The day is warm. A moment ago it had been winter, and the only warmth had been in Lan Zhan’s arms. Wei Wuxian frowns, stirring lightly. The sounds of a city reach his ears, filtering through the sleepy peace he had settled into. He is rocking gently on a boat, and it is so painfully familiar it must be a dream.
“Wei Wuxian! I’ll set the dogs on you!”
It’s not the threat itself (though it is substantial) as much as the voice and its tone that make Wei Wuxian bolt upright, flailing as the boat rocks dangerously. He knows these voices. One of them belongs to the dead, and the other does not sound as angry as it should.
“I’m here!” he says, a reflex born from years of saying it. This, at least, has not changed throughout the years.
He thinks that either Lan Zhan or he must have left the incense burner on. Had they been using the incense burner? Wei Wuxian is less than sure, and this seems an unlikely place for his mind to go when he is alone in the Jingshi with Lan Zhan, wrapped in his husband’s arms. He had been thinking of other things, he is sure, things he shouldn’t be thinking of as Jiang Yanli appears in front of him, Jiang Cheng coming to a halt just slightly behind her.
Wei Wuxian stands on the boat for only a moment. Jiang Yanli smiles at him, her face young and soft and kind. Jiang Cheng glares, his face also young and soft and unburdened by long years of grief. It is unreal. Wei Wuxian thinks he must be dying. Around them, Caiyi putters on, unmoved, unheeding of the storm inside Wei Wuxian’s chest. His entire world has shifted, violently upended.
And then it does shift in truth, because he is stepping onto the dock, flinging himself into his sister’s arms. She catches him, but he very nearly bowls her over, only barely stopping the force of his body. She is soft. She is sturdy and she is laughing at his antics. Everything is as it should be (but not quite).
“Shijie! I missed you!”
“A-Xian, you saw me five minutes ago.”
Right. It hasn’t been twenty years for them. It has been five minutes since Wei Wuxian had dashed away, disappearing towards the river. Five minutes since Jiang Cheng had yelped and chased after him, losing Wei Wuxian to the crowd of people minding their everyday business. Five minutes.
“That’s very long, you know?” he tells her. Straightens up to look at her, to smile perhaps too widely, eyes squeezing to keep the tears from spilling. She notices, because of course she does, and looks concerned. His shijie is concerned for him. Always.
He knows then that this isn’t a dream. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how, but the incense burner has always allowed him to look at these things from the outside. He is in it now, looking down at Jiang Yanli. He is standing in Caiyi town on the day they had arrived, and tomorrow they will go to Cloud Recesses, forgetting their invitation. Tomorrow they will stand at the gate and be refused entry, and a young man will pass by. Jiang Cheng will introduce him as Second Child Lan, Lan Zhan, Wangji—
Lan Zhan. Oh, Lan Zhan.
None of that has happened yet. Here, Wei Wuxian doesn’t have a husband.
His eyes are leaking. Wei Wuxian wipes it away and lets go of his sister. “We need to—to go to Cloud Recesses. We need to go to Cloud Recesses and—”
He needs to see Lan Zhan. It settles in his throat, a blockade. It ties his tongue. He needs to see Lan Zhan and it needs to be now or Wei Ying, Wuxian, will lose his entire gods-damned mind. He needs to see Lan Zhan or it will kill him.
“We need to find the inn,” Jiang Cheng says. “We won’t make it to Cloud Recesses before nightfall. It’s twenty li, you know!”
And Wei Wuxian does know. He knows because he had measured those twenty li when he had trekked back from the world to here, from here to Gusu, from Gusu, finally, to Cloud Recesses, where he had played the flute atop a waterfall. He doesn’t have that flute yet. Perhaps he never will.
He follows, clutching Jiang Yanli’s hand, and only half-listens to Jiang Cheng telling him to be good. I’ll be good, he thinks, I’ll be so good.
But he can’t think of anything else but Lan Zhan, who would be here too. Lan Zhan who wouldn’t know him, who would stare back at him without the recognition, without the love, and Wei Wuxian is sure that this will break him for certain. Jiang Yanli squeezes his hand and looks so earnestly, heartbreakingly concerned that it makes Wei Wuxian almost cry with the despair of it, but how can he explain? How can he explain the twenty years of heartache that awaits them?
The inn comes up too soon. Wei Wuxian sees the sign and almost tells Jiang Cheng to forget it, that the whole place has been reserved for some Jin peacock. He’s not paying attention, that’s why it catches him so off-guard when—
There is a figure in white. He is young, so painfully young, so carefully put together. He shouldn’t be here, because he would arrive by the mountain path with a retinue carrying a body. He shouldn’t be here staring at Wei Wuxian like he knows. Like Lan Wangji knows him, like he knows the path ahead, like he knows their future together. Like he is older than this precious, precocious fifteen, held tightly together in this skin and those white robes.
There is a figure in white.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian sobs, and then flings himself into those strong arms.
In the end it’s Lan Zhan who stares Jin Zixuan down and wins a concession that nets them rooms for the night. Wei Wuxian wonders if he’s ever told Lan Zhan what had happened here, what had caused them to be so frazzled and on edge as to so foolishly forget their invitations to the Lan indoctrination. He doesn’t think he has, and also doesn’t care, because Lan Zhan is near, Lan Zhan is holding his hand, and Jin Zixuan has to concede that he can’t just occupy an entire inn, no matter how rich and arrogant the Jin are.
“That’s so hot,” he whispers in Lan Zhan’s ear as they claim their rooms. Lan Zhan shivers, and apparently this is where things are a bit much for Jiang Cheng.
“What the FUCK is going on with you!” he demands, slamming the door shut. “First you insist we go to Cloud Recesses, which is still twenty li away, and now you’re clinging to Lan-er-gongzi like some hussy—”
Jiang Cheng yelps when Lan Zhan turns abruptly and levels him with a glare, apparently not having expected such a strong reaction from the otherwise impassive Second Jade of Lan. Wei Wuxian, more used to both their antics, just laughs at all of this consternation.
“Cloud Recesses came to me,” he says easily. “It’s all fine now. We’ll stay here and go in the morning. Ah, Lan Zhan—you told your brother, yes? I don’t want him to worry about where you’ve gone.”
Lan Zhan nods, finally looking away from Jiang Cheng. “I sent the other disciples.”
Oh. He must have broken away from them as soon as he’d realised where—when they were. He must have come looking for Wei Wuxian, likely deducing that the Jiang retinue had arrived today and would be looking for a place to stay the night, because Cloud Recesses is still at least two hours away on foot. Had he hurried here?
“Were you far?” Wei Wuxian murmurs.
“Not far,” Lan Zhan replies, which means he must have been outside the town, likely at least five li away. So yes, he had hurried. Wei Wuxian smiles.
Jiang Cheng makes an angry noise at the back of his throat, but Jiang Yanli steps forward and hums to get their attention. She looks very earnest, very open, smiling with some understanding, though her eyes linger at the closeness between them. It must seem strange to her, even if Wei Wuxian is known to be a little handsy, because technically the Second Child Lan is a complete stranger.
“We are grateful for your help, Lan-er-gongzi,” she says. “Will you be staying? We are one room short.”
“I will stay with Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, making Wei Wuxian blush bright red. It is very bold, even if it is very wanted.
“You’ll what? ” says Jiang Cheng, head probably spinning. It’s not improper per se, but he (too) has been watching the closeness between his brother and Lan Wangji like a hawk, and he probably doesn’t like it. Probably thinks it must’ve sprung overnight, since the two had never seen each other until twenty minutes ago.
Before Lan Zhan can repeat himself, Wei Wuxian intercedes. “We’ll share a room, it’s not a big deal! There’s two beds in there,” and he laughs nervously, knowing very well that one of those beds will go unused, because he has no concept anymore of what it means to sleep alone in a bed, not now that he has Lan Zhan with him (always).
“Anyway!” he says, perhaps too loudly judging by the way Lan Zhan winces almost imperceptibly at the sound. “Anyway,” he says, softer, “we’ll go get settled. Dinner’s in a few hours. We’ll see you then!”
And then he hurries out of this particular room, sort of haphazardly striding down the hall and only sparing a smile at Mianmian as she marches past. He chooses the first unoccupied room and tumbles inside, only vaguely remembering to close the door before he pushes Lan Zhan against a wall and very nearly climbs the man (boy, still) as they kiss.
It’s not really a kind kiss. It’s mostly desperate, partly because the whole thing with Jin Zixuan really had been hot, and partly because for a heartrending moment he truly had believed that everything between them was lost. But it isn’t, so he can press hotly against Lan Zhan and claim his mouth, can have those arms around his waist and grind against his husband like the needy little animal he is.
And because they’re fifteen still, they spend far too soon. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Wei Ying thinks this isn’t quite right, this moment and the intimacy of it has come upon them far too soon, but he also doesn’t care because Lan Zhan looks wrecked in such a good way that it doesn’t matter.
They will definitely have to hold off on anything more serious and mind-bending until they’re a little older, though. Wei Ying doesn’t think he’ll survive it, and groans when he sees Lan Zhan smirk like he knows exactly what Wei Ying has thought of and will be holding them to that, somehow. As if it isn’t his iron will that melts away every damned time.
But Lan Zhan pulls Wei Ying into a hug, and he thinks that for this, for the sweetness of it, he can wait a few years before he can have Lan Zhan properly.
They depart early the next morning, just before seven. The Jiang disciples grumble about it, but at least they’ll be departing before the dreaded Jin, leaving those pompous children of gold to sleep a few hours more.
Then they stand there, boggled to see Wei Wuxian up and chipper, practically vibrating with energy. Standing next to Second Child Lan, who looks serene and somehow exuding happiness, as if he isn’t standing right next to chaos incarnate. Chaos incarnate who they’ve never seen up before nine.
“What is wrong with you,” Jiang Cheng asks for perhaps the millionth time. It’s what everyone’s been wondering, anyway, and they still haven’t received a straight answer.
“I’m happy,” Wei Wuxian says for perhaps the millionth time. It’s true, anyway; he’s the happiest he’s ever been, except for perhaps his wedding day. Except for perhaps the day he’d returned and heard Lan Zhan say his name again, whispering it like he was the god of the wind.
He doesn’t say, I’m from the future and this man is the light of my life, keeper of my heart, my husband. It would be a long story, and he has a feeling he’ll have to be repeating it a couple of times, so they might as well do it after they’ve gathered all the relevant Lans.
Lan Zhan and he had discussed it last night—the things they can change (so many), the things they will keep (this, them, their son). The future seems to be beginning here, for them. The future is boundless. They know the general shape of it, and have lived it. Their past now lays ahead.
It’s going to take a hell of a lot to convince everyone else, though.
So they walk up to the foggy mountain in rapt silence, the Jiang disciples in awe of its majesty. Wei Wuxian has seen it enough times that it doesn’t ruffle him until it does, and then he’s crying again because it’s home. It’s so silly, because Cloud Recesses hadn’t felt like home, then. It had felt like a stuffy, rigid place, its sentries unmoving, its er-gongzi a fuddy-duddy who held the rules as sacred. Wei Wuxian had been both so right, and so wrong.
They’re let in easily, their invitations in hand. The sentries watch in confusion as a strange boy clings to their second young master, as Lan Wangji just allows this and seems even pleased. They throw each other confused, wide-eyed looks and stay very quiet.
Wei Wuxian walks the paths of Cloud Recesses like he knows them, like they are home. He hears the Jiang disciples whisper about it before a glare from Jiang Cheng quiets them, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t react; he has Lan Zhan, and he is speaking a li per minute, marveling at being here, at being so young—
“—so young, Lan Zhan, so early days still—”
A realisation strikes him and he leans in to whisper it in Lan Zhan’s ear, this body is still a virgin, and giggles in delight when Lan Zhan’s ears flare with red. The Lan disciples walking by are shocked (that the Second Jade allowed someone so close, that this boy has flustered him,) and Wei Wuxian continues speaking as if it is nothing. As if it is simply how things are between them, as if he has the right. Jiang Cheng is fuming behind them. Wei Wuxian doesn’t notice.
His legs carry him along the paths, and he is marvelling at how different Cloud Recesses is, how untouched, and they can keep all of this Lan Zhan! They can protect it, protect everyone, stop the tide of war before it burns too hot (because it will burn regardless, its embers already flaring. Wen Chao would be arriving tomorrow, after all). Wei Wuxian is vibrating with the potential. He tilts along with Lan Zhan’s body as their path splits—
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng calls. “Where do you think you’re going?”
They stop. Wei Wuxian turns with a frown; Lan Zhan is slower, regarding Jiang Cheng impassively.
“I’m going—” home, he wants to say. Realises that home is Lan Zhan, and that home is the Jingshi. “I—”
Jiang Yanli looks like she knows. Like she’s known for a while now. She smiles gently, placing an arm on Jiang Cheng as if to tug him away.
“The guest rooms are this way, Wei-gongzi,” says a Lan disciple. He does not see the narrowing of Lan Wangji’s eyes, but he does see how Lan Wangji grips Wei Wuxian’s arms. And he frowns.
Wei Wuxian smiles, wide and painful. “It’s all right, Lan Zhan,” he says. “After all, we’re not married yet.”
“Married!” Jiang Cheng bellows, because he has just about reached his limit. He definitely crosses it when Wei Wuxian leans in and kisses Lan Wangji’s cheek (as one does NOT do!) and Lan Wangji simply allows this.
“I’ll be good,” Wei Wuxian says, like it’s a promise. “Wait for me?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, also a promise. “Always.”
“We need to go to the Receiving Hall,” Wei Wuxian says the moment Jiang Cheng has sorted his belongings. “Come.”
He doesn’t give Jiang Cheng a moment to protest. He still has too much energy and he’s been away from Lan Zhan for an hour. They’ve gone longer without each other’s presence, but something about this all has Wei Wuxian on edge, like it’ll dissolve if he makes a wrong turn or blinks at an inopportune moment. He’s jittery with the threat of it.
Jiang Cheng catches his arm. “Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you so clingy with Lan Wangji? You barely even know each other. You’ve never been to this place but you walk around like you own it! This is shameless even for you.”
It’s not anger anymore, in Jiang Cheng’s voice. He sounds honestly worried now, which just makes Wei Wuxian more aware of the electricity under his skin. He can’t stay here. He needs to see Lan Zhan.
He sighs. “A-Cheng. I will tell you. But we need to go to the Receiving Hall right now, and I would prefer it if you were with me. I’ve already told shijie to meet us there. I will explain everything, I promise.”
Well, perhaps not everything. There are some details Wei Wuxian would be keeping to himself, the intimate things between him and Lan Zhan. The more heartbreaking things. He might even omit the golden core transfer, and then dismisses that thought because keeping it secret hadn’t, in the end, done him any good. He will do better, this time.
And finally Jiang Cheng relents, so they go to the Receiving Hall. Wei Wuxian doesn’t rush, per se, because he knows the rules that reign here too well, but he has learnt (from observing Sizhui and Jingyi) how to scurry at exactly the right velocity that the Lans will allow. Has mastered it, in fact, and even just boldly takes a shortcut because he is and always will be an impatient man. Boy. He’s still a boy.
It’s not a surprise that Lan Zhan is already there, that he has gathered his uncle and his brother. There’s another Elder there as a witness. Jiang Yanli is already seated and looking worried. Lan Xichen looks… better than Wei Wuxian remembers him, and then he realises with a real shock that nothing has happened yet that will break his brother-in-law, that will shake his confidence and rob him of his easy smile. That will settle in him like a festering hurt.
Lan Zhan rises from his cushion, reaching for Wei Wuxian. They meet halfway, touching foreheads, and Wei Wuxian ignores the growl from Jiang Cheng because there is nothing that compares to this —the security of holding Lan Zhan’s hands, of knowing he is here, of being certain that Wei Ying is known. That he is loved. That this is real.
Lan Xichen looks at them with raised brows when they turn towards the gathered party. Lan Qiren doesn’t look angry per se, but he’s not pleased either, and Wei Wuxian remembers the resigned look on the man’s face when his nephew had demanded he be allowed to marry Wei Wuxian ‘properly’. It’s a fond memory, even if he’d thought at the time that Lan Qiren would Qi deviate.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says. “Why did you call us here? Did something happen?”
“Not yet,” says Lan Zhan. “It will.”
It takes two hours in total, to tell them. The Lan Elder writes it down. Jiang Yanli cries, and so Wei Wuxian cries. Their story is traumatic, he realises belatedly, and then wonders how he had possibly coped. How he had come out of any of it whole, and then realises he’d died a broken man, and that death had given all of this a much needed distance. That this shift in time has given it even more distance, and that’s why it won’t break him again.
(And, he thinks, the fact that he won’t have to live any of it this time).
“How do we know you are telling the truth?” Lan Qiren asks, because of course he does. Wei Wuxian can’t even fault him; he wouldn’t believe this either, even knowing that Lan Zhan doesn’t lie. Never lies.
So he fixes Lan Xichen with a look and says, “Twenty years from now, you stood with me in front of the Jingshi,” and Lan Xichen’s eyes go wide. “You told me—will tell me— told me a story about your mother. She was a prisoner. She still loved you, and you loved her. Lan Zhan loved her so much that when she died, when he was told she was gone, he still went up to the Jingshi every day, waiting for the doors to open. And they never did.”
Next to him, Lan Zhan is a little tense. He must’ve known, at least peripherally, that Wei Wuxian had been told this. He must have inferred, but it still can’t be easy to hear. Wei Wuxian slots their fingers together and squeezes.
“I believe you,” says Lan Xichen, eyes briefly closed. He looks at their twined hands, apparently a little puzzled about what to do with that. They hadn’t explained about their marriage, but their feelings must have gotten through. Lan Zhan had told the tale of the sixteen years of grief and waiting, and Wei Wuxian never wants to hear it again. The words had cleaved themselves into his chest, seeking to split his heart and succeeding.
“I wish to marry Wei Ying as soon as possible,” Lan Zhan says now, knocking all the breath out of Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“Wangji!” Lan Qiren says, aghast. Somewhere to the left, Jiang Cheng makes a noise like a dying cat.
At least the other Lan Elder smiles behind her sleeve. Lan Xichen has the grace to laugh, which does not make it any less embarrassing when he says, “I see. You’re both still very young, Wangji.”
“Sixteen years,” Lan Zhan says, and manages to convey, I’ve waited enough.
“But it hasn’t been. Not yet.” Lan Xichen sighs. “And it won’t be. Is three years more amenable to you? What does Wei-gongzi think of this? Does he wish to marry my brother?”
There are so many things Wei Wuxian could say—that they’d wasted so much time. That he had spent so many years oblivious not just to Lan Zhan’s feelings but his own. That he had been dead for sixteen years and Lan Zhan had grieved him for all of them. That he had travelled the world to find his heart, and it had been beating in Lan Zhan’s hands, to the same rhythm as Lan Zhan’s own. That waiting seems like torture.
Instead he says, “Yes. Three years is amenable.”
Jiang Cheng dies an ugly death over yonder, but at least Jiang Yanli smiles brightly at him, still bleary from crying. Fresh tears roll down her cheeks, but these are happy ones, so Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to feel guilty. He still does, a little, for making her cry in the first place.
“Someone should inform Jiang Fengmian, then,” Lan Xichen says, sighing again. “We have much to discuss in the upcoming weeks.”
When it is time, they find a cave.
They go to the Cold Spring first, ostensibly to bathe. It has been six months since their arrival, and six months of being chaperoned. Wei Wuxian thinks he has borne this very well, very obediently, and that he should be allowed a bath in the springs with his betrothed without being followed. As a treat.
Lan Zhan shakes off his Lan chaperone easily enough on account of just being intimidating and the Lans in general being a private bunch. His diso bedience is unprecedented and therefore unexpected. Wei Wuxian has a harder time with his Jiang chaperone on account of being a known mischief-maker, and shameless to boot.
(Jiang Fengmian had been very surprised at the letter from Lan Xichen asking him to come at once. He had likely thought Wei Wuxian had already caused problems barely a day into indoctrination, which isn’t wrong per se, insofar as that Wei Wuxian hadn’t caused a problem so much as a ripple, and a dire migraine for Lan Qiren.
What Jiang Fengmian had come to find was a long and impossible tale of war and destruction and his own death. He believed it if only because the Wei Wuxian that stared back at him, repeating the tale with the distant look of someone who had lived the nightmare, this Wei Wuxian, is not the boy he had sent to Cloud Recesses hardly a week before. This Wei Wuxian is older and battle-hardened. Broken in places, and slotted back like shattered porcelain.
This Wei Wuxian also sits the entire time holding Lan Wangji’s hand as if he was born for it. They sit very, very close).
(The betrothal had been sealed perhaps half an hour later. Probably less).
Wei Wuxian feels a vague sense of triumph when he finally shakes his guardian. Mostly he is distracted with the need to go to the Cold Spring, to find Lan Zhan and seek out the cave. It is time.
As before, he shivers when he lets his body sink into the water. This time he has no wounds on his back. This time he glides forward into Lan Zhan’s arms and holds on tightly as they are swept under, breath stolen from them as they roll and crash and emerge someplace else. They take gasping breaths.
It snows very lightly. Lan Zhan helps Wei Wuxian up. He has already removed his ribbon, and wraps it easily around their wrists. This time, Wei Wuxian knows what it means. This time he kisses Lan Zhan’s bare forehead, a promise he will see fulfilled.
“Oh,” says Lan Yi when they approach. “I called you. But I have stepped out of time and I think… I think I may have called too far. And then you were here, my waters…” She considers them, then nods. “You will be wiser.”