“Do you always have nothing better to do here.”
Wei Wuxian’s ears perked as he looked up. A boy was striding across the grass towards him. His hands were firm behind his upright back and his chin raised as if perched on a golden branch. Looking at the brat, his hand itched to give the back of that snooty face a smack. But it didn’t stop a glowing smile from spreading across his face.
The princess had grown again in these months. With Suihua a beam of gold at his side, he looked very much like how Wei Wuxian remembered the boy’s father had during their unrestrained years of fifteen and sixteen when they had walked the halls of Gusu Lan.
“Ah-Ling!” He shouted. “I’ve missed you!”
Some rabbits around him startled and they hopped away. Over at the houses bordering the grassy field, a few disciples passing through the walkways looked around to see who had the audacity to make such a ruckus. And when they realized whose voice it was, they merely shook their heads and continued their way. When even Zewu-Jun allowed that man a latitude of three chi and Hanguang-Jun, an unspoken indulgence of a thousand li*, who else could ever say a word.
Jin Ling scowled, “Quiet! Do you want to get us into trouble!”
“Little young master Jin Ling, you’re being very loud too.”
The boy rolled his eyes and stopped a few steps away, just at the edge of the shadow of the large magnolia tree where he was hiding from the afternoon sun. Something caught Jin Ling’s attention and he shifted to stare at the spot of grass to the right of Wei Wuxian. A white rabbit was lying on its side with its legs twitching where a hand was stroking and tickling the furry underside of its belly.
“What are you doing…” Jin Ling asked.
Wei Wuxian followed his line of sight to look at the rabbit. He chuckled before releasing his gentle hold on its round tummy and watching it scamper away, looking ruffled.
“Nothing much!” He quipped. “Do you know that the fur on a rabbit’s tummy is nicer to rub than the fur on its back?”
“Hah? What kind of nonsense is that! It’s all the sa-,” Jin Ling started to retort but stopped, remembering himself and he let out a soft hmph.
“Anyway, Sizhui told me to tell you not to bully the rabbits or they’ll bite you. Again,” he said with a face full of reprimand as if speaking to a child refusing to bathe. “Aren’t you ashamed! Needing your juniors to tell you how to behave.”
Wei Wuxian laughed it off. Lan Zhan had not been pleased when he saw the small bite wound that day. He cleaned and wrapped it with his usual unexpressive face, only telling him not to do that again. Nothing out of the ordinary, until that night when Lan Zhan smothered his teary pleas and cries to let him off with a forceful hand over his mouth that left him both trembling and very confusingly aroused and continued to wring him dry with exceptional ferocity. But no need for the children to know any of that.
Quickly stuffing his inappropriate thoughts aside, he saw that Jin Ling was staring at him and frowning a little. He had to say that seeing the young master plaster on the face of a proper adult at such odds with the still delicate roundness of his cheeks made his chest squeeze a little. Growing up was a good thing. No one could stay a child forever. Sometimes though, he still liked seeing Jin Ling squawk like a yellow canary.
“Hmmm? Did you meet Sizhui already? Isn’t he studying with the others in the Lanshi?” Wei Wuxian cracked a cheeky grin. “Also, isn’t the Lanshi in the opposite direction?”
Jin Ling froze and Wei Wuxian dropped his head and cradled his chest with both hands in a dramatic show of sadness. “Jin Ling, I am so, so disappointed. Shouldn’t I be the first you come to see? No matter how much you wanted to see him, whatever happened to respect for your elders?” He spied a red flush creeping onto the boy’s face.
“Did little Sizhui skip out on his study to see you too? Sneaking around like…Oh, the impropriety!”
“Y-you! Stop spouting nonsense! He wasn’t skipping class!” He pointed a furious finger at Wei Wuxian’s face.
Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at him. Was what really bothered him out of all the things he said…
By now, Jin Ling’s face was on fire. “I-I, I mean he- we just…just happened to meet!” Jin Ling’s reddened cheeks were puffed out and his hands were flailing at his sides. The boy’s legs twitched like he was itching to give the man lounging in front of him a good kick and then run away as fast as he could.
“Okay, okay,” he grinned and placated with both hands up, satisfied to settle down at last. “Why were you looking for me anyway? Sizhui told me you wrote in your letter that you needed to see me?”
As far as he knew from the Lan juniors’ stories and reports, Jin Ling’s night hunting abilities were progressing just as steadily as his ability to argue with just about anyone. And even if there were any problems, the juniors would just consult himself or Lan Zhan before passing word the next time they met so he had thought it was unlikely to be an issue with that. For matters at Jinlintai, there was no reason to ask someone who had never so much as touched a scroll on sect affairs. And besides, with the Yunmeng Jiang sect still keeping a hawk’s eye over Lanling, Jiang Cheng would be the very first in the know. Unless.
He paused but decided to ask just in case. “Is there something wrong with your uncle?”
Jin Ling stopped his fidgeting when he heard his question and grew quiet, an uncomfortable expression on his face. He looked at Wei Wuxian and trailed down to look at his body. Or rather, his stomach which was visible even under the loosely tied clothing he favoured as always and even more so now. This boy still had his bad habit of staring at whatever bothered him, but he couldn’t fault the boy for staring given the somewhat unusual circumstance he was in. At Jin Ling’s uncharacteristic silence, Wei Wuxian stilled and thought for one tense moment if something had truly happened before Jin Ling shook his head.
“It’s not uncle,” he said with an air of resignation. “No- I mean, it is uncle but there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s still as bad-tempered as ever. It’s just that he…”
Wei Wuxian nodded and waited for him to continue.
Jin Ling sighed. He reached a hand inside his robe and pulled out a rectangular box, glancing at it before looking away and thrusting it in front of him. Wei Wuxian eyed it with a curious stare. It was a box of dark brown wood. Smoothed with a fine layer of lacquer that when graced with sunlight, threw off a subtle gleam. Even from his position, the solid beauty of the wood was distinct.
“This is for you,” Jin Ling said in a small voice.
Wei Wuxian took the box from him and his breath hitched.
Where he couldn’t see before when Jin Ling’s fingers had covered it but now as clear and stunning as the quickening gallop of his heart against his ribs in his tightened chest. On the lid of the box, right in the centre, was a carving of a flower.
A flower he had once worn on his sleeve and his chest and head for the world to see and when it had wilted, planted and buried deep in the muddy depths of his soul, never sprouting again.
“Why are you giving me this,” he asked, voice turning unfamiliar and soft like the wind would blow it away.
Jin Ling shifted on his feet. “Not me,” he muttered, “I’m just…passing it to you.”
Of course. Wei Wuxian knew that.
No one made a sound and the silence seemed to stretch on, the whisper of the rustling of leaves growing clearer. Jin Ling’s eyebrows knotted in impatience. “What are you doing staring at it like that. Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Geez, open it already!”
Wei Wuxian stared at the box in his palm, mind not comprehending much of what Jin Ling was saying right now and uncertain if it was because he was thinking too much or had simply ceased to think. His fingers were not touching the box, as if fearing the fine lines of the carving would scorch his fingers if he so much as hovered above it. But his body reacted, and he lifted the lid with his other hand.
When he opened the box, he could no longer breathe.
There, lying straight and proud in a bed of purple, like lotuses on their upright stems out of the water, were two silver bells threaded with purple silk. Even in the dim, flickering sunlight through the leaves, the polished metal glowed with a white-hot brightness.
A veil of warm wind brushed past his face, and he smelled not the fresh grass and flowing rivers of the Cloud Recesses, but the sweetness of pink lotuses amongst a brilliant green. With the blinding sun of midsummer upon his sweaty, rumpled clothes and sleeves rolled up to his shoulder, a boy ran in front of him, two trails of purple ribbon fluttering after him. A girl at the gates, a basket in her hands, her delicate smile as warm as the voice that welcomed them. A woman scolding them from within, voice full of exasperation and a smiling man at her side calling out their names, voice as calm as sleeping autumn leaves and steady as the vast waters of Yunmeng and once, his home.
Razed first in the blood-washed fire of a red sun, then abandoned in a broken arm given and a stab taken and then lost forever in the night his hands never dried from the blood of the girl who whispered his name on her withering breath.
Forever. That was what he had thought.
What was this then?
His eyes stung, and he blinked, coming back to himself. The weight of the box grew heavy and he set it down, still open, in front of him. The sudden crash of emotions from foregone years exhausted him. He was warned that he might be more emotional in the coming months but had shrugged it off, figuring it was nothing he couldn’t handle. But to become this sensitive…he hated that word…over a gift was mildly distressing.
He could call it a gift, couldn’t he. Jin Ling did say it was for him after all. He managed a weak smile as he closed the box. “Ah-Ling, this…”
“No,” Jin Ling held up a hand in front of him. “If you don’t want to accept this then…then fine. But you give it back to him yourself! Don’t ask me to return it for you.”
“If you don’t want to return it yourself then…just keep it.” The corners of his mouth started pulling down as he fidgeted. He bit his lip, for some reason looking more and more upset and Wei Wuxian wanted to calm him down. But before he could even get a word out, Jin Ling burst out in a sudden yell. “But only if you really don’t want it! He really put it a lot of work into this! He didn’t ask the craftsman to do it, he made it himself! He even transfused it with protective charms and spiritual energy every day!”
Wei Wuxian stared.
“Everyday! He made this months ago when he first heard of your c-condition but he kept hesitating to give it to you. He would take it out all the time, look at it and then put it back again. He’d be so grumpy after that and it was so annoying to watch. If I didn’t do anything he would have been staring at it for the rest of his life! Uncle, he…he was just worried about what you’d think or if it was too much or what Lan Wangji would think or whatever I don’t know, but I know he really doesn’t mean anything bad by it, he just wanted to give you something as a blessing!”
Jin Ling was almost out of breath the time he finished and after realisation hit him, the boy's face paled in shock and disbelief. No doubt that none of that was ever meant to come out his mouth.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t hold it in anymore. He exploded in a fit of laughter that had him bent over his side since the front was well, obstructed. “Jin Ling, oh Jin Ling, your uncle would break your leg if he was here.”
Jin Ling huffed. “Whatever, it’s the truth anyway…” He kicked unhappily at a patch of grass with his feet. “But I mean it, you give it back to him yourself if you don’t want it…”
In all honesty, he had not the least idea of what to say to that. If he didn’t want what? The gift? Yunmeng Jiang? The man he thought a brother? A sort-of uncle to his like he was to the boy before him? What was he supposed to want if he didn’t even know what he could want? He’d wager that not even Jiang Cheng knew the answer to that.
Or maybe, a little voice echoed in his thoughts that just maybe, none of that was important now. Jiang Cheng had crossed the distance. A great one, considering the kind of person he was. Wei Wuxian too could afford to walk the long road towards the middle, even if neither knew where that was or if they would ever get there.
"I'll keep it."
“Good,” Jin Ling nodded. “I’m not go- wait, you’re keeping it?”
“Mmm.” Wei Wuxian pushed himself up from the ground with one arm, keeping another on his stomach as he stood up.
“In the meantime, tell your Uncle this for me.”
He pulled the boy into a hug, ignoring any protests. Jin Ling’s head barely reached past his shoulders and was not exceptionally tall for his age, but he remembered that yes, with their laughter so fond and their hearts so bright, they were just about this tall at fifteen and sixteen. In very light strokes, he patted the back of the boy’s head.
“Three months later, here, at the Cloud Recesses.”
Then he added with a smile, “And you too.”
Later when the sun had shifted down behind the misty clouds above the mountains and Jin Ling had long left, red-faced and embarrassed to join the preparation for the night hunt, Wei Wuxian had settled back to lazing against the old magnolia tree. He rolled a small silver bell slow and steady between his palm and fingers, eyes closed and breathing even.
A soft, silky warmth draped over his front. Wei Wuxian kept his eyes shut and felt a steady arm raise his body from the bark of the tree. He let his head fall back to rest on the curve of a firm chest. The rest of his body followed, bone by bone softening against the man enclosing him in the gentle wrap of his arms. Shifting closer, Wei Wuxian brushed his forehead, the side of his face, then his nose against smooth skin. He placed a soft yet lingering kiss on the dip of a jaw and inhaled the faint smell of incense.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathed out in a longing whisper like the floating fragrance of magnolia in the breeze. “Lan Zhan, Er-gege, Lan Er-gege.”
“Mm.” A hand closed over his. “I’m back.”
Another hand adjusted the robe over his front, tucking it snug over his shoulders, keeping the cool evening wind out.
“Why didn’t you rest in the room?”
“Lazy…” He snuggled closer and placed the bell back in the open box next to him. “Here is good too. It’s boring in the room without you. And I can’t stay holed up indoors until this one comes out Lan er-gege.” He took the other’s hand and placed it over his abdomen. He opened his eyes and saw Lan Wangji staring at him, eyes like gentle pools of spring water and Wei Wuxian let it wash over him. Every ripple that fractured the calm surface that he had learnt to see and every stormy surge in those depths that he had come to know as all and only for him.
Every time Lan Zhan looked at him, he wanted to kiss the man.
And as if in answer, Lan Wangji leaned down towards him and he relished in the warm exhale gracing his face. Lips touched his cheek like a butterfly landing and brushed across his skin to his lips and they met in the softest kiss. Caressing and teasing.
He tilted his head and pressed up, wanting more. He gave a playful lick and grazed his hand along the length of the arm around him and clung on, kneading firm muscles underneath silk. Lan Wangji nipped his bottom lip in warning and Wei Wuxian smiled into the kiss. His Lan Er-gege should really have learned by now that this would only encourage him. He slid his hand up to brush the back of the other’s neck, the heat of the skin there such a sharp contrast to his cold and pale beauty. He massaged lightly at the sensitive nape, fine hair threading through his fingers before pricking at the skin with his nails. With the tip of his nails, he grazed a line down bare skin, slow and coaxing, tugging at the taut and thinning line of self-restraint in the other man. He heard a rough exhale and in a swell of sweet surrender, Lan Wangji pressed down hard and kissed him like every breath of his, every part of his being was his to consume and Wei Wuxian obliged. In each stroke on his tongue, each wet and hungry claim of his lips, he could feel Lan Zhan's heat, his stunning ache and desire pouring like a torrent into his body.
It left him breathless.
He couldn’t repress a shameless moan reverberating deep in his throat and at the sound, Lan Wangji shuddered against him but forced himself to tear his mouth away and Wei Wuxian almost whined at the sudden emptiness between them. Lan Wangji lowered his face to his neck and pressed his face in.
“Wei Ying,” he breathed out heavily. “Not here…”
Wei Wuxian was panting himself, trying to collect the fragments of awareness within his head but he let out a shaky laugh at how out of hand a kiss had gotten and nodded in agreement. He rarely understood what embarrassment was and had few qualms about kissing Lan Zhan in front of others but while he had wanted a long and good kiss, he wasn’t sure he was ready for the disciples and students of Gusu Lan see their esteemed Hanguang-Jun and him losing themselves and their clothes on the grass in the open.
It was quiet except for their faint huffs, and they sat there, collecting themselves. It was a while before Lan Wangji spoke first.
“Sizhui and the others are probably leaving now.”
“Mmm, I know. He told me Wen Ning’s going with them…so they’ll probably be gone having fun for quite a few days and you might have to punish them again if they don’t come back on time,” he replied.
Lan Wangji hummed in response and added, “Jin Ling came to see you.”
He then remembered the two silver bells in the wooden box.
“Mmhmm, he did. He came to pass me something.” He reached out and ran his hand over the rich purple silk and recalled the ridiculous manner Jin Ling had blabbed everything that Jiang Cheng would rather stab himself a hundred times over before telling anyone, much less him.
A foggy memory floated into his head. Of a deep mountain forest, the faint sunlight through the leaves and the frantic shouts of a young man in gold ringing through the trees.
That's not it! That’s not it, Maiden Jiang! It was me! It was myself!
I was the one who wanted you to come!
He chuckled. Shijie would have found it funny too. Like father, like son. She would be happy.
He picked up one of the bells and let it dangle in front of his face.
“Lan Zhan…is it really okay if I wear this?”
Lan Wangji hugged him close.
“If you wish.”
He felt a hand rub his tummy. Something Lan Wangji had become very fond of doing, conscious of it or not, whenever Wei Wuxian was lying in his arms.
“What if this little one wears this?”
A kiss on his forehead.
Lan Wangji answered with forthright sincerity. “If you wish.”
Sometime later in the Cloud Recesses.
Sizhui dipped his brush in ink. “Yes?”
Lan Jingyi at the table beside him placed his brush down and leaned back on both his hands.
“Does this mean that our Gusu Lan now has a marriage……familial alliance with Yunmeng Jiang sect?”
Sizhui raised his brush tip from the paper. He thought about what Jin Ling had told him a while back.
“Maybe…” He continued writing.
The birds twittered on the trees outside and papers shifted in quiet rustles in the room.
Sizhui lowered the book in his hand. “Yes?”
“How do you feel about the Lanling Jin sect?”
A thud on the floor.