment, Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to speak, and before he’d even thought about it, Lan Wangji fit his hand over Wei Wuxian’s mouth before he could work any words free. He stood there for a moment, breathing, trying to stop his own trembling. He tried to think of a way out of this situation without revealing himself. Surely, as soon as Lan Wangji turned to flee and, by extension, returned to Wei Wuxian the ability to speak, he would be ordered to stop. He could already hear Wei Wuxian’s shout of wait as he tugged his blindfold free. He would be trapped in place as Wei Wuxian took him in, the obvious culprit, with kiss-pink lips and guilty eyes averted.

Lan Wangji wouldn’t be able to suffer any of the looks Wei Wuxian might give him when he realized that it was Lan Wangji who had taken this kiss. He briefly considered using the Lan silencing spell. That would keep Wei Wuxian from ordering him to do anything until he was out of earshot. But Lan Wangji knew that it would be too revealing. The first Lan that Wei Wuxian came across would be his suspect, and Lan Wangji was sure that he was trembling too hard to flee very far.

Wei Wuxian tried to twist his head out from under Lan Wangji’s hand, but Lan Wangji held fast, even when Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out and licked at his palm. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure why having his tongue in Wei Wuxian’s mouth was so desirable while this was unpleasant, maybe it was the inelegant smearing of Wei Wuxian’s spit or the lack of sensuality, but, had Lan Wangji not been having a crisis, he might have pulled back, especially when Wei Wuxian’s next exhale cooled the saliva on his palm.

In the end, he decided just to make a run for it, hoping that by the time Wei Wuxian gained his bearings and removed his blindfold, Lan Wangji would get far enough away that no commands would reach him.

To disorient Wei Wuxian further, Lan Wangji tugged Wei Wuxian from the tree and twirled him around, hoping to make him dizzy so that he would stumble before he could run after Lan Wangji. Perhaps it was immature, but Lan Wangji was panicking and he couldn’t think of anything better to do. He had to pull his hand from Wei Wuxian’s mouth to do so, but he was willing to risk it to buy himself

“Hey, what are you—Woah!”

He spun Wei Wuxian around a few times until the other man tripped on his own feet and sprawled to the forest floor, giving Lan Wangji the time he needed to escape through the trees, his heart pounding even as guilt ravaged his mind.

He had made it a fair distance away, both because of his panic and being in prime condition, and had just paused to gather his thoughts when he heard Wei Wuxian call out, cashing through the underbrush at an alarmingly quick pace.

“Wait!” Came Wei Wuxian’s voice trembling amidst the trees.

Lan Wangji’s feet came to a stop and he cursed his luck. Hopefully, Wei Wuxian wouldn't connect the dots. Hopefully Lan Wangji was far enough away that he wouldn’t be a suspect.

Wei Wuxian met his gaze, and the pink on his cheeks had tears stinging the backs of Lan Wangji’s eyes. He turned his face away so Wei Wuxian wouldn’t see the way his eyes shined, but that did nothing to numb the shame he felt within himself. This was why he practiced self-control so strictly, this was the teachings Shufu had always tried to instill in him. When he acted impulsive, sometimes his desires led to a place that one shouldn’t go.

He hoped that if Wei Wuxian ever discovered that it was Lan Wangji who had done this, he would forgive him for acting so.

“Lan Zhan, you didn’t happen to see any maidens running through here, did you?” Wei Wuxian asked, panting, leaning his weight on Lan Wangji’s shoulder so that he could catch his breath.

Lan Wangji hoped that he didn’t look like he’d been rushing through the underbrush at a pace filled with dread as he shook his head.

Even as he reveled in Wei Wuxian’s warm weight against him, Lan Wangji put to mind to submit himself to punishment when he returned to Cloud Recesses. He was loath to reveal to anyone just what he’d done, much less Shufu who would judge his actions with a veil of disappointment or another disciple who might take sadistic pleasure at punishing Lan Wangji. Perhaps he could entrust his punishment to his brother. Xichen would be sure to be fair and just. Also, he was unlikely to make any disparaging comments about the subject of Lan Wangji’s uncontrolled desire.

“Lan Zhan, is something the matter?”

Lan Wangji turned away, terrified that Wei Wuxian would demand he told him.

“You can tell me,” he offered. “I know I talk a lot, but I swear I’m a good listener.”

Lan Wangji just shook his head, sure that if he opened his mouth either a confession or sob one might fall out.

Wei Wuxian stood there for a moment before leaning further into Lan Wangji’s shoulder, grasping onto his arm and holding him tight. Lan Wangji felt like such an imposter enjoying the familiarity of it. Surely, if Wei Wuxian knew that it was Lan Wangji who had kissed him, he wouldn’t be so comfortable with him. Taking comfort in the gesture felt like a farce.

“Come on, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said with a flash of his charming grin and a squeeze to Lan Wangji’s arm. “Now’s not the time to be loitering in the trees. Don’t you know there’s a hunt on?”

And so Lan Wangji followed when Wei Wuxian tugged him along, still trembling, but farther from tears than he had been. He followed arm-in-arm with Wei Wuxian for most of the afternoon, Wei Wuxian chattering about the new disciples at Lotus Pier and how bad Jiang Wanyin’s temper had been since Jin Zixuan had come to Lotus Pier himself to personally invite Jiang Yanli to the hunt.

Their peace didn’t last for nearly long enough before they were interrupted by Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan, the latter making a fool of himself and the former trying not to cry about it.

Lan Wangji felt deep sympathy for Jiang Yanli having heard through her letters how excited she had been that she’d been invited by Jin Zixuan himself.

Just when the whole mess seemed as if it couldn’t get any worse, Jin Zixuan’s terrible cousin showed up and ruined everyone’s already bad mood.

By the time it was all over, Lan Wangji was reeling from several different levels of this confrontation and hoping that nothing would come of the multiple people offended or hurt by the whole ordeal. He left at Xichen’s side to continue the hunt, and stuck to his brother’s side for the rest of the day until the banquet after the hunt.

Lan Wangji sat and waited impatiently for the banquet to start. These things were normally tedious and boring, and all Lan Wangji wanted to do was talk to Wei Wuxian, see if he would perhaps be more open to Lan Wangji’s offer of coming to Cloud Recesses now. Wei Wuxian wasn’t even here, and that made Lan Wangji even more anxious for this banquet to be over with.

And then, as if Lan Wangji wasn’t already regretting having to sit there at his brother’s side, Jin Zixuan’s insufferable cousin sauntered up to him and Xichen’s table with talk of Sect harmony and comradery. Xichen drank, ever diplomatic, but Lan Wangji refused to even glance in the horrible man’s direction.

That is, he tried.

“Drink it, Hanguang-jun.”

In his periphery, Lan Wangji caught his brother’s posture stiffen in alarm, but he was too busy reaching for the cup to meet his worried gaze.

He didn’t even try to fight it, he didn’t want Jin Zixun to catch any whiff of his struggle, but he cursed at him from his mind, willing fire behind his glare even as his hands steadily took the cup from Jin Zixun’s greasy, little hands.

And then suddenly, there were cool fingers brushing against his as the cup was lifted from his own hands.

“Don’t, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, catching his eye before turning his own fire on Jin Zixun. “Let me.”

In that moment, as Wei Wuxian nullified the command and appeased the Jins all in one quick gulp, Lan Wangji could have lunged right over the table to kiss Wei Wuxian. He might have if he hadn’t been frozen into place by the way Wei Wuxian’s throat bobbed as he swallowed the mouthful of Lan Wangji’s wine. Xichen’s breath of relief was loud in the now-silent room and Lan Wangji glanced to the side to catch Jin Guangyao give him a curious look, his head tilted slightly like he was trying to work out a puzzle.

Lan Wangji was distracted by the accusations spewing from Wei Wuxian, the rage he directed at Jin Guanshan and the way he stood up for people Lan Wangji hadn’t even realized needed help. It was just the cocktail to get the other, less-than-just Sect leaders riled up against Wei Wuxian, and the whole thing ended with Wei Wuxian stalking away, fuming and clutching his dark flute like it was his only lifeline.

Lan Wangji regretted not following after him then, and he regretted it again standing in the rain at Qiongqi path.

“Let us pass.”

Tears burned in Lan Wangji’s eyes as he was forced to take a step to the side to open the path for him. He almost mustered the nerve to beg to go with them, but Wei Wuxian had already spurred his horse past by the time he worked his mouth open.

His flight back to Koi Tower was erratic and messy. Really, he shouldn't have been flying at all in a storm like that, the chance of a lightning strike alone was overwhelming not to mention the dangers of the rain itself, but he didn’t quite remember that it was dangerous until he was landing in Koi Tower and headed towards the Lan guest rooms.

Lan Wangji was startled to find that the hallway wasn’t empty.

“Hanguang-jun,” gasped Jin Guangyao who was standing in the hallway exiting the very room Lan Wangji had planned on going into: Xichen’s. “What are you doing out here? And you’re sopping wet, has something happened?”

Lan Wangji didn’t answer. He really didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. He hadn’t even wanted to talk to his brother, he was only headed there because he knew that he sometimes did stupid things when he was sad and alone. He had just wanted to sit at his brother’s side and perhaps cry a little.

Jin Guangyao gave one last glance over his shoulder towards Xichen’s door before flashing Lan Wangji one of his diplomatic smiles. He was looking very intently, but he always looked intently at everything, like he was cataloguing every moment.

“Go to your room and warm up,” he said, his voice light but his tone final. “I’ll have tea sent to your room.”

Even exhausted as he was, Lan Wangji’s spine straightened with the command and he ceased his listless wandering towards Xichen’s room to head directly for his own guest room. The command that he’d been given was vague enough that it would have been fulfilled by him simply sitting by the fire, but he took the opportunity of the curse’s drive to get himself changed into fresh clothes. A few minutes he’d finished changing, Jin Guangyao himself delivered a fresh pot of tea, arriving just as Lan Wangji, stripped of his wet clothes and now in his warmest laters, sat beside the fire to warm his hands.

The tea was set on the table near the fireplace and Jin Guangyao patted the cushion beside him.

“Join me for a cup of tea, Hanguang-jun. It will warm you up.”

Lan Wangji hoped his change in posture wasn’t obvious, but he was so tired and emotionally drained that he wasn’t sure he was keeping his reactions to the commands under wraps. He couldn’t really find it in himself to care, either. He joined Jin Guangyao at the table and let the other man serve him a cup of tea.

“Drink it while it’s hot. It’ll warm you up,” Jin Guangyao said with a dimpled smile, watching intently again as Lan Wangji reached for the cup immediately.

The tea was too hot, and it scorched his tongue, but he was compelled to swallow the whole of it, the overwarm liquid burning down his throat as it went.

Jin Guanyao gave him another beatific smile and took the empty cup from his shaky hand.

“Good. Now go on to bed. Xichen would never forgive me if I let something happen to you.”

And again, Lan Wangji obeyed. He was weary enough that as soon as his head hit the pillow, his eyes started drifting shut. He watched through heavy eyelids as Jin Guangyao gathered the pot and his own still-steaming cup and left with one last glance at Lan Wangji, one last smile, one last intent look.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Lan Wangji thought to be suspicious of Jin Guangyao, but by then, it was time to leave Koi Tower, and he put his suspicions to rest. Surely Jin Guangyao would have written his obedience off as being a good guest or him being exhausted from flying during the storm. His mind still teased him with the idea that Jin Guangyao might know something of the curse, but he figured that if he suspected anything he would bring it up with Xichen. Then, Xichen would deny anything and inform Lan Wangji immediately that he suspected.

Besides there were more important things to be doing, like trying to hide how much Wei Wuxian’s fleeing to the burial mounds affected him, how much it made his heart ache and his days drag on and on. He hadn’t seen very much of Wei Wuxian since the end of the war, but that absence was filled with both of them being busy repairing their Sects from the devastations of the war. This absence felt deliberate, or, at least, more permanent.

He didn't see Wei Wuxian for months after meeting him on that mountain pass. He missed him. Every day he missed him, but that didn’t mean he had the nerve to seek him out. Until a night hunt brought him close to Yiling and he decided that if he just so happened to bump into Wei Wuxian, that wasn’t his own intent seeking him out, but fate.

He wasn’t exactly sure what he expected to happen in Yiling, Wei Wuxian catching sight of him through the crowd and throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s arms, Lan Wangji walking up his dark mountain only to be faced with Wei Wuxian’s fury and an army of corpses, or perhaps he’d miss Wei Wuxian altogether, him being on his mountain and Lan Wangji walking through the bustling streets of Yiling. Whatever he expected, it certainly wasn’t a child attaching themselves to his leg. The little one cried like no child Lan Wangji had ever heard, though, admittedly, his experience with children was sparse, and he didn’t know how to get him to stop.

“Lan Zhan!” Came a wonderfully familiar voice through the crowd, and if there hadn’t been a child attached to his leg, Lan Wangji might have ran to him.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said again when he stepped close. “What are you doing to poor little A-Yuan?”

“A-Yuan?” Lan Wangji asked, but Wei Wuxian was already kneeling in front of him to peel the little boy off his leg.

The boy lunged for Wei Wuxian and buried his tear-streaked face in Wei Wuxian’s robes only to sob again, this time, hopefully, in relief.

“Lan Zhan, meet A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian said, standing back up to full height, adjusting the boy on his hip. “My son.”

Lan Wangji looked to the boy who had a lock of Wei Wuxian’s hair in his mouth to Wei Wuxian who was giving him that same teasing grin he’d used when he’d replaced Lan Wangji’s book with porn. He wasn’t really up to being the butt of a joke at the moment, so he just blinked impassively at Wei Wuxian and waited for him to explain.

“Ah, you’re no fun, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, though he was still smiling. “You’re right, though, this isn’t my son. I am just keeping him for the afternoon.”

Lan Wangji nodded at that. Of course, this must be one of the Wens. Lan Wangji couldn’t remember seeing a child in their number, but it had been dark and rainy and there had been a number of the Wen prisoners all huddled together. A child would have been easy to miss.

“What has brought you to use today?”

“A nighthunt.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes brightened.

“I guess since you’re visiting, we’ll just have to show you our famous hospitality, then, won’t we?” Wei Wuxian asked, bouncing the little Wen on his hip. “Come eat with us!”

There was that zip of pleasure at a command followed, but Lan Wangji didn’t need the curse to dine with them. In fact, he felt so elated at meeting Wei Wuxian here in such good spirits, that had he been commanded to decline the invitation, he would have tried his best to fight it.

The meal with Wei Wuxian was enjoyable, even though it had been interrupted. The rest of the afternoon went in a blur of excitement until Lan Wangji was being ushered out of the Burial Mounds with Wei Wuxian at his side, smiling a rueful little smile.

Lan Wangji desperately wished for Wei Wuxian to tell him to stay, like he had when he’d been sick with fever after Wen Ruohan’s defeat. He wanted more than anything to be by Wei Wuxian’s side.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” Wei Wuxian said.

Lan Wangji didn’t want to go, and before he knew it, he was stepping close to Wei Wuxian who blinked at him in shock at his sudden movement.

Lan Wangji just looked at him for a moment, before he reached up and cupped Wei Wuxian’s chin in his hand and tilted his head just so until their eyes met. He wanted to be close to Wei Wuxian, as close as he could get. Lan Wangji could feel the hitch of Wei Wuxian’s breath as Lan Wangji leaned close. His hands came up to rest on Lan Wangji’s waist and Lan Wangji trembled with teh touch. He swiped his thumb just below Wei Wuxian’s lower lip and breathed out a shaky breath. Just as Wei Wuxian’s eyes fluttered shut, Lan Wangji remembered that stolen kiss, and he jerked himself back. Who was he to take this again, when it wasn’t offered?

Wei Wuxian blinked his eyes open, his brow furrowing as Lan Wangji took another step back.

“Goodbye, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian’s hand drifted up to press against his lips as Lan Wangji turned his back and all but fled. He was on fire with what he’d almost done, cursing himself for not closing the distance between their lips, horrified at nearly kissing Wei Wuxian again.

Lan Wangji thrived off the elation and devastation of his time with Wei Wuxian as he returned to Gusu and his duties that did nothing to distract him from remembering what Wei Wuxian’s hands had felt like on his waist.

He didn’t get the opportunity to see him again until Jin Ling’s one month celebration. Lan Wangji didn’t care much for babies, but he knew that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t miss it for the world, having been invited, so he went with a light heart and hope that Wei Wuxian might give him the smile he’d been missing for months.

Lan Wangji was bubbling with excitement as he headed to the guest room he was told Wei Wuxian would be using right up until the moment he was cornered in the guest wing hallway by Jin Guangyao who gave him a wide-eyed smile before bowing.

“Walk with me, Hanguang-jun,” he said.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to curl his lip at the command. He wanted to see Wei Wuxian, not have to talk to a man with whom he’d barely shared a conversation, and never before without his brother present as the real object of Jin Guangyao’s attention. He couldn’t imagine what the other man wanted to talk about, but he was unable to refuse, so he went.

“Hanguang-jun, take my arm,” he said, holding out the crook of his elbow.

There was some sort of predatory gleam behind his smile, and Lan Wangji felt his heart drop even as he took Jin Giangyao’s proffered arm. He was silent for a moment, Lan Wangji as well, as they walked down the hallways farther and farther from the guest quarters, and when he finally spoke, Lan Wangji felt dread settle in the pit of his stomach like a stone.

“I have noticed, recently, something about you,” he said, causing Lan Wangji’s breath to catch in his lungs. “You are very good at following rules.”

“I am a Lan,” Lan Wangji said.

Lan Wangji wished there was some way he could summon Xichen here to get between him and Jin Guangyao, but he was trapped.

“Ah, I think you and I both know that you are no ordinary Lan.”

He stopped them, then, having led them to a secluded corner of Koi Tower, an area that Lan Wangji had never been before. It looked like a private practice area of some sort, perhaps for the Sect Leader, though Jin Guangshan wasn’t quite one to keep up a regular training regime, so it looked mostly unused.

Lan Wangji steeled himself for what would come next, terrified and furious in sequential waves as Jin Guangyao turned to face him.

“Give me your forehead ribbon.”

At that, Lan Wangji knew he was lost. There was that same predatory gleam to Jin Guangyao’s eyes as Lan Wangji reached up to untie his ribbon, and it only grew as Lan Wangji placed it in his outstretched hand. He tried his hardest to resist, but he pooled the ribbon in Jin Guangyao’s palm as he filled with rage and horror.

“This saves me the trouble of having to get my stupid cousin involved,” Jin Guangyao said, toying witht he ribbon. “Hanguang-jun, you’ve just solved all of my problems.”

Lan Wangji stood petrified. Frozen. The next instant, though, he drew his sword with the intent to run Jin Guangyao through before this could ruin him.

“Stop!” Jin Guangyao demanded, staying Lan Wangji’s hand. At Lan Wangji’s obedience, his glee almost seemed to grow. “Good.”

Jin Guangyao walked around him while Lan Wangji stayed frozen with his sword halfway out of its sheath. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but his heart pounded in dread. He was unable to flinch away when Jin Guangyao looped the forehead ribbon back in place and began to tie it.

“Your brother told me how special these are,” he said conversationally, like Lan Wangji’s blood wasn’t boiling. “So I knew that this was the perfect test.”

He finished tying the ribbon and returned to stand in front of Lan Wangji.

“Tell me about your obedience.”

Lan Wangji bit his tongue, but the curse loosened his jaw.

“I am cursed to obey every direct command that is given to me,” he said through gritted teeth. “The curse compels me until the command has been completed.”

Jin Guangyao took a moment to look Lan Wangji over in his frozen state, turning his words over in his mind before nodding.

“I command you not to harm me,” Jin Guanyao said. “Not by hand or sword. You can move now, but do not harm or impede me in any way.”

With no other option at his disposal, as soon as Lan Wangji was free from his unmoving state, he turned on his heel to get as far away from Jin Guanyao as possible.

“Don’t go until I tell you to,” Jin Guangyao said, his tone a teasing reprimand, like how you’d scold a child. “I have one very important task for you, Lan Wangji, so listen closely. It’s one you aren’t going to like, but I didn’t like getting ordered to do it either, so better you than me.”

His next words were the worst Lan Wangji had ever heard in his whole lifetime.

“I command you to kill the Yiling Patriarch.”

The curse straightened Lan Wangji’s spine and broke his heart all at once. He shook his head, tears of rage and grief that had been teasing the back of his throat now clouding his vision, but Jin Guangyao just laughed.

“Tonight, at the banquet, once the meal is over you will take Wei Wuxian to the private gardens. You will pull him close and tell him you love him, and then you will run your sword through his heart. Then you will take the Stygian Tiger Seal off his corpse and bring it to me.”

“No,” Lan Wangji whispered as he collapsed to his knees, the additional commands already zipping down his spine. “No, please, I’m begging you.”

Jin Guangyao just laughed again, a self-pleased smile dimpling his cheeks.

“Please,” Lan Wangji whispered, bowing his head if not in supplication than to hide the tears on his cheeks from Jin Guangyao. “If not for me, for Xichen.”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes flashed, and his smile fell into something closer to a sneer.

He knelt down to Lan Wangji’s level and hissed, “And you will never, ever mention any of this to anyone, especially your brother. Do not let Xichen know that anything is wrong. ”

For half of a breath, Lan Wangji wondered if Xichen had been the one to tell Jin Guangyao of his curse. He could almost see his brother doing so, especially if he wanted to put his sworn younger brother on equal footing with Nie Mingjue who openly despised him. But Xichen had promised. Lan Wangji knew that Xuchen sometimes trusted his friends a little too closely, but he wouldn’t do that to Lan Wangji, and he especially wouldn’t do so without informing Lan Wangji that someone else knew.

Jin Guangyao must have figured it out on his own, then.

Lan Wangji remembered then, that fuzzy evening after Wei Wuxian fled to the Burial Mounds with the Wen. Once Lan Wangji had arrived back at Koi tower, he had been tired and sad and freezing, and Jin Guangyao had been there caring for him intently with overwarm tea and gentle commands. Had he figured it out then, or had that just been to test the suspicions he had? Lan Wangji shuddered to think that he could have predicted Jin Guangyao knowing, but had been too captured in his emotions to notice.

“I’m done with you,” Jin Guangyao said with a dismissive wave. “Go to your room and meditate or read or cry until the banquet.”

The first thing Lan Wangji tried to do was leave Koi Tower, and his chest ached when feet wouldn’t let him leave. Next he tried to bind himself in his room, tied to a sturdy pillar, but his hands wouldn't even pick up the rope. He even tried to lock away his own spiritual energy, but the curse prevented it. Jin Guangyao’s command took full control, so he was forced to sit in his room. First to read, but the words blurred before him, like he couldn’t even see them, too caught up in his own horror. Then, he sat to meditate, but even he couldn’t keep a calm mind amidst this terrible moment. Afterwards, though he wanted to rage, Lan Wangji cried. He wasn’t sure if it was the curse or his own helplessness, but he wept for what felt like hours as he awaited the banquet.

He nearly hoped that Xichen would come in and find him in this state. He would demand that Lan Wangji tell him what was wrong, and then Lan Wangji would tell him. He wasn’t sure if Xichen’s command would override Jin Guangyao’s or even if Xichen could find him in this state. The curse might straighten him out before Xichen even realized something was wrong, Lan Wangji having been commanded not to let him know something was wrong. He hoped his brother knew him well enough to notice anyway, but he wasn’t sure.

The banquet was nice for a Jin party. Gaudy, of course, but conducted efficiently and well planned. It would have been bearable, if not enjoyable, but Lan Wangji was trembling too hard to even hold his cup of tea, a light floral blend that Jin Guangyao must have gleaned was his favorite from Xichen. As he sat trembling, Xichen kept sending him worried glances at him, but Lan Wangji couldn’t say anything, he couldn’t get the words past his lips. He just sat quietly as his heart shattered to pieces in his chest.

Once the meal was over and everyone left to mingle, Lan Wangji took reluctant steps toward where Wei Wuxian was wiggling a finger in front of his nephew’s chubby face. He tried to stay his steps, he held the table until his fingers failed him, he gripped Xichen’s robe until the curse made him let go, he gritted his teeth and told his feet to stop, but he kept on.

“Wangji?” his brother asked, but the curse had a hold of him and he couldn’t even turn to give him a pleading look.

He made his way quickly across the room, every step feeling like it was on knives. Wei Wuxian looked up at him as he approached and gave a blinding smile, gesturing down at his nephew like Lan Wangji didn’t know who the party was for.

“Lan Zhan!” he called.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replied as he stepped close, hoping beyond hope that someone would see the terror in his eyes and put a stop to this.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian repeated, bounding to his feet. He glanced over Lan Wangji’s face and his smile fell into something worried. “Lan Zhan? Are you okay?”

Lan Wangji tried to shake his head to say no, I’m not okay, I’m about to ruin both our lives. Notice me, help me, run away and save yourself.

“Come with me?” he asked instead.

Wei Wuxian was happy to bound after him, and it ground to dust what was left of Lan Wangji’s heart. Wei Wuxian trusted him so much.

The gardens in Koi Tower really were beautiful. They were pristine, curated both for look and fragrance, and even in the dark of the evening, they were stunning to behold. No matter how enchanting, every step Lan Wangji took felt as if it was taken upon cursed ground. He trembled and trembled, but he kept walking, leading Wei Wuxian by the hand to a secluded area like something out of a daydream, a mockery of the moments he let himself drift away and think about bringing Wei Wuxian somewhere to be alone together, to press him in a kiss, to tell him how loved he was. He wondered if Jin Guangyao curated this specifically to torture him or if it had just been some horrid twist of fate.

Wei Wuxian seemed oblivious to Lan Wangji’s dread and heartbreak. Though, not completely unaware that something was bothering him. He kept shooting Lan Wangji worried glances and squeezing his hand in comfort. Lan Wangji tried to take the comfort given, but every press of Wei Wuxian’s warm fingers deepened the ache in his chest.

Only once they were stopped did Lan Wangji open his mouth to speak, halfway worried that no words would come out, that he might just start sobbing. He wasn’t sure if it was his own fortitude or some extension of the curse that kept him from collapsing to the ground in agonized weeping.

“Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asked, squeezing his hand once more. “You look like you’re about to cry.”

The concern in his voice was just as heartbreaking as anything else that was happening, and it made Lan Wangji hurt, it made his chest warm with a searing heat, not quite heartbreak, but heart-searing. Breaking was sudden, instantaneous. This was like someone was pressing a hot coal into his heart, content to let him feel as it burnt him up.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji managed to choke out before his throat closed up with a welling of tears.

“Oh, Lan Zhan, don’t cry,” Wei Wuxian said.

He hovered awkwardly for a second before pulling Lan Wangji into a tentative embrace. Lan Wangji took the opportunity to collapse into Wei Wuxian’s chest. If this was his last chance, he would hold Wei Wuxian as tightly as he could and try to savor the way Wei Wuxian was so alive against him. Wei Wuxian patted his back as he started to sob and that just made him cry harder as he let himself bask in the warmth of Wei Wuxian’s chest against his, the beat of his pulse where it rested right under his lips, the feel of his chest rising and falling with breath. How could he end this life?

“I love you,” Lan Wangji sobbed into the skin of Wei Wuxian’s neck. He didn’t know if the choked confession was because of the curse or his own need to bare his heart to Wei Wuxian before he died. Before both of them died. Lan Wangji knew he would not live long after this. How could he, after killing the man he loved? “I love you, Wei Ying. More than anything, I love you.”

Wei Wuxian tensed in his arms, his hands frozen where they had been rubbing comforting circles over his back. He tried to pull back, but Lan Wangji held him tight so that he wouldn’t see the way his hand gripped Bichen, ready to strike him down, or the tears dripping down his cheeks. He couldn’t bear what he was about to do, but he would be able to bear it even less if Wei Wuxian saw it coming, if he had to look into his love’s eyes and watch him realize what Lan Wangji was about to do.

Would there be fear or anger? Betrayal or resignation? Heartbreak or acceptance? He’d once said he’d be content to die by Lan Wangji’s hand. That he would know he needed to die if Lan Wangji was the one to strike him down. Would he die thinking Lan Wangji wished his death, thought him evil? The thought was too much for him.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian whispered in question. He was shaking too now, but he’d stopped trying to pull back and look Lan Wangji in the face.

“I love you,” Lan Wangji whispered one last time.

Lan Wangji’s hand trembled under the weight of his sword and the weight of the curse as he lifted his arm for the strike.

“Please don’t make me do this,” he sobbed—begged, prayed, bled—into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, willing his shaking hand to stay. “Please, no.”

“Lan Zhan, what?” Wei Wuxian tried to pull back again, but Lan Wangji held him firm as his whole self trembled.

His sword grew closer to Wei Wuxian.

“I will not,” he stated firmly with all that was in him. “I will not obey. I refuse to obey.”

He heard a shout in the distance, but he was too caught up in his struggle against the curse willing him to strike Wei Wuxian to register it completely.

“I will no longer be obedient,” he rasped against Wei Wuxian’s pulse, tears wetting the warm skin against his face.

And like an apple falling from a tree, like the snip of shears, like a cup that has slipped from one’s hand, Lan Wangji let go of his sword.

He was free.

Bichen clattered to the ground just before that voice shouted again, and in the background of his shock and relief, Lan Wangji recognized it as Jiang Wanyin.

He found himself suddenly wrenched away from Wei Wuxian, and he stumbled back onto the ground, breathing ragged gasps as he sobbed in relief, his hands trembling as he wrapped them around himself, finally able to control them, finally able to control himself. He didn’t feel compelled towards anything, not to lift his sword, not to keep his mouth shut against the secrets inside of him, not to secret Wei Wuxian away and ruin him.

Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian whom he had nearly killed, Wei Wuxian whom he told he loved him, Wei Wuxian who was still standing over him still, unspeaking. When Lan Wangji glanced up to make sure Wei Wuxian was truly okay, he nearly flinched back to find Wei Wuxian’s face a mask of hurt. Guided by Jiang Wanyin’s forceful hand, he stumbled away from Lan Wangji.

“You?” Wei Wuxian asked in a shocked voice, glancing at Bichen on the ground and back to Lan Wangji, trembling still. Lan Wangji shook his head, but his voice was locked in a sob.

“No—” he tried to say, but Wei Wuxian interrupted.

“You were going to kill me?”

There were tears gathering in his eyes, and Lan Wangji would do anything to make them go away.

“No, Wei Ying, no,” he said, scrambling to his knees, begging Wei Wuxian with his eyes.

But Wei Wuxian was already turning away and Jiang Wanyin was pointing his sword under Lan Wangji’s chin.

“Who gave you the right?” He demanded. “Don’t come near him again!”

The command did nothing to Lan Wangji, but that realization came secondary to the fact that Wei Wuxian was disappearing from the garden at a run with one last glance at Lan Wangji, his teary eyes filled with betrayal.

“I was cursed,” he whispered to Jiang Wanyin as he watched Wei Wuxian go. “Please, I don’t want to hurt him. I was ordered to.”

Jiang Wanyin scoffed, but pulled his sword back. He refused to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes, and Lan Wangji wondered if he was put off by the tears.

“You of all people. I see how deep Hanguang-jun’s love goes,” he hissed with all the venom of a cobra. “Stay away from Wei Wuxian or next time I won’t be so lenient.”

And then he was gone too, following Wei Wuxian as Lan Wangji bent over himself in a sob again, free and unchained and heartbroken still.

Once he finally dried himself of his own tears and worked himself to his feet, Lan Wangji made his way in a daze to his brother. He wished he could go to Wei Wuxian, to explain, but he couldn’t bear seeing that betrayed look in his eyes again. He wasn’t sure exactly how he got back to the banquet hall, but once he was there, he found his brother’s blue robes near the Nie sect’s tables and stumbled over. Xichen looked up, eyes still crinkled from the tail end of a laugh until he saw the tears on Lan Wangji’s cheeks. He wasted no time in excusing them to lead Lan Wangji away from the banquet.

It wasn’t until they were alone that Lan Wangji let himself crumble to pieces again. He collapsed into his brother’s arms almost the moment they were away from the bustle of the crowd and wept. Xichen held him while he was wracked with sobs, making soothing noises, but not being able to do much else since Lan Wangji was too overcome to tell him why he was so distraught.

“I’m free,” he sobbed into his brother’s chest. “The curse is broken,” and then, “I almost killed Wei Ying.”

Xichen held him tightly to his chest. “What?” He asked in a daze, still processing.

Lan Wangji was still processing too, trembling still with what he’d almost done, with what he’d been made to endure this night.

“I was ordered to,” Lan Wangji told him, “Someone found out about the curse.”

Xichen froze beneath him in shock or rage one and then began shaking. It reminded Lan Wangji of the day Shufu found out about the curse, the way he had shook with anger on Lan Wangji’s behalf. He didn’t often find ways to compare Xichen and Shufu, but perhaps they were similar in the way they loved him.

“Who was it?” Xichen asked, his voice seething in anger. “I’ll kill them. I’ll tear them to pieces.”

Lan Wangji paused. He knew to reveal who it was would break his brother’s heart, but he also knew that he couldn’t let Jin Guangyao free. He warred with himself for just a moment, struggling against hurting Xichen and ensuring Wei Wuxian’s safety and gaining justice for himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said, pulling himself so that he could tell Xichen to his face. “It was Jin Guangyao.”

Xichen blinked at him for a moment, like he couldn’t understand the name Lan Wangji had given him. Then, he closed his eyes and took a moment to take a deep breath like he did everytime he was overcome with more emotion than he knew what to do with.

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Lan Wangji said, terrified for a moment that Xichen wouldn’t believe him, that he would take his sworn brother’s side over his. “Especially since you two are so close, but please—”

Xichen’s mouth hardened.

“I believe you,” he said in a low voice. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me, especially about this.” He took another breath. “That doesn’t make it easier to hear, though.”

Lan Wangji sat back and wiped his eyes, feeling slightly embarrassed when he noticed the wet patch of tears staining the front of Xichen’s robes.

“What should we do?” Lan Wangji asked.

Another breath and then, “I’ll handle this.”

And then Xichen was on his feet, stalking from the room. Lan Wangji didn’t miss the way Shuoyue was held so tightly in his grip that his knuckles were seared white.

Lan Wangji followed Xichen’s frantic pace until they were back at the banquet hall, steeling himself for whatever would happen next, wishing he hadn’t left his own sword abandoned on the ground in the gardens.

“Jin Guangyao!” Xichen bellowed the moment they burst into the hall, the loudest and angriest Lan Wangji had ever heard his brother.

The hall fell silent and Jin Guangyao’s smile fell immediately into brief conclusion before a glance to Lan Wangji drained all the color from his cheeks. Lan Wangji knew immediately that he realized the situation, especially when he backed up several steps to put him further out of Xichen’s reach.

“How?” He breathed. “I ordered you not to—”

Xichen interrupted, “You betrayed my trust. You took advantage of my brother’s curse and tried to have him kill Wei Wuxian.”

The whole hall seemed to gasp in unison at the accusation, especially since it came from the ever-calm Sect Leader Lan towards his own beloved sworn brother.

Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao started, but seemed unable to finish being faced with such a direct and public accusation.

Surprisingly, it was Nie Mingjue who reacted first, lunging to his feet as he drew Baxia, pointing it at Jin Guangyao, his fury making him seem twice as big as he actually was.

“How dare you?” he growled. “You little snake, I should have killed you years ago.”

Jin Guangyao stumbled back and fell back, scrambling farther backwards away from Nie Mingjue’s sabre.

“Quiet everyone!” Jin Guangshan shouted over the mostly-silent hall. Nie Mingjue didn’t drop his sabre or look away from Jin Guangyao. “Zewu-jun, would you mind explaining the situation further to us? What curse?”

Xichen glanced in Lan Wangji’s direction for permission which was freely given. If he was truly free of the curse then what did it matter if everyone knew? Especially if telling everyone resulted in Jin Guangyao never being able to come close to hurting Wei Wuxian ever again.

“My brother has been cursed since childhood to obey every command. Jin Guangyao discovered the curse and commanded Wangji to kill Wei Wuxian. Wangji broke the curse before finishing the command and came straight to me.”

Jin Guangshan gave Xichen a patronizing look and said, “And how are we supposed to believe this? If the curse has been broken, where is your proof?”

Lan Wangji saw Xichen’s grip on his sword tighten as he steeled himself against his anger.

“The Lan Elders have extensive records, though they have never revealed to us the exact perpetrator of the curse, they will have record of it at Cloud Recesses. Besides that, here in this room, at least four of us knew of the curse before not counting Jin Guangyao himself.”

“And who might those people be?”

“My brother, of course. Myself, my esteemed Uncle and Sect Leader Nie all knew as well.”

Nie Mingjue growled again, this time with no words, just his teeth barred and his sword unwaveringly pointed inches away from the soft skin of Jin Guangyao’s neck.

“And what does Hanguang-jun have to say of all this?”

Lan Wangji fisted his hand more tightly behind his back to hide his trembling.

“What my brother said is true. Jin Guangyao noticed the curse and abused it at first opportunity. This afternoon, he cornered me alone and first tested the curse before ordering me to murder Wei Wuxian after this very banquet.”

“How did you break the curse? Surely if you were cursed all your life, you would have already found a way to break it rather than just this moment,”

Lan Wangji burned red and refused to answer. Thankfully, Xichen answered for him, though, the answer coming from him still wasn’t something he wanted presented in front of a room of people, most of whom Lan Wangji either despised or was indifferent towards.

“My brother and Wei Wuxian have been very close since they were young. They are Zhiji to one another. Wangji was overcome with grief at being ordered to end the life of one he cared about so dearly, and his will overcame the curse.”

There were murmurs in the room, some of them acquiescing, some still doubtful.

“Any cultivator who wouldn’t fight such a curse to save their Zhiji has no place in this room,” Nie MIngjue said. “If I was ordered to do the same, I would fall on my own sword before I obeyed. Wangji has done nothing dishonorable.”

None were too keen to argue with Nie Mingjue and look weak in his eyes and, by extension, the eyes of everyone around, especially not with his teeth still bared in anger and his sabre still drawn.

There was an awkward silence as Jin Guangshan looked to his son on the ground trapped by Nie Mingjue’s blade and then to the Twin Jades standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Well, I deem this evidence substantial. Who can doubt the word of Hanguang-jun, Sect Leader Lan, and Sect Leader Nie all at once?” Jin Guangshan said. “Take the bastard away. His treachery had shamed Koi Tower.”

Jin Guangshan looked almost apathetic as he waved his arm for Jin Guangyao to be dealt with, which caused Jin Guangyao’s hopeful face to fall into something desperate and betrayed.

Jin Guangyao, with the wild eyes of a cornered animal, turned to his father.

Fuqin, please, I was just trying to do as you told me!” He whimpered, making himself pathetic for sympathy, no doubt. “You asked me to get you the Stygian Tiger Seal. I was only following your orders, please.”

Jin Guangshan turned away with a sneer.

“I should have known better than to let the son of a whore into my household.”

Before even Nie Mingjue could react, Jin Guangyao let out a furious shriek and leapt forward to plunge a dagger into his father’s heart.

“You monster!” He shouted, pulling the knife back only to bring it down once more, causing the Sect Leader to stumble back into his throne. Jin Guangyao followed with another blow from his dagger. “All I wanted was for you to be my father, for you to accept me, but that was never going to happen, was it? You’re nothing but a miserable wretch!”

When he raised his arms to bring the dagger down again, they were caught by Nie Mingjue who had finally stepped forward. He was thrown to the ground and restrained, the dagger wrenched from his trembling grasp, but the damage had been done. Sect Leader Jin was left collapsed across his throne gasping for breaths that wouldn’t fill his lungs.

As Jin Zixuan leapt forward to try and share spiritual energy with his fading father, Jin Guangyao started laughing. He laughed until fat tears fell from his eyes, even as he was passed from Nie Mingjue’s hands and put in restraints. He laughed as he was led out of the hall to be imprisoned until everyone recovered from the shock of the evening.

Xichen put a hand to Lan Wangji’s arm.

“I can handle everyone for the moment. You should rest.”

Lan Wangji was exhausted. He had nearly killed the love of his life, broken a supposedly unbreakable curse that had been on him since childhood, cried until he ached with it, and had to talk in front of almost everyone important in the cultivation world. Not to mention see Jin Guangshan stuck like a pig right in front of him. All he wanted to do was go to his room to sleep.

He nodded to his brother, accepting the brief clasp of his hands before nodding to Nie MIngjue as well in thanks, earning him a clap on the shoulder. Then he dismissed himself and headed back to the guest quarters where he’d spent most of the afternoon weeping. f

He had just made it to his room and started taking down his hair when there came a knock on his door. He almost ignored it, but he figured that they might keep trying and opening it to tell them to go away might get the whole ordeal over with more quickly. His heart skipped a beat when he opened the door only to see Wei Wuxian standing there, looking up to meet his gaze with wide, imploring eyes. They stood there for a moment, neither of them speaking, as Lan Wangji’s heart pounded even as he nearly started crying again at the sight of Wei Wuxian alive and well in front of him.

Wei Wuxian reached out to clutch Lan Wangji’s sleeve, like he was scared to touch him, but also desperate to be close.

“Lan Zhan,” he breathed, dropping Lan Wangji’s sleeve to take his hand instead. “Is it true, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked, letting himself drift a step closer to Lan Wangji. “Were you ordered to kill me? Your curse compelled you? It wasn’t actually you?”

Lan Wangji’s heart fluttered and his breath froze in his lungs. This was it. This was when Wei Wuxian either let him in or turned away forever. Why was that almost as terrifying as plunging a sword into his chest?

“It was the curse,” he said, almost startled by the intensity in his own voice. It struck him then, Wei Wuxian had to know, Lan Wangji had to make sure that he knew that he would rather die than kill him. “I had been ordered to not tell anyone and to kill you. I had never been able to disobey a command before—” He clutched Wei Wuxian’s hands back. “—but I couldn’t do it, I refused to obey.”

“But you broke your curse? For me?”

Lan Wangji flickered his eyes up to meet Wei Wuxian’s, but dropped it again when he felt overcome by the intimacy of it.

“I couldn’t kill you,” he admitted, turning his hands over to lace their fingers together. “I wouldn’t. I never want any harm to come to you.”

Wei Wuxian took another tentative step forward until the toes of their boots knocked against each others’.

“When you told me you loved me,”—Wei Wuxian broke his own sentence with a sharp intake of breath— “was it because of the curse?”

Lan Wangji had been ordered to tell Wei Wuxian he loved him, probably just for Jin Guangyao’s own amusement, to hurt him, but he hadn’t done it because of that.

“I love you,” he said, meeting Wei Wuxian’s gaze again and this time holding it even though it made him shake. “I’ve loved you for years. No curse could change that.”

Wei Wuxian let out a sob as he threw himself into Lan Wangji’s arms. He clung tightly, like he didn’t ever want to let go, and Lan Wangji returned the embrace just as desperately.

“You don’t know how happy I was to hear that,” he said. “And then when I saw your sword I was so heartbroken, I didn’t know what to do with myself! I cried all over Jin Zixuan, did you know that? My shijie was busy with the baby and his was the only shoulder available.”

“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji said, though he smiled against Wei Wuxian’s neck.

“You should be!” He cried. “You’ll have to make it up to me a thousand times!”

Lan Wangji had been through so many emotions today, and this was just another one to add to the list. The elation of Wei Wuxian here in his arms holding him, teasing him, so, so alive.

Lan Wangji could tell Wei Wuxian was only joking but he said, “Tell me what you need me to do.”

Wei Wuxian pulled back to look him in the eye. There were obvious tear tracks on his face, but his smile was blinding. Lan Wangji reached up to wipe the tears away, but he was sidetracked, by that smile, his hands frozen where they cupped Wei Wuxian’s cheeks in his palms.

“Tell me you love me every day.”

There was no zing down his spine from the command, no compelling drive, but Lan Wangji knew he would follow it anyway. He would have done so

“I love you,” he said, and then again, “I love you.”

“Ah, no! Stop it,” Wei Wuxian said with a laugh. “I can’t take it!”

But Lan Wangji continued, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” until Wei Wuxian crashed their lips together to get him to stop.

It was a terrible kiss, really, Lan Wangji in the middle of speaking and Wei Wuxian laughing so that his teeth more than his lips were on Lan Wangji, but it was perfect anyway.

“I love you too,” he said when he pulled back. “I hope you know that.”

“Maybe you should tell me everyday.”

The second kiss wasn’t much better seeing as they were both laughing this time, but it was just as perfect.