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Fruits from Frost

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One month after Wei Wuxian’s arrival in Gusu, Lan Wangji felt a peculiar stiffness along his sternum.

It wasn’t anything terribly painful, but a dull ache persisted for about a week, enough to make itself known. Lan Wangji simply extended his stretching periods in the early morning, chalking it up to stiff joints and nothing more. As the days went on, he even managed to forget about it, not even realizing that several times during lessons and training, he’d bring a hand up and press in circles against his solar plexus, as if trying to relieve a blockage or a pressure.

But while Lan Wangji was absorbed in the daily motions of his life, Wei Wuxian noticed this behavior as he sat across from Lan Wangji -- avoiding his punishment of copying the Cloud Recesses’ thousands of rules as usual. He had a brush in his hand and ink on his parchment, but rather than neat lines of script, what filled his page were random doodles ranging from the silly to the obscene. Every so often, Lan Wangji would lift his gaze from his reading to send Wei Wuxian a heavy glare that was usually ineffective in prompting the other to get back on task.

“Hey, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji ignored him, delicately turning a page.

“Lan Zhan. Hey. I’ll drop ink on your precious book!”

Lan Wangji released a steady sigh. “...What is it?”

Wei Wuxian nodded towards him. “Why do you keep doing that? Are you injured? Sick? I’ve noticed for awhile now you push your hand against your chest.”

Certainly, for once, Wei Wuxian was correct. Even at that moment, Lan Wangji was attempting to soothe the strange stiffness at the center of his chest without realizing it. To make matters more strange, his throat suddenly contracted, and he coughed behind his hand.

Not thinking much of it, he lowered his hand. “It’s nothing.”

“It must be something ,” Wei Wuxian insisted in that way of his that never let anything drop. He snapped his fingers like he got a brilliant idea and shot up from his seat on the floor. “I’ve got it! I’ll treat you, Lan Zhan, just this once!”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Wei Wuxian had long since decided to disregard his reminders to not shout in the Library Pavilion -- or the Cloud Recesses in general -- but it didn’t stop Lan Wangji’s urge to put a silencing spell on him again.

Before he could even ask what he was up to, Wei Wuxian dashed out of the library, promising over his shoulder to return soon. Lan Wangji knew he should drag him back -- regardless of any kicking and screaming -- to complete his punishment, but he remained seated and exhaled with some exasperation. The long breath caused another short bout of coughing. Perhaps he was growing sick, loathe as he was to realize his bodily condition was anything less than perfect and healthy.

He should probably stay indoors today and not do too much physical training. His brother would likely recommend him some tea before he went to bed…

Lost in his thoughts, Lan Wangji suddenly realized he could actually smell the perfume of tea, light and sweet. The library’s doors opened and Wei Wuxian bustled back in, balancing a tray on one of his hands. With a large, pleased grin, he moved aside his doodles and Lan Wangji’s books to place the tray down. A familiar tea set sat on it, decorated with swirling clouds and painted with delicate white and pink flowers. The aroma of ginger floated up and mixed with the sandalwood incense slowly burning in the room, its steam curling up just as slowly as the smoke. It was a pleasant sight and gesture, and one Lan Wangji didn’t expect from Wei Wuxian.

The surprise must’ve shown in his eyes because Wei Wuxian’s grin got bigger. “Be grateful, I prepared this just for you. If Lan Zhan falls sick, then who would stop me from being bored around here?”

Lan Wangji suspected that Wei Wuxian just didn’t want someone else to babysit him for his punishment, possibly his uncle. Nonetheless, as Wei Wuxian poured the tea and offered the cup out, Lan Wangji accepted it. He glanced into the warm, light shade of amber but found nothing out of the ordinary. He took a sip as Wei Wuxian poured himself a cup as well.

“Your brother is so kind,” he went on. “He let me use everything after I mentioned you feeling under the weather.”

Lan Wangji hummed in acknowledgment. He already guessed his brother had something to do with this, since the tea set was his in the first place. “He made this?”

“Nope! Did everything myself~!” Wei Wuxian declared with pride. “Jiang Cheng and my shijie say I have the worst cooking skills -- which isn’t true, by the way -- but I can’t mess up tea. How is it?”

Lan Wangji took another small gulp. It was just the right temperature, the tea warming up parts of him that he hadn’t realized had been so chilled before. It tasted good as well, tingling pleasantly on his tongue. Instead of answering, he continued to drink, and Wei Wuxian’s expression shone brighter each time he tipped the cup to his lips.

It was...perhaps the most peaceful interaction they had.

Staring at Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji’s body suddenly froze. The stiffness at his sternum intensified, spreading out over his chest and he coughed again. Wei Wuxian went over and rubbed his back.

“Don’t hold it in. There we go, good Lan Zhan, there, there~ Want more tea?” Wei Wuxian leaned close to him to reach the teapot and refill his cup with a fresh brew of steaming ginger tea. Lan Wangji noted that he smelled faintly of sweet lotus and fresh, cascading water.

As he offered Lan Wangji the tea, Wei Wuxian blinked innocently up at him and bumped their shoulders together. “Maaaybe we should just stop my punishment early today if you’re feeling so unwell?”

Lan Wangji coughed into his sleeve once more, neither boy noticing the white petal that fell onto equally white robes.

“Pathetic,” was all he said.

There was something protruding from his body.

Right under his skin, at his solar plexus, it was as if his bones had grown and risen, seeking to break free from his body. It ached as Lan Wangji moved, and he touched the protrusion tentatively.

It didn’t feel like bone, nor was it shaped like bone. It was too smooth and slender, darkly colored like a large splinter.

Even if he couldn’t perfectly see it, he had a feeling that he knew what it was.

After some months more had passed, Lan Wangji had come to notice the petals he’d find stuck to his lips and robes or on his pillow when he awoke in the morning. They were small, round, and the purest white. Lan Wangji knew their appearance well; when he looked overhead at the heavens when he was younger, these same petals had blended with the mist surrounding the Cloud Recesses.

Plum blossoms.

But the flowers Lan Wangji found on him weren’t from the trees outside. The branches weren’t even full of buds yet. Which meant that their origin could only be one place.

After examining Lan Wangji himself, Lan Xichen closed his brother’s robes and patted the center of his chest gently where he now knew the slender trunk of a plum tree now resided.

“Congratulations, Wangji,” his brother said with a soft smile. “Your flower has manifested.”

Lan Wangji set his lips in a thin line.

“You don’t look happy about this.”

“I do not know how it happened.”

Lan Xichen made an amused sound. “I don’t think we ever know why. If reason could be applied to this, then our flowers would be less honest. You’d go your whole life without realizing how much someone means to you. I think for our clan that loves order and restraint, this is a very important event.”

Lan Wangji wasn’t sure if he agreed. Smoothing his robes over, he grew irritated as a few short coughs left him. Plum blossom petals fluttered out from his lips and onto his palm. Lan Wangji crumpled them in his hand immediately, as if wanting to hide them.

His brother noticed and patted his knee. “You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

Heat burned at Lan Wangji’s ears despite him keeping a placid expression. “But who…”

Lan Xichen hummed. “I admit, I’m curious as well,” he said in a light voice that betrayed he had a suspicion already. “Do you really not know who, Wangji?”

Silence followed, but in that pause, Wei Wuxian’s laugh echoed in Lan Wangji’s head, as if in mockery over the fact that he would be the one to plant this flower into his body.

The manifestation of one’s flower was usually a cause for celebration in the cultivation world. Flowers sprouted inside the cultivator’s body, cradled in the cavity of their ribcage and rooted in their heart, once they fell in love with another -- it was affections blossoming in the most literal way. It wasn’t uncommon to present the flower to one’s beloved in the hopes that the feelings would be reciprocated, as the appearance of the flower meant nothing short of utter devotion and desire. There were not many that would refuse such an honored offering, although rejections could still happen. Nonetheless, many thought the flowers to be quite romantic and a promising display of a relationship and happy marriage.

Of course, not every manifestation came with a fairytale ending. If the flower -- and thereby the feeling of love -- was rejected, or if the flower was never offered, it would continue to grow inside the lovestruck’s body. The roots would overtake the bones, stems would seize the muscles, and the flowers would nest inside the organs, creating a living garden that would soon claim the life of the one holding the flower’s seed. It was possible in such cases to remove the flower with surgery before worse came to worst...but with its removal came relinquishing the romantic affections for the beloved forever.  

Wei Wuxian had successfully gotten under his skin -- quite literally this time.

Lan Wangji tried to reason with his own emotions, but the presence of the flower inside him was not one to be questioned. With each breath, he could feel the petals tickle his windpipe, could taste their pollen on their tongue, as if saying they were quite real and here to stay.

As Lan Wangji went in circles in his head, his brother asked, “Will you be offering your flower to him?”

As if he could do that. Wei Wuxian would surely laugh in his face and gloat how his stupid flirtations swayed even the ice-cold heart of one of GusuLan’s Two Jades. How amusing that the most undisciplined disciple to enter the Cloud Recesses could plant spring on frosted ground!

At the same time… Lan Wangji couldn’t quite put consideration to the surgical alternative either.

“Brother… You’re not disgusted?”

“Why would I be?”

Lan Wangji glanced down. “I’ve heard relationships between two men are...difficult.”

“Maybe for others. But trust me, Wangji…” Lan Xichen gently urged his brother’s fist open and began to smooth over the petals of the plum blossom with his fingertip, as if it were precious. “I don’t think your flower repulsive in the least. And if you showed him , he’d think it beautiful too, I’m sure.”

Lan Wangji didn’t know how his brother could be so certain. For now though, this would just have to be their secret.

Wei Wuxian was frustrated.

In the time that Lan Wangji had known him, he was never particularly exceptional at hiding what he felt -- the bow of his mouth and wideness of his eyes and posture always displayed his joy and boredom and mischievousness without shame. But even with that in mind, it was almost unheard of for Wei Wuxian’s brows to furrow in such deep displeasure, for the corner of his lips to turn down and his hands to ball in and out of fists.

At least, it used to be almost unheard of. Before his home Lotus Pier had been ravaged. Before he’d been dropped in the Burial Mounds and meant to die, only to rise from the shadows with blood in his eyes and ghostfire on his lips when he smiled -- it was a smile Lan Wangji did not want to familiarize himself with.

And yet, he’d claimed those lips just moments ago, closing in on Wei Wuxian when he’d sat blindfolded on a tree. For months now, Lan Wangji’s tongue was overtaken by the taste of plum blossoms, but when he’d pinned Wei Wuxian to the tree’s bark and crushed their lips together, a new taste melted hot and sweet on his palate. Lan Wangji cherished it, craved more of it, and he distantly wondered if Wei Wuxian had been able to taste the plum blossoms. A petal had been stuck to Wei Wuxian’s slightly swollen bottom lip when he pulled back, which Lan Wangji had swiftly plucked away and placed back inside his own mouth.

“That Jin Zixuan! How dare he do that, right in front of everyone! He has no shame!”

Following the disruptive event of Wei Wuxian barging in on Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli’s walk through the hunting grounds, Lan Wangji had followed him out of the crowd. He had to admit, he felt a bit awkward himself -- in a desperate attempt to keep Jiang Yanli from walking away from him with a resigned heart, Jin Zixuan had opened up his robes, revealing a large, ruffled peony blooming from his chest.

Unlike the pristine Sparks Amidst Snow that the Jin Sect proudly wore on their golden robes, Jin Zixuan’s peony was a lightly flushed pink, its petals slightly curved inward as if it were a bud in its intermediate stages of blossoming. Its overall appearance was quite shy, matching the bashful but no less determined expression Jin Zixuan wore when he plucked the peony from his breast and offered it out to Jiang Yanli. His audience, including his mother, seemed to be forgotten by him even as they gaped at the gesture.

Lan Wangji didn’t know much about this relationship other than how much Wei Wuxian detested it. But the surprised, delighted sparkle in Jiang Yanli’s eyes at the sight of Jin Zixuan’s flower spoke loudly of the future to come.

It was no wonder that Wei Wuxian was in such a bad mood.

Lan Wangji wordlessly watched him mutter to himself and kick a tree, venting his frustrations. He wasn’t sure if he’d followed Wei Wuxian to comfort him or to scold him or something else altogether. He was still on edge from the stolen kiss, his heart drumming loudly under his skin, stirring up the branches wound tight around his ribcage and the flowers against his lungs.

He kept reflecting on Jin Zixuan’s gesture, so impulsive yet full of passion.

It was the exact opposite of what Lan Wangji was doing.

After a few minutes more had passed and several dents wounded the tree, Wei Wuxian finally let out a tired breath, sinking down to the ground. His gaze went through the earth, deep in thought. Finally, he shook his head hopelessly.

“It’d be childish if I still resented Jin Zixuan, wouldn’t it?” he said quietly, almost to himself. “You can’t deny a gesture like that.”

Lan Wangji glanced away and hummed in agreement.

Wei Wuxian hugged his knees, his brows still furrowed in thought. “Lan Zhan… Did you know? Shijie ’s flower manifested a long time ago. Her cultivation may be low, but...her feelings for that Jin Zixuan were..." His hand curled into a weak fist. "I was there the day she coughed up flower petals. I noticed when her wrists were swollen with buds. After I… I wrecked the engagement, I thought she’d get the surgery…”

Lan Wangji listened attentively. It was the first time Wei Wuxian sounded so...vulnerable in front of him.

A small, self-deprecating smile worked its way to Wei Wuxian’s lips. “Jiang Cheng and I urged her to, but she would just say she’d think about it. I think we knew deep down that she wouldn’t do it. ...I hated it, how much she loved him. How much she was willing to give up for him. Who would die for someone that didn’t love them back?”

The plum blossoms fluttered inside Lan Wangji, hanging onto Wei Wuxian’s words. He coughed shortly into his sleeve.

Yes… Who would do such a thing, indeed?

“Would you?”

Wei Wuxian lifted his head. “Would I...keep my flower, you mean?”

Lan Wangji nodded.

Wei Wuxian looked at a loss. He twirled an idle finger through his hair, now worn loose and tossed in a dark, tangled mess from the breeze. “I… I wouldn’t know.” He laughed, but it was hollow. “I’ve never even manifested a flower before. Is that sad? Well, I suppose at least I have you to empathize with that; Lan Zhan has never manifested a flower either, right? Mmn... I guess that means I should keep silent about this matter, since I don’t even know what it feels like.”

Lan Wangji didn’t bother correcting him. But a debate was still going on in his head and inside his body. He tightened his throat, urging his body to swallow down the flowers tickling up to his lips.

Eventually, he managed, “Silent?” Lan Wangji raised a brow.

Wei Wuxian stared at him for a few heartbeats before bursting into laughter. “Lan Zhan! Are you teasing me? Seriously? Hahahaha!” He continued to laugh freely, the sound filling the forest’s area. After a moment, when his cheeks were lightly flushed, he looked at Lan Wangji with warm mirth sparkling in his eyes. “Thank you, Lan Zhan. Really, I needed that.”

Lan Wangji opened his mouth, about to mention how he didn’t do anything at all, but instead of words, only a cough escaped his lips. The branches inside him wriggled and grew, stretching out to the bones of his arms. The taste of petals filled his mouth, unable to be held in. Lan Wangji abruptly turned around, coughing into his sleeve with heaving breaths.

Wei Wuxian was on his feet in an instant. “Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, are you alright?” He came close, and Lan Wangji quickly moved away from his concerned hands.

“D--Don’t touch me,” he managed to rasp before another round of coughing began. Plum blossoms filled his sleeve one by one.

“Hey, I’m helping!” Wei Wuxian protested, and he grabbed Lan Wangji’s arm, trying to turn him around.

Startled, Lan Wangji yanked it back, yelling in warning, “Wei Ying!”

The tightly coiled frustration in his voice kept a shocked Wei Wuxian at bay. But then his darker figure froze. Lan Wangji noticed belatedly that a flower had escaped the inside of his robes, fluttering down to his boot. Even if they were in a forest, there wasn’t a plum tree anywhere near, and it was the tail end of spring besides that.

Wei Wuxian’s hand fell to his side, both their gazes burning onto the flower. “Is that…”

Lan Wangji fled the scene, mentally cursing himself. The tangled branches of plum blossoms inside him writhed and twisted, as if urging his body to turn back around and collapse into Wei Wuxian’s arms. It almost hurt how much he wanted it, how many dreams he had of holding Wei Wuxian to him and have his body cradled in the network of roots inside him.

His skin rippled, tiny white buds dotting his arm and collarbone when he pulled back his robes. Lan Wangji exhaled, his breaths shaky and petals falling from his trembling lips. No matter how much he tried to calm himself, nothing seemed to steady the agitated flora pulsating within him.

--This wasn’t like him.

What was happening to him?

“It must hurt…”

Lan Xichen’s voice was quiet. Solemn. Lan Wangji could barely even hear him, much less make sense of his words. The world was impossible for him to translate. His hand kept closing, but it remained unbearably empty and hauntingly cold. He’d been holding Wei Wuxian’s hand for days, soothing him as best as he could with consoling murmurs of his name, but all he’d ever received in reply was Wei Wuxian’s unconscious, delirious growls.

“Get lost, get lost, GET LOST!!!

Lan Wangji’s heart had broken with each mad shout.

Perhaps he was going mad as well -- he had to have been, to shield Wei Wuxian, to strike against his own sect to keep him close.

This waiting, this uncertainty… It was his punishment. The crippling pain of over thirty wounds torn open on his back by the discipline whip couldn’t even compare. Lan Wangji couldn’t move, much less summon the strength to reply to his brother’s words. In the first place, it wasn’t clear if Lan Xichen was pointing concern at the lacerations of his body...or of his heart.

“Wangji… I’m sorry. Be still for me.” Lan Xichen came close and gently began to remove the bandages criss-crossing his back. The cloth became soaked with blood quickly and required constant attention. But the blood wasn’t the only thing he cleaned up during these visits.

Lan Wangji winced, his breaths heavier as he endured skin and dried blood alike being peeled away from the bandages. Only his brother came and visited him during his seclusion...and thus he was the only one that knew what else his wounds bled.

From the horrendous tears of his flesh sprouted flowers, different than the plum blossoms. Dyed the same red as his blood, what bloomed from his wounds were soaked crimson lilies. They sprouted in a hurry now that they hit the air, their stems curling like thin serpents under his flesh, sinking deeper in anticipation of Lan Xichen’s next actions. Their long petals stretched out like searching hands grasping only air. Lan Wangji could feel the buds shoot out and bloom, shamelessly and desperately displaying his heart.

Lan Xichen inhaled sharply but continued -- this was already a sight he’d come to know well over the past few days.

“Oh, Wangji…” His brother set to work, nimble fingers digging into his lacerations to pluck the lilies out one-by-one by the root. It was as if he were removing weeds, or an infection -- but this pathogen was already a part of Lan Wangji’s marrow, his very blood…

The pain jolted him out of the haze and slammed him back to reality. He tensed, curling his hands into the sheets of his bed until his knuckles were white and shaking. He tried hard to suppress the screams, sweat beading his forehead and teeth grinding together with the effort.

His brother apologized under his breath, clearly torn up over having to be the one causing this pain as he pulled out another lily, dropping it into a bag to be disposed of.

Lan Xichen could do this every day for a thousand days… But the flowers would always bloom again. Persistent. Agitated. Full of yearning. Their roots sunk deep into Lan Wangji’s body then raked against his bones like fingernails clawing at the earth, refusing to let go as Lan Xichen plucked them out.

Soon, his wounds were free of lilies, and Lan Xichen worked fast to spread medicine onto new bandages before placing them on his younger brother’s back. By then, Lan Wangji’s skin felt so on fire that he’d gone numb, stuck once more on the knife’s edge of too much pain and feeling nothing at all.

“This is out of control, Wangji,” Lan Xichen warned with a blown-out candle of a voice. “I beg you, let us give you the surgery.”

No .” Lan Wangji’s lips moved, but his voice was long gone.

“It’s madness if you keep it. And for who, Wangji? You know the path he walks, the sins he has committed!" Lan Xichen's breath quivered. "At this rate, your flower’s growth will claim your life.”

He knew that. Logically, Lan Wangji knew it. But all rationality had been lost to him the moment Wei Wuxian broke on the battlefield, face streaked with hot tears and the blood of hundreds, thousands...

What could Lan Wangji do to protect him now? What could he do to hide him away?

He wished he could lock him away forever, as his father had done with his mother, surrounded by striking purple gentians that had grown from his heart and from the earth.

He wished he could bury Wei Wuxian in his flowers, in the soft gardens of his heart, where no one could touch him and he could keep him close.

It was impossible, he knew.

It didn’t stop the flowers from overflowing.

Lost in his thoughts, he remembered what Wei Wuxian said… “I hated it, how much she loved him. How much she was willing to give up for him. Who would die for someone that didn’t love them back?”

“Brother… Would you...get rid of it…?”

Lan Xichen was silent. The Lans were renowned for their logic and discipline. And yet, there were plenty within the clan’s history to have followed their heart rather than their minds. Their own founder was one such romantic. The Two Jades’ father had also defied reason and fallen in love with the woman he should’ve had every cause to hate. Perhaps this gap was the reason the ribbons they wore on their foreheads were so special -- because despite all teachings, despite all logic, there would come someone that would untie their restraints.

Even if the world was against that person. Even if others sneered in displeasure.

Lan Wangji believed he knew quite well what Jiang Yanli must’ve been thinking when she refused to give up her flower for Jin Zixuan.

Didn’t he deserve the choice to preserve his love like she had?

Wasn’t he allowed to hold onto his feelings, to chase after his happiness, no matter how despairing the road was now?

Of course, it was very well that Wei Wuxian wanted nothing to do with him for the rest of his life. That was fine. But Lan Wangji couldn’t let him go. To give him up in anyway, to let the world take him away, was an impossibility. Lan Wangji wouldn’t allow it. The vow was almost laughable considering how immobile he was currently.

Eventually, Lan Xichen reached out and squeezed his hand. 

The day Wei Wuxian was pronounced dead, the vibrant, stubborn red of Lan Wangji’s lilies were bleached white.

They were not the only thing to lose color. Lan Wangji’s entire world had become engulfed in stale whites and silent greys. Even his flowers ceased their incessant growth. They still curled in his palms and gathered in his lungs, but they did not bleed out as profusely as before -- as if they too were in mourning. As he dragged himself all the way back to the Burial Mounds, some even withered, the dried petals leaving a trail of the path he walked. When the stems broke off as well, another flower would immediately take its place. 

When Lan Wangji confirmed himself that Wei Wuxian was dead and torn, his own soul could've withered away as well in that instant.

Confining himself to isolation both to heal his wounds and drown in grief, the flowers crept quietly. The lilies tangled themselves in his hair. Pure white chrysanthemums bloomed from his sternum, their petals heavy and weighing on his stone of a heart. He was as still as a statue overrun by nature, refusing to eat, and hardly blinking when Lan Xichen came to visit him every other week and pluck away the flowers when they became too abundant. These blooms he didn’t toss away, but kept them in Lan Wangji’s room, as if decorating for his own brother’s wake. His kind eyes were certainly full of sorrow each time, concern and love in his fingertips when he’d brush back Lan Wangji’s hair and smooth over his robes after weeding out the flowers.

In time, his room and his body had become nothing more than a funeral garden.

The sun and moon continued their heavenly dance.

Seasons cycled by. Trees grew heavy with leaves and buds then rained down their fruits until they were bare once more.

The lacerations on Lan Wangji’s flesh finally healed, the tender pink fading to thick, silver scars -- and he could no longer find excuses to remain secluded.

Early the next morning, on the eve of winter’s arrival, Lan Wangji left the Jingshi with his guqin in hand. The air was cool, and his underused legs a bit unsteady as he moved through the familiar maze of his home. On a mountainside such as this, there were many cliffs where one could seclude themselves and train in peace. Lan Wangji found one such cliff and went on his knees, guqin on his lap. He tuned it with possessed movements, then began to play.

The notes floated up to the mist, drawing the attention of the nearby spirits. Even as his hands shook slightly, Lan Wangji’s playing was as impeccable as ever.

Until the sun finally climbed up the mountain, he Inquired over and over. His fingertips were already growing numb. The strings became slippery with a thin liquid under his skin, but he couldn’t stop playing. No spirit that responded to him had the answers he needed.

Each rejection was a splinter to his heart -- and it may as well have been literal.

He was unsurprised when his brother found him, putting a consoling hand on his shoulder.

“Wangji, that’s enough.”

Lan Wangji’s trembling lips pressed stubbornly together. He lifted his fingertips and started over.

Please… Where are you?

Are you here?

I’m here.

Wei Ying -- I’m here!

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen gathered up one of his hands, and Lan Wangji finally spared a glance to see his fingertips were soaked with crimson, tiny buds of lilies sprouting from the wounds. His guqin ’s strings were littered with their red petals. Thin, vine-like stems wound up his arm like they meant to climb up his body.

Lan Xichen’s eyes had grown glassy, dampening the usual warmth dancing in the dark pools. “Stop it, your body can’t handle this much right now. Please, let’s save this for later.”

His own vision blurring, Lan Wangji tried to play with his other hand, but his brother grabbed that one too, his grip strong.

“Don’t make me fight you on this. I’d succeed in locking you away much sooner than you would in keeping him .”

Lan Wangji tried to yank his hands back, but it was no use. It had been weeks, months of burying himself away without keeping his cultivation and health finely-tuned; Lan Xichen overpowered him easily and soon the two brothers were heading towards the Jingshi . The whole way back, Lan Xichen thankfully did not draw notice to his younger brother’s tears -- they stung his amber eyes and rolled down his cheeks before growing whiter and rounder, petals raining down his jade face.

Tomorrow , Lan Wangji vowed. He’d try again tomorrow. The day after that too, if need be. Why not? Lan Wangji wasn’t going anywhere.

He’d be here, like a tree that planted itself into the earth, establishing strong roots and numerous branches that could even catch the heavens from falling. A tree that could live for one-hundred or one-thousand years, waiting.

He’d be here.

When Wei Wuxian came back -- he’d be right here.

“Did...someone die?”

Lan Wangji gently closed the door of the Jingshi , sparing a glance to the man that had just been escorted here. Up until this point, the man had been making a great ruckus -- loudly complaining one second then shamelessly flirting the next. The unpredictability was quite the change of pace from the traditional ongoings of the Cloud Recesses, and truly it hadn’t experienced such an excitable guest in years.

Not since…

A slow breath, steady and well-practiced, passed Lan Wangji’s lips. The flora in his body continued to slumber, so far unprovoked by the pounding of his heart.

After Lan Wangji finally ended his seclusion, the flowers had become mostly quiet.  Nonetheless, they remained a constant, familiar presence in Lan Wangji’s life. It was often now that he coughed into his sleeves or experienced jolting pain from roots overtaking his insides. His sect looked at him in worry, and many came to the conclusion that he was perhaps falling victim to the same illness his mother had caught.

It was a silly conclusion, but Lan Wangji nor his brother nor his uncle corrected them. Better for the sect to believe that he had a general illness rather than being slowly killed over unrequited love. Who would believe it? A great clamor would surely arise, wondering who could not only sprout spring within Lan Wangji’s iciness, but also ignore it and leave him to die. It was far simpler to have things go this way. Besides, ailments and flowers aside, it had done nothing to deter his cultivational skills. And so his life continued.

But ever since the events of Dafan Mountain, the flowers had been startled back to life by the sound of one certain melody pouring out from a badly-cut bamboo flute.

Like morning glories to the approaching dawn, the flowers unfurled in his throat at the song’s lilt and had been restless ever since. Lan Wangji did his best to calm their eager growth and from them pouring out of his lips -- his room was full enough as it was, so it was understandable why his guest had asked such a question.

Multiple vases sat in the Jingshi -- on shelves, on the table, in front of the window… Each one was filled with snow-white flowers from chrysanthemums to lilies to irises to poppies, all born from Lan Wangji’s grieving heart for thirteen years.

Finally giving notice to the question, Lan Wangji replied truthfully, “Yes. Some years ago.”

The man, the face of Mo Xuanyu, looked over at him with a mixture of surprise and sympathy in his eyes. Eventually, his expression held understanding, as if he could guess the source of this mourning. To an outsider, though, it would only be a guess -- there was plenty of people that Lan Wangji had lost.

“I’m sorry. Um… Must I stay here?” He gave Lan Wangji a smile that was both hopeful and awkward. Pretty please don’t make me stuck here in this funeral room , it said.

Lan Wangji took a moment to observe Mo Xuanyu standing there, surrounded by the flowers and enclosed by these walls. It was like a garden house. A safehouse.

Footsteps approached outside the door, followed by Lan Sizhui’s voice lightly calling, “Hanguang-Jun? Pardon my interruption. It seems Zewu-Jun is about to set off and is asking for you.”

Lan Wangji opened the door once more, glancing over at his guest. “Remain here,” he said, leaving no room for protests or refusals.

He shut the door, leaving Mo Xuanyu -- Wei Wuxian -- behind in his room of mourning flowers.