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Wei Ying wakes up alone and hungry.

This is a normal occurrence as of late, to wake up with the pain of an empty stomach and a stiff back from sleeping in an odd position in some alleyway hidden from the public.

He’s almost six now, plenty old to understand that his parents are not coming back.

The thought leaves his chest hurting. It makes him want to put his head between his knees and let out the tears he’s been holding back for days.

He tries not to think about it if he can help it.

He spends his days wandering the streets of Yiling asking for a bite to eat from the old women and men that run the food stands. He spends an equal amount of time avoiding the ridiculously large amount of feral dogs who would be willing to take a bite out of him if it meant getting food into their stomachs. On his luckier days, he will manage to collect a piece of fruit or a scrap of cloth to use as a blanket for when it gets cold at night. He collects his spoils as the sun arches over the sky, and whatever he manages to scavenge by sunset is taken back to a new secluded alleyway.

He’s learned the hard way that people, and animals for that matter, will remember you if you return to the same place again.

On this day in particular, the constant pangs of his stomach only serve as a reminder that he has not eaten in over a day. He finds half a dumpling lying next to one of the vendors’ cart, and would have eaten it himself had it not been for the smaller child he encounters behind one of the buildings.

Wei Ying was older than the child, or at least he thought as much given their difference in height and stature, so logically Wei Ying could go longer without something in his stomach. A decision he was sorely regretting now. It’s a busy day in the marketplace, which does not bode well for him at all.

The slow days are the best, when the heat of Yiling keeps the streets deserted and the merchants for amiable. They’re more willing to give their things to a homeless child when it would go rotten because of the heat anyway.

The clouds have blessedly— or not in Wei Ying’s case— covered up the scorching rays of the sun. It makes the people milling about the main square to increase by tenfold, to the point where Wei Ying is unable to even see down the street.

He sighs when he comes across the scene. Did people really need their whole families to go shopping for vegetables? Truthfully, Wei Ying liked to tag along with whichever parent was heading into the marketplace, especially when it was with his father, if only to be able to sit on his shoulders and kick around as he walked from stall to stall.

Staring at the family distracts him more than he thought it would have, and that is his first mistake. His second mistake is to venture too close to one of the carts, to the point where his head bumps into the wooden side and makes him lose his balance.

He grabs onto the cart to find purchase, grabbing at the edges to steady himself, and that is his third mistake.

“Hey! There’s a brat stealing our goods!” The old man behind the stand gets up.

Wei Ying’s eyes widen. He shakes his head frantically. “No, I wasn’t—“

The man comes closer, and the expression on his face looks far from the pitying gazes of the sweet women who smuggle him melon bites, so he does the only logical thing he can think of: Wei Ying runs for his life. He doesn’t stop to look back, pushing past the few people that have been lingering away from the crowd and attempts to find a path for him to go on.

And- There!

From his viewpoint, it seemed to be a clear path between two buildings. Seemed to be.

Instead, he bumps straight into someone. Strange, since he could have sworn he had seen no one.

Wei Ying rubs his head as he looks up. “Ouch,” he mumbles quietly. It doesn’t really hurt, but the words pour out of his lips on instinct.

The man who he bumped into stares at him with his eyes wide, and his mouth is slightly parted.

The man is very pretty, Wei Ying thinks immediately. But much older than him. Maybe ten times older than him. Maybe twenty.

Starting from his clothes, he wears all white for the most part, some parts of his robes highlighted with a nice pale blue color. His long hair flows magnificently past his shoulder and down his back, not a single strand out of place. Not even the wind is able to ruffle it enough to deem it messy. Across his forehead is a thin white ribbon. It’s that, along with the cloud patterns all over the man’s robes that give him any indication to who this is. He only somewhat remembers his mother and father sitting down with him to teach him about the major cultivation sects, but despite what his mother always said, his memory wasn’t as bad as hers.

He wasn’t the one that went all the way down to the marketplace to buy loquats and had come home with two baskets of chili peppers!

The man, after another beat of silence, squats down in front of him so that the two are more or less at the same height. It has the plus point of letting Wei Ying get an even better look at the cloud motifs on the man’s robes and ribbon.

Gusu clothes are the mourning clothes, Wei Ying thinks to himself as he looks at the man, and subsequently imagines patting himself on the shoulder. Good job, Wei Ying! You did it! You remembered!

“Wei Ying?” the man asks weakly.

Wei Ying blinks. He wasn’t expecting the man to say his name before he had even introduced himself. “Do I know you?” he asks. It is only after he says it that he realizes it had come off much blunter than he had originally intended. “Ah, I’m sorry if that was rude of me!”

The man shakes his head. “No need.”

Wei Ying waits to see if he will say anything else. When he doesn’t, “You didn’t answer. How do you know my name?”

The man is still staring straight at him, which is weird, and his mother told him not to talk to strange men, but this is a strange cultivator man, so. Well. They’re not around to tell him off anyway. “...We have met before.”

“How long ago? I don’t have a good memory, you see. But I’m sure I would remember someone from a big cultivation sect coming to visit me and mama and baba... Did you come while I was sleeping, then?”

The taller man makes a complicated expression. It looks silly on the man’s face, and Wei Wuxian has to stifle a giggle at the sight of it. “I am... Lan Wangji.”

Wei Ying nods. “Then... Wangji-gege? Is that okay?”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying eyes the man, Lan Wangji, carefully. They had still not broken eye contact yet. In his head, he has started to make a game out of it.

Lan Wangji continues his questioning. “Why are you here?”

“I was going to get food,” Wei Ying says.

Lan Wangji simply stares back at him without saying a word, as if just staring will give him all the answers he needs. Only then does Wei Ying take note of the strange coloring of Lan Wangji’s face. That is to say, there being almost no coloring at all.

“Say, Wangji-gege, do you feel sick? You look really pale. My mama said that that’s the first sign of a cold.”

“I am well,” Lan Wangji replies after a moment. “Not sick. Surprised.”

“At?”

“Where are your parents?” Lan Wangji asks instead of answering the question. Even though the question technically did answer Wei Ying’s own. “To get food with you,” he adds on.

Wei Ying makes a noise of understanding. “Ooooh, you’re surprised because my parents aren’t here?”

“...En. You are here alone?”

Wei Ying frowns. He chooses his next words carefully. Partially, so he can word them right, because if Lan Wangji did know his parents he wanted to be able to break the news nicely, but partially so he would not end up in tears himself. “I’m always alone now. Mama and baba didn’t come back from a night hunt,” he says finally. He smiles to reassure the man. “But I’m fine here alone!”

Wei Ying is able to spot the moment it clicks for the man. “How long ago?” Lan Wangji asks then.

Wei Ying shrugs. He’d done his best to keep track of the rising and setting of the sun, but he hardly remembers how many of those have gone by since. “I don’t remember,” he answers truthfully.

Lan Wangji’s expression doesn’t change. “Are you hungry?” he asks.

Wei Ying perks up. At the mention of hunger, his stomach does an odd flip flop, a reminder of how long it’s been since anything has gone down his throat. “Yes! Do you have anything to eat?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, and Wei Ying wilts. Honestly, how rude! To bring up the topic with nothing to offer! Wei Ying is about to tell Lan Wangji to just wait here while he goes to beg, and then they can split whatever he manages to wheedle out when Lan Wangji offers him a hand. “Let’s go?”

Wei Ying blinks, surprised. “Eh?”

“Eat,” Lan Wangji clarifies.

Wei Ying considers, “I hope you don’t expect me to pay you. I have nothing to pay with.”

“I don’t.”

“Are you going to buy me something, then?”

Lan Wangji nods once. He pushes his hands out to Wei Ying once more. “Come,” he says.

Wei Ying nods in response, and takes his hand.

-

The restaurant they go into is one Wei Ying recognizes as people that wouldn’t bother giving him a second glance if he went near them.

Lan Wangji either doesn’t note the vaguely disgusted look the workers give Wei Ying as they enter, or he elects to ignore it, because once they’re both seated and ready, he begins to order, saying the names of a wide variety of foods. Wei Ying takes note that much of them are made primarily of vegetables.

“Can I get something with meat?” Wei Ying interjects. “Please,” he adds on, because he has manners.

Lan Wangji hums, and lists off a few more dishes.

Suddenly, Wei Ying remembers something. “Can I also have--”

Lan Wangji interrupts. “Chili oil, please.”

The woman looks between Wei Ying and Lan Wangji and nods, exiting the area to prepare their meal.

“I was just going to ask for that! Do you like spicy food too, Wangji-gege?” Wei Ying asks excitedly. Turns out he and Lan Wangji had more in common than he had originally thought!

“You do,” Lan Wangji supplies.

Or maybe not.

It doesn’t take long for the barren table to be filled with both big and small dishes, some filled with meats and the others filled with greens. Lan Wangji begins to push plates towards Wei Ying’s half of the table.

Wei Ying claps his hands together when food is finally placed in front of him. “Thank you, miss,” he says to the woman giving it to them.

Wei Ying sees Lan Wangji’s eyes twitch and he bites back a smile. He knows that his preference for spicy foods bordered on extreme, but that was just how he liked it! Plus, it was amusing to see stoic people like Lan Wangji reacting to him pour half a bottle of chili oil onto his meal.

He uses his chopsticks to mix in the chili oil, and begins to scarf down his food as fast as he can. The spice burns pleasantly as the food goes down his throat.

Lan Wangji grabs a hold of the hands holding the chopsticks, sending him a concerned glance. “Wei Ying, slow down.”

“Mmmnngg,” Wei Ying responds around a bite of rice. He does, however, slow down his eating a little bit when Lan Wangji releases him, if only to appease the man paying for his meal.

The two eat in relative silence. Wei Wuxian would like to talk, but after so long without a proper meal in his stomach, he’d much rather try and get through the plates in front of him. Lan Wangji, on the other hand, despite eating much slower and in a calmer fashion than he is, makes no move to hold, or even start a conversation.

“What should we do now?” Wei Ying asks once they’re finished.

Lan Wangji tilts his head towards the boy. “What would you like to do?”

Wei Ying taps his chin thoughtfully. “Have you ever been to Yiling before?”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying deflates. “Oh, you have? I thought I could show you my favorite places?”

“You can,” Lan Wangji says. “I would... like to see them.”

Wei Ying smiles. “Really?”

“Mn.”

-

They find themselves in the marketplace once more, this time near one of the vendors known for making toys for children. Wei Ying had shown him all around Yiling, pointing out this and that, until he had finally ended up here. In front of the toy stand, children in pristine clothes play together with wooden swords. It makes Wei Ying a little sad. Even when his parents were around, he’s never had children his age to play with.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying doesn’t look up from the children playing in front of the stand. The wooden swords smack against each other loudly as they play fight.

“Wei Ying,” he says again, hesitantly, “Would you like some toys?”

Wei Ying gasps, head snapping to face Lan Wangji. “Are you serious? Yes, I want! I want!”

Lan Wangji leads him to the stand the two children are playing in front of.

The vendor smiles when he sees the two of them approach. “Ah, my good sir! Here to buy something for the little one?”

“Mn.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place! I’m sure someone of your status would be able to afford more than a few toys, can’t you?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t bother responding.

“Wei Ying, what would you like?”

Wei Ying looks at the offered toys carefully. Above him, the vendor is pointing out a variety of items for him to look at, but Wei Ying ignores his words.

“Can I have this?” Wei Ying asks, and points to a small item in the corner. The one, he presumes, will be the least expensive for Lan Wangji to buy.

Lan Wangji makes a strange face at that, one that Wei Ying isn’t sure what to make of. It looks... sad, he thinks, but a little bit amused. He hopes, at the very least, that the expression doesn’t mean that he is reconsidering splurging on Wei Ying. He feels a little bad, using the man’s money like this, but in his defense, Lan Wangji offered to him! Wei Ying was perfectly content to just walk by the vendor selling the toys and pretending like he didn’t want one for himself.

Lan Wangji turns to the vendor. “Two butterflies and one of the wooden swords,” he says, and hands the vendor a piece of jade from his pouch.

The vendor quickly put the piece away and gives Lan Wangji the items. “Thank you, sir! Feel free to come back for some more toys again!”

Lan Wangji only nods, and gives Wei Ying the two butterflies, holding on to the sword for him.

Wei Ying looks at the grass butterflies. “Why two of them?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. “Do you like them?” He asks instead.

Wei Ying nods. “I’ll keep them safe!” he promises.

“No need.”

“Huh? What do you mean? This is your gift to me! I can’t go around losing it,” Wei Ying insists.

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “You can have more.”

“Wangji-gege, are all people from Gusu loaded with money?” Wei Ying asks seriously with a raised eyebrow, “Or just you?”

Once again, Lan Wangji stays silent.

-

It’s when they’re walking around Yiling afterward, Wei Ying talking his new friend’s ear off about anything and everything, that Wei Ying finally feels the events of the day begin to catch up to him. He’s in the middle of telling Lan Wangji about the one time he followed a line of ants from one part of the city to another when he’s forced to cut himself off with a yawn.

Lan Wangji stops walking at the sound, so abruptly that Wei Ying runs into him with a small ‘oof’. He looks up at the man and makes eye contact. “Wangji-gege?”

Without another word, Lan Wangji hoists him up with such ease it makes Wei Ying gasp.

Lan Wangji continues to walk as if Wei Ying weighs nothing. “Wangji-gege, what are you doing?” He squirms in Lan Wangji’s hold, only to make the man wrap his arms tighter around Wei Ying.

“You are tired.”

Wei Ying bites back another yawn as he tries once more to get down to no avail. Being in Lan Wangji’s arms does feel much nicer than having to keep walking. His feet were starting to hurt. “No, I’m not.”

Lan Wangji only raises an eyebrow at him, steps not slowing down in the slightest.

“Are we going somewhere?”

“Mn.”

“Where?” Wei Ying manages to mumble out, significantly sleepier than he was just a few moments ago.

The last thing Wei Ying remembers his settling his head onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder, tightening the hands he has around him, and closing his eyes.

-

When Wei Ying wakes, he feels inexplicably warm. He, for some reason, is lying down on a bed instead of hard dirt. On top of him, a billowing white robe covering his entire body up to his chin and then some.

An inn, he realizes. At least, if the bed and enclosed four walls are anything to go by. He pushes the robes off of him. And this is... Lan Wangji’s robes. The owner of said robes, however, is nowhere in sight.

There’s a small basin tucked into the corner of the room, presumably for Wei Ying to wash his face.

After, he goes downstairs to see if maybe Lan Wangji is sitting downstairs.

He goes up to the woman behind the counter. “Excuse me, is there a man here? Dressed all in white? He looks kind of like,” Wei Ying presses his cheeks together and makes the most serious face he can muster, “like this,” he says through his squished together lips.

The woman eyes him. “The man you were with left shortly after dropping you off.”

Wei Ying pauses. “Did he say if he was coming back?”

The woman shakes her head. “He paid for your night here, and a breakfast. And then he left shortly after,” she explains. She raises an eyebrow. “I expect you to be out of here after that, though. This isn’t an orphanage.”

Wei Ying’s chest feels funny at the thought of Lan Wangji leaving him alone by himself. As much as he appreciates being given shelter for the night and food and gifts, he had been looking forward to another day playing with his new friend. He represses the slight tinge of pain in his chest as far down as he can muster. It was silly of him to expect a grown man, especially one from a big cultivation sect, to want to spend time with an orphaned boy on the streets all day.

He turns to the innkeeper. “What’s for breakfast?”

-

The next time Lan Wangji appears, Wei Ying had almost forgotten about him entirely. There are not many moments to reminisce about happy events when survival is his number one priority. After he had left the inn on that fateful day that felt like months ago, he fell back in the routine he’s been on. The robes that Lan Wangji had left him with had been torn apart by stray mutts ages ago, leaving him nothing to remember the man with. The seasons had finally started to shift, and the men and women out in Yiling had started to wear slightly heavier robes. Yiling got nowhere near as cold as other places he’s heard about from his parent’s stories, but on bad nights the chill keeps Wei Ying from even being able to go to sleep.

Occasionally, he’ll see someone wearing white robes, and on even rarer occasions someone with cloud insignia, and he’ll get flashing memories of a man who spent the day playing with him-- but nothing more than that.

Until.

There’s a man waiting in the alleyway where Wei Ying thinks he’ll stay for the day. Wei Ying frowns. He had specifically scouted out this area because it had seemed deserted, no animals nearby to steal from him, and no other homeless children that he’d feel inclined to give his food too. Wei Ying knows he will give up his food if he does come across someone, but he was hungry, too.

The man, though, doesn’t look like a homeless person at all. Instead, he looks almost regal. As Wei Ying steps closer, his footsteps must’ve become audible, because the man turns to look at him.

When they make eye contact, Wei Ying is met with eyes that shine golden under the sun. Eyes he’s only seen on one other person.

“...Wangji-gege?”

In response, the man only stares at him blankly, and the look is enough to jog Wei Ying’s memories.

He runs up to him, overjoyed. He hugs him tightly for a moment, before releasing the man to look up at him properly. “Wangji-gege! I missed you! Where did you go? Why are you back? Do you want to play with me today?”

Lan Wangji only nods once, making Wei Ying laugh. “I can not stay for long, though.”

“That’s okay! Let’s play until you have to go!”

“Let us eat first.”

Wei Ying nods vigorously. “Okay!”

Lan Wangji takes them to another restaurant, and this time makes a point to order food that is as red as the setting sun, as well as a few much too pale for Wei Ying’s liking.

“Do you not like spicy food, Wangji-gege?” Wei Ying asks around his chopsticks once the food arrives.

“Do not speak while eating,” Lan Wangji reprimands in return.

After finishing their meal, Wei Ying wastes no time in leading Lan Wangji off in a new direction for their aforementioned fun.

He leads him to a spot under a tree, where several rocks are lined up in a pattern. He can feel the confusion radiate off of Lan Wangji, but he ignores it, opting to squat down in front of the base of the tree. He starts to clear away some of the dirt and rocks away and dig up the soil underneath.

“I buried the toys you got me so no other kid could steal them and I couldn’t lose them,” Wei Ying explains. “And I put these rocks in front so I’d remember that this is where I hid them.” The soil finally gives way to the outlines of something underneath. Wei Ying digs more. He notes at Lan Wangji’s clean skin and clothing. “You don’t have to touch them if you don’t want to. Just play with me, okay?”

He clears away the last of the dirt and shakes as much as he can off of the toys. Lan Wangji takes one of them out his hands. “What do I do?”

Wei Ying’s mouth opens slightly in surprise, before breaking out into a wide grin.

They spent the day playing right there under a tree, occasionally making the short trip to the nearest vendor to buy Wei Ying fruit. Where Lan Wangji is graceful in everything else he does, Wei Ying finds delight in the almost awkward mannerisms he displays playing with the toys. Wei Ying had only one wooden sword, and Lan Wangji was wary using the sword at his waist to fight with him, so they had to settle with many of the smaller toys to Wei Ying’s displeasure. As the sun begins to set, painting the sky in pinks and purples, Lan Wangji gets up.

Wei Ying’s heart sinks. “Already?”

“Mn. I must go,” Lan Wangji explains. He brushes off the lower part of his robes. “Are you still hungry?”

Wei Ying shakes his head and pulls at Lan Wangji’s sleeves. “Wangji-gege?”

Lan Wangji pauses.

“Can you come again?” Wei Ying pleads. It’s a childish request, he knows, but despite how grown he wants to be, he knows in his heart that a child is all he is. “Quicker this time? I don’t want to forget about you again,” he explains.

Lan Wangji frowns. “I do not know.”

Wei Ying matches the frown. “Why did you come this time then?”

Lan Wangji shifts his eyes away as if debating his next words. “...”

Wei Ying feels a spark of annoyance. He’s not sure where it comes from, but Lan Wangji has been his only friend since his parents disappeared, and he doesn’t appreciate the single person he can talk to disappearing on him in the span of hours. He closes his eyes and crosses his arms, turning away from Lan Wangji. “You’re not going to tell me? Fine, don’t! I didn’t want to hang out with you today, anyways! I’m busy too, you know. Not everyone has time to hang out with adults all day!” He peeks an eye open to gauge Lan Wangji’s reaction.

Lan Wangji only sighs, as if he knows Wei Ying is only spouting nonsense. He reaches into his sleeves and pulls out a thick parcel. He presents it to the Wei Ying carefully. “Happy birthday.”

Wei Ying freezes. Calculations run through his head and... huh. It really was his birthday today. But how did Lan Wangji know that?

Before he can ask the man himself, the parcel ends up in his hands. It’s light enough for Wei Ying to hold it with ease, but heavy enough for Wei Ying to note that there is, in fact, something of weight inside.

“Is this a birthday present?”

Lan Wangji nods. “Yes.”

Wei Ying feels warm all over. “Thank you,” Wei Ying says, and bows the best with the parcel in his hand.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying straightens. “Hm?”

Lan Wangji stares at him for a long moment. “...Stay safe,” he says, and walks away. Wei Ying stays where he is, and wonders why he felt like Lan Wangji was going to say something different.

-

Wei Ying is somewhat surprised, but overall elated, when Lan Wangji shows up again only two days later.

He is wearing the new clothes Lan Wangji had gifted him for his birthday. They are pretty, he thinks, but very much different than Lan Wangji’s own robes. Black with red accents, he’s surprised Lan Wangji would even pick up something like this for him. There was still the question of how he had even known it was his birthday in the first place when even Wei Ying had forgotten such a fact, but he assumes he had let it slip at some point during their first meeting together.

Lan Wangji appears suddenly, just as he has done last time, and the time before that, while Wei Ying is scouring the streets for his lunch. This time, however, he looks somewhat harried.

“Wei Ying,” he greets.

“Hello again, Wangji-gege! You’re back!”

“En,” Lan Wangji agrees. “I’m back.”

“Look! I’m wearing what you gave me! It fit really well!” He does a twirl to show it off in its fullest. “Is it nice?”

Lan Wangji leans down to adjust it, patting down the lapels of the robes and straightening it out. “Very nice,” he compliments, making Wei Ying beam.

“Thank you!”

“Mn.” A pause, “Has someone come to talk to you today?”

Wei Ying raises an eyebrow. “...Was someone supposed to?”

Lan Wangji frowns. “Later, then.”

“...If you say so, Wangji-gege. You’re kind of weird, did you know that?”

“Do not speak ill of others.”

Wei Ying giggles at the serious tone. “Haha, if you say so!”

All of a sudden, he hears lots of footsteps. People seem to be running, from the sounds of it. In the distance, Wei Ying can hear the sounds of voices talking over one another.

And is that-- Wei Ying freezes. No.

The distinct sound of a dog bark. Very close by, if Wei Ying could guess, much closer than the footsteps or the voices. He feels a chill run down his spine when he finally catches sight of it.

Wei Ying screeches. “Wangji-gege, Wangji-gege, please, please, please!” He blindly grabs at the Lan Wangji’s robes and presses himself as close as possible to his legs. His hands reach up, blindly trying to get higher off the ground and away from the dog. “Please, please! Make it go away, make it go AWAY!”

Lan Wangji immediately wraps his hands around Wei Ying and scoops him up. Wei Ying burrows his face into Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

“Save me, save me, save me,” He continues to babble, quieter now but no less hysterical.

“Saving you,” Lan Wangji says indulgently. He pushes up Wei Ying slightly higher into his arms.

The barking has, miraculously quieted down, but not enough that Wei Ying feels any more inclined to lift his head from the comfort that Lan Wangji’s shoulder is currently providing him.

“Is it coming closer?” Wei Ying asks quietly.

Lan Wangji takes a step back. A pause. “It is not.”

“You’re sure?”

“En.” Lan Wangji shifts Wei Ying in his arms.

Wei Ying slowly lifts his head up and peeks over Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Sure enough, the dog is sitting several feet away on its hind legs. The sight makes Wei Ying shiver.

When the dog sees him, it lets out a happy bark. Immediately, his face is back in the juncture between Lan Wangji’s shoulder and collarbone. “Let’s go from here! I don’t want to see it anymore!”

Wei Ying feels Lan Wangji nod rather than sees it. “Let’s go,” he says.

Lan Wangji sets him down some distance away. “Alright?” he asks.

Wei Ying takes a shaky breath, and nods. “Are you going already?” He asks fretfully. “You just got here!”

The sounds of footsteps are back. The whole lot of them. This time, blessedly, without the added sound of dogs barking.

They still seem a distance away, but much, much closer than before, and the echoes reach Lan Wangji and Wei Ying clearly.

Lan Wangji, “Stay here.”

Wei Ying, partially because he doesn’t like being ordered around, and partially because he does not like this order in particular, chooses not to listen. He closes the distance to the man with a few fumbling steps and tugs at the parts of Lan Wangji’s robes that he can reach.

“And you? Where are you going? You didn’t even answer me! Wangji-gege?!”

“I must go,” Lan Wangji insists.

Wei Ying tugs harder. “Why now? Where? Can I come?”

“You may not. Stay,” Lan Wangji says firmly.

Wei Ying frowns.

“Stay,” Lan Wangji repeats. Then gives him a rather awkward pat on the head for good measure.

Wei Ying furrows his brows. He doesn’t appreciate being treated like a... like a dog! “Hey! You can’t tell me that and not say anything! Wangji-gege, you’re always disappearing! You didn’t even stay five minutes this time! Can’t I go with you just once?”

From somewhere nearby, a voice can barely be audible, “Did you hear that? Did that sound like a child’s voice to you?”

And another, “Do you think it could be who Sect Leader Jiang is looking for?”

Lan Wangji takes another two steps back. “Wei Ying. Don’t move from here. I will be back.”

Wei Ying persists. Something seems to have clicked for Lan Wangji with those words, something far beyond Wei Ying’s understanding, and that in turn stresses him out even more. “When? Today? Tomorrow?”

The foreign voice again, this time louder, “It’s coming from here!”

“Wangji-gege, are you going to be coming back?”

Lan Wangji crouches down to meet Wei Ying’s eyes, much like he did when they first met, and nods once. “I will be back.”

Wei Ying bites his lip. He stays still this time. “Promise me,” he says instead. “If you can promise me that you’ll be back, then I’ll stay here.”

“I promise.”

Wei Ying looks at Lan Wangji’s face carefully. Once he gives his nod of approval, Lan Wangji stands back up, back straight as if tied to a wooden board, and walks smoothly back out of the alcove. The moment he turns the corner, several more bodies block the entrance. Unlike Lan Wangji’s pristine whites and blues, they are in purple. The man in front takes one look at where Wei Ying is still standing. He lets out an audible breath, one that makes his shoulders slump. A kind smile graces his face. He bends down in front of Wei Ying.

Wei Ying inwardly feels as though he’s been in a situation like this before.

The man, Wei Ying thinks, is similar to Lan Wangji, but also completely different. The heights and build are similar, and the hairstyle to some extent, but where Lan Wangji has a forehead ribbon and strands of hair coming out of his bun to frame his face, this man has braids that run along the sides of his hair.

The man introduces himself as JiangFengmian, sect leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, and holds out his hand.

In it, is a piece of melon.

“Would you like to have a bite?”

Chapter Text

Life with the Jiangs is not the best thing in life Wei Ying has ever experienced. But he has a roof over his head, and he doesn’t have to worry about when or how he’ll get his next meal, so he supposes it could have ended up a lot worse.

Wei Ying had ashamedly gone into hysterics seeing the three puppies waiting for him at the entrance of the gates Jiang Fengmian was carrying him into. Not moments later, the Sect Leader has the dogs sent away, all while Wei Ying stays trembling in his arms.

Since that day, Jiang Cheng hasn’t bothered to spare Wei Ying another glance.

Madame Yu, when she does bother to look at him, only does so with a scoff. She never looks happy, not even when Wei Ying does his best to eat as little and as neatly as possible. It’s fine, he reminds himself. It’s fine if she doesn’t say anything to him, so long as it she doesn’t tell Jiand Fengmian to kick him out. For that matter, Jiang Fengmian, after initially bringing him in, quickly becomes too busy to check up on Wei Ying as often as Wei Ying would like. But that’s fine, too. To intrude on the Jiang family indefinitely was more than Wei Ying could have asked for. Jiang Yanli sends him kind smiles and words when she can. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Wei Ying is grateful just for this.

The second day is more of the same, until that night when Jiang Cheng had practically barricaded his room to keep Wei Ying from entering.

“Go away! If I see you again, I’ll call a bunch of dogs to bite you!”

So Wei Ying ran. And now here he is, hanging from a tree branch to avoid said dogs while also trying not to fall. He really didn’t plan through how high he was climbing until he was already here, and he was too frightened about both the drop and the dogs to think about letting go.

Everything seems to blur while he’s hanging off the branch. He doesn’t know how long he has been hanging from the tree before he sees a person appear extremely close to the tree, a man in white, a stark contrast to the darkness. His face is illuminated by the lantern he is holding.

Wei Ying does a double take. Wangji-gege?!

Had it been anyone else, especially if it had been someone from the Jiangs, Wei Ying isn’t sure whether he would have had the courage to say anything at all. But this is Lan Wangji. Wei Ying feels as if he can be as shameless as he wants around him and Lan Wangji will say nothing.

“Wangji-gege,” Wei Ying calls out in his most pitiful voice.

Immediately, Lan Wangji stops where he is and cranes his neck up. His eyes squint. “Wei Ying?!”

Wei Ying kicks his legs. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Why are you there?”

Wei Ying considers telling Lan Wangji the truth about how Jiang Cheng locked him out. Then, he considers how much worse Jiang Cheng will feel towards him if he got in trouble for something that was Wei Ying’s own fault. “I wanted to climb a tree,” Wei Ying lies. “But I accidentally climbed too high.”

Wei Ying can’t hear, but he thinks Lan Wangji lets out a sigh. “Foolish. Wei Ying, come down.”

At that, Wei Ying shakes his head vehemently. “Someone told me there are dogs down there. I will not!” He smartly doesn’t mention the fact that he also does not know how.

“There are no dogs,” Lan Wangji says.

“How... how can you be so sure!”

Lan Wangji pointedly looks around the area. “See for yourself. There are none.”

Wei Ying does so, twisting his head this way and that to survey the ground below. “Maybe not now,” he acquiesces. “But there could be soon!” He whimpers. “I don’t want them to bite me anymore.”

Lan Wangji tilts his head. “I won’t let them bite you. But you have to come down first.”

Wei Ying grasps onto the branches as if his life depends on it. Which it does. Just as he suspects, the moment he even tries to let go, his instincts only make him want to grasp onto the branch tighter. “I’m stuck here, Wangji-gege,” Wei Ying says as despairingly as he can. He tries not to be too loud, though, in case someone else in the sect hears him. Worse, if it Jiang Fengmian’s family.

“You are not. Jump.”

“What?!”

“I will catch you,” Lan Wangji says. He sets the lantern down next to him and opens up his arms as if in preparation.

Wei Ying suddenly registers just how sore his arms have gotten. The pain makes tears spring up in his eyes. “I don’t know how to let go,” he wails.

“You will hurt yourself more if you try to hold on.”

Wei Ying stares down at him, teary-eyed. “You’ll drop me if I fall! I’m too high up!”

“I will not drop you.” Lan Wangji says calmly, and extends his hands out to Wei Ying again. “Jump,” he repeats. “I will catch you.”

Wèi Yīng eyes Lan Wangji’s arms. “You promise?”

“Mn. Do not be afraid. I promise.”

Wei Ying squeezes his eyes shut. “Letting go!” he yells. He silently prays the ground won’t be too hard as he abruptly wrenches his hands from the branch.

The air rushes through his ears and he starts to curl his body to brace for impact. But instead of hitting the cold, hard dirt as he had feared, he falls straight into Lan Wangji’s awaiting arms. Arms that don't hesitate to wrap around him tightly and hold him close.

Wei Ying instinctively wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and tightens his hold. It must have been an uncomfortable feeling for him, but Lan Wangji makes no noise of complaint. It’s strange, how Wei Ying had seen his Wangji-gege not one day before, but the unstopping pangs in his heart since laying eyes on him tonight remind him of just how much he missed him. And that makes the tears pour out of his eyes in earnest.

Lan Wangji freezes. “Wei Ying?”

Wei Ying presses his lips together so as to muffle the sounds coming out of his mouth. “Sorry, Wangji-gege, I- I’m making your robes wet.”

Lan Wangji quickly relaxes, reaching up to pat his back comfortingly. “That is alright.”

Wei Ying sniffs audibly. “I don’t want to cry over something silly.”

“If you are upset by it, then it is not silly.”

Wei Ying chokes on a sob. “Maybe. But I don’t want to be afraid of them anymore!”

“Of what?”

“Dogs,” Wei Ying says. “The Jiang family...”

Lan Wangji stiffens. “You are afraid of them?”

“Only a little,” Wei Ying replies meekly. “It is only my second day with them.”

Lan Wangji exhales. “I was... unaware they treated you poorly.”

“They treat me fine,” Wei Ying is quick to amend. “And how could you have known? You didn’t even know I was taken by them!”

“But they have,” Lan Wangji affirms. “They’ve taken you in as a son.”

Wei Ying shakes his head in disagreement, even though Lan Wangji can’t quite see the movement. “No... I don’t know why Sect Leader Jiang took me back. But he said I am to live with their family from now on.”

Lan Wangji presses his lips together. “Your shoes are several sizes too large for you,” he comments, making Wei Ying’s cheeks flush red. The shoes were lying at the base of the tree. THey must’ve fallen off in Wei Ying’s rush to climb up. He hadn’t even noticed.

Wei Ying accepts the change in topic. “It is better than wrapping leaves around my foot or going barefoot,” he replies indignantly. It doesn’t matter if they didn't fit Wei Ying. He would grow into them. There was no need to trouble Sect Leader Jiang with such a fact.

Lan Wangji leans down with Wei Ying in his arms to pick up the fallen shoes. “Why do you not say something to them?”

Wei Ying frowns. “I don’t want to bother them.”

“You will not be bothering them.”

Wei Ying twists his fists into Lan Wangji’s robes. “But what if I go? What if they kick me out for it?”

Lan Wangji shifts Wei Ying in his arms so that he is facing him. “You said they treated you well,” he says, almost accusingly.

“They do!” Wei Ying says. Jiang Cheng had practically kicked him out of his home for the night but. Semantics.

“How do they treat you then?”

Wei Ying bites his lip. “Sect Leader Jiang is very kind.”

Lan Wangji nods as if he expected such an answer. “Mn. And the rest?”

“Madame Yu... I don’t think she likes me very much. She doesn’t talk to me like Sect Leader Jiang. And Jiang Yanli made me soup on my very first dinner with them and it was really good! I’m to call her shijie from now on, and, and, and! I have a shidi too! His name is Jiang Cheng! He had three puppies but Sect Leader Jiang made them go away so I wouldn’t be scared of them anymore...” Wei Ying bites his lip. “I don’t think he very much likes me, either.”

Lan Wangji makes a humming noise. “They will warm up to you.”

“I don’t believe it,” Wei Ying huffs. “Maybe I should go back to the streets.”

Lan Wangji’s hands tighten around him again. “No.”

“No?”

“They will come to love you in time,” Lan Wangji says. “It is what you deserve.”

The sincerity of the words makes Wei Ying want to cry all over again. “Thank you.”

“Would you like me to take you back to your home?”

“Sect Leader Jiang’s home,” Wei Ying can’t help but correct, “Yes, please.” He blinks back the last of his tears and squirms in Lan Wangji’s arms until he gets the hint and places him back onto solid ground. He holds his hand out, which Lan Wangji obligingly takes.

Wei Ying takes the shoes out of Lan Wangji’s free hand and stuffs his feet into them.

“Your shoes are much too big to be walking comfortably,” Lan Wangji comments.

“That’s okay,” Wei Ying says. “This is the first gift that Sect Leader Jiang gave me. I don’t want it to go to waste!”

It doesn’t seem to reassure Wei Ying. “Mn. If you’re sure.”

“I am! Oh... also, I don’t remember the way back.” He peeks up to look at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji huffs. He starts to walk Wei Ying back in the direction of, hopefully, Lotus Pier.

Wei Ying furrows his eyebrows as he comes to a realization. “Wait, Wangji-gege, was that a laugh? Were you laughing at me just now?!”

Lan Wangji only continues to tug Wei Ying.

Wei Ying pouts. “Wangji-gege!”

-

Lan Wangji drops him off just in view of the Jiang family home before he says goodbye and walks off into the opposite direction.

Instantly, he hears two pairs of footsteps running in his direction. Jiang Yanli, holding a lantern in one hand and her little brother’s hand in the other, and Jiang Cheng, covered in much more dirt than Wei Ying remembered seeing him in.

Jiang Yanli gasps when they finally make it in front of him. “A-Ying? Is that you? Where have you been?”

Wei Ying nods, and cranes his neck backward to see the last vestige of Lan Wangji. To his surprise, he sees absolutely nothing. No matter. He can think about that later.

He turns back to Jiang Yanli and bows. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trouble you. I just wanted to go outside.”

“Are you... looking for someone?” she asks curiously, and leans to the side to see what Wei Ying was trying to look like. “Is that why you came outside?”

“No,” Wei Ying says. “It’s just that I’m too used to sleeping outdoors. It felt too confining in Jiang Cheng’s room.”

Jiang Cheng looks at him with a mixture of confusion and gratefulness. Wei Ying takes it in stride.

Jiang Yanli, however, looks at him with fond exasperation. “You don’t have to lie for A-Cheng, A-Ying. He already told me what happened.”

Wei Ying blushes. “Oh.”

“Thank you for trying to protect him.” Jiang Yanli smiles softly. “A-Cheng and I have been looking for you this whole time. Please come inside and I will make some soup.” She gives a pointed look to Jian Cheng. “Is there something you would like to say to A-Ying?” She shakes their joint hands gently.

Wei Ying looks at Jiang Cheng who has taken to glare hard at the floor. “I’m sorry,” he sputters out. “You can sleep in my room. I shouldn’t have kicked you out.”

Wei Ying brightens at the statement. “Really? You aren’t lying?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. He looks up to meet Wei Ying’s eyes. “And... I’ll chase away dogs for you from now on!” He promises. “Every last one! Even Princess, Jasmine, and Love!”

Wei Ying gasps. “Thank you! I won’t tell Sect Leader Jiang about tonight. I promise!”

Jiang Yanli sighs. “Alright, alright. You two can talk more in the morning. It’s very late. Let us go eat some soup, and I’ll have the medic look over to see if either of you two are injured. And then all of us need to get our rest.”

Jiang Cheng offers his free hand to Wei Ying to hold.

Wei Ying grins.

-

Over the next five years, Wei Ying, now Wei Wuxian, quickly realizes his hope of belonging in the Jiang family is nothing more than a silly child’s pipe dream.

In his eleven years, he’s been called silly, ignorant, carefree, and while he is admittedly all of those things, it is safe to say that he’s not stupid. Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu don’t make their disputes a secret the prying ears of their children and their charity case, and their words carry through the thin walls of Wei Wuxian’s room.

Even without it, he would be a fool to believe that he wasn’t the source of all the problems in the Jiang household.

He can’t ignore the disappointed and envious expression on Jiang Cheng’s face when Sect Leader Jiang favors him over his younger brother, nor can he ignore the disdain in Madame Yu’s expression when she looks at him and only sees Cangse Sanren’s son.

On top of that, he’s managed to find himself at the top as head disciple. That had done him no favors with half of the Jiang family.

His only reprieve from the way he was looked at and treated by all of them was to make frequent trips into the woods to hunt or into the marketplace to eat warm food being sold or to simply make idle chatter with the vendors. That, and whenever Lan Wangji managed to visit. The past couple of years, the number of visits had decreased in overall number, but the duration of each one was much longer now, as well as the time between each visit.

Lan Wangji was nowhere to be seen right now, so woods it is. He isn’t even sure what today’s argument was about, the same words hashed out between the person that took him in and the person that wants him out until it’s all too much for Wei Wuxian to bear.

He goes to one of his usual haunts, a secret location hidden by the thick greenery. He climbs up one of the trees nearest to him and lies down on the branch.

The moment he closes his eyes for his long-awaited nap—

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian almost falls out of the tree branch. “Wangji-gege?! How did you find me?!”

Lan Wangji adjusts his forehead ribbon despite its perfect placement. “I will always find you,” he answers.

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes playfully and climbs down. “Nice try. But no one else knows about this place except for me! Tell me the truth, Wangji-gege. Did you follow me? I didn't even see you behind me! You should have been so easy to spot in those GusuLan robes... You have to teach me your stealth, okay? Or is that a secret technique?”

Lan Wangji sighs. “...Not a secret technique. I will teach you.”

Wei Wuxian beams. “Really?!”

“But not today,” Lan Wangji adds on. “Do you have no studies today?”

Wei Wuxian deflates somewhat, reminded of just why he’s here in the first place. “I was just skipping,” he says, forcing a grin on his face. “Classes are too long, and all I want to do is play and nap!”

Lan Wangji studies him carefully. “Wei Ying.”

The grin falters only slightly. “It’s the truth, Wangji-gege. Are you disappointed in me?” He wouldn’t be the first one, at the very least.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, narrowing his eyes. “Do not lie.”

“How can you tell if I’m lying or not?”

“I know you, Wei Ying,” comes the immediate response.

Wei Wuxian sighs. He breaks eye contact with Lan Wangji in favor of looking at his hands. “Fine. I will be honest, but only to you... The truth is, Madame Yu was arguing about me again. I didn’t want her to see me in case that would make her madder. And I didn’t want Jiang Cheng to see me because he has too much pride to consistently her about how Uncle Jiang gives him favors over me.”

Wei Wuxian apparently has no brain-to-mouth filter anymore, because the words keep coming. He tells Lan Wangji everything about how he thinks the Jiang family views him, all the thoughts he hid from his adoptive siblings— if he could even call them that— for years. Upon finishing, Lan Wangji looks stunned.

“I... I didn’t know.”

“Because I didn’t tell you,” Wei Wuxian says. “But it really is fine.” He looks down at the floor. “Things will get better once Jiang Cheng takes over as sect leader and blows everyone away. And—”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian stops talking. He had assumed that the GusuLan sect would have a rule against interrupting others while speaking, but apparently not. “...Wangji-gege.”

“Wei Ying. Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan are wrong to project their problems onto you. You are not the cause to their personal issues,” Lan Wangji says. “How he treats his other son is no fault of yours, but a fault of his. You were a child when Jiang Fengmian took you in. You are still a child.”

Wei Wuxian makes an affronted noise. Lan Wangji ignores him. “A child shouldn’t have to ask for a family or a home. It is the responsibility of the guardian to give it to them.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. “I get it, I get it.”

Lan Wangji reaches out to put a hand on his head. Wei Wuxian jolts. He’s much too old for a childish gesture such as this one, but the contact makes him feel warm, much like all those years ago when they had first met. “I’m sorry.”

Wei Wuxian manages to giggle at the remark. “Why are you apologizing? Wangji-gege, you really are very nice, aren’t you?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, “I am being truthful. I should have told you sooner.”

“Told me what?”

Lan Wangji makes eye contact with him. “Whatever problems occur between Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan are not your fault. Nothing that will happen is your fault.”

Wei Wuxian’s mind races at the words. He’s wanted to hear them from someone, anyone, for so long, but now that they are here in front of him, what he should do next escapes him. He takes in a shaky breath. “You speak so strangely sometimes, Wangji-ge. You tell me nothing that will happen is my fault, but such a thing... you can never know for sure. Maybe one day they will get into an argument, and something bad will happen, and it really will be my fault. You don’t know.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Not your fault.”

Wei Wuxian huffs. Honestly, he’d never in his life met a person more stubborn than himself until the day he met Lan Wangji. His lips quirk up. “Okay. If Wangji-gege says it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault. Is that alright with you?”

“For now.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Sometimes, I really just don’t understand you.” Lang Wangji has no outward reaction to that. “Anyways,” Wei Wuxian begins. “If you’re here, we may as well play together! Have you ever stolen lotuses before!”

Lan Wangji frowns. “No stealing.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Oh right, what was I thinking, saying that to a member of the GusuLan sect? I can’t even count how many times the old man who owns the lotus pond threatened to beat me with a stick when he caught me stealing.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond.

“How about instead of that,” Wei Wuxian muses. “We rent a boat and go lotus picking! There’s a lot of places in Lotus Pier for it! Shijie, Jiang Cheng, and I go many times in the summer!”

Lan Wangji nods. “That is fine.”

-

When they finally make it to the lotus pond, Lan Wangji announces abruptly, “It is time for me to go.” He looks at Wei Wuxian carefully. “I apologize for not being able to go with you today.”

Wei Wuxian smiles reassuringly to mask his disappointment. “That’s alright. You have places to be, I get it.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, not unapologetically.

“We can go next time?”

Lan Wangji silently exhales. “Next time,” he says, and Wei Wuxian smiles at the promise in his words.

“Are you feeling... better?” Lan Wangji asks hesitantly.

Wei Wuxian hadn’t even taken note of it, but the ache in his chest has lessened somewhat. “Yeah, much. Thank you, Wangji-ge.” He sighs, and hopes it does not come off as bitter as he feels. “I really do feel better from your words. You really are a good guy, Wangji-gege. But no matter what you said today, days like today I feel like maybe I really should run away, and maybe go back to living on the streets. Don’t take any offense to it though, okay? I am very grateful for everything, but it would be much better for everyone here. And besides, no matter where I am, you always seem to know where to find me. That’s all I really need.”

“No!”

Wei Ying blinks. He hasn’t heard Lan Wangji’s voice raise that much in years.

Lan Wangji takes on that complicated expression, one Wei Wuxian was growing far too used to. The one that makes Lan Wangji look impossibly older than his years. “You must make good memories in Lotus Pier,” Lan Wangji says, “Be happy while you are here.”

“Haha, easy for you to say!” Wei Wuxian says, only half-joking. He really was happy here, for the most part. It was only days like today that he wasn’t. But these days were rare, in Wei Wuxian’s opinion. “Wangji-gege, you sound like a teacher!”

Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian pointedly. “I am.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth falls open. He wasn’t expecting that. “Oh, really? What do you teach? Who do you teach?”

“People a little older than you.”

Wei Wuxian nods thoughtfully. “Then, when I’m that age, can you teach me things too?”

Lan Wangji pauses for a moment and then shakes his head. Wei Wuxian hopes his disappointment is not visible on his face. “Sect Leader Jiang is teaching you everything you need to know,” Lan Wangji explains. “But,” he adds on, taking not of Wei Wuxian’s expression. “Should you have any questions after that, you may ask.”

Wei Wuxian nods. He waves at Lan Wangji as the man turns his back on him. “Bye then!”

He continues waving until Lan Wangji is so far down the street that he is just a little white speck, waving still, until it seems as though Lan Wangji had simply vanished.

-

Lan Wangji’s visits have only gotten rarer, but he unfailingly will show up on Wei Wuxian’s birthdays with some small trinket in hand. He keeps them all in a small box he keeps underneath his bed, from the grass butterflies and sword given to him when he was six to the robes he had outgrown years ago. More recently, Lan Wangji had given him a bright new red hair tie, which was good because Wei Wuxian’s old one had been fraying badly.

No one else knows who the gifts are from, or who had been giving it in the first place. Wei Wuxian had meant to introduce Lan Wangji to his family earlier, but every time Lan Wangji found him (never the reverse situation), all thoughts about it left his mind.

Jiang Cheng has once asked about the box, but Wei Wuxian had deflected by claiming it was erotica, and then going into intimate detail about it until Jiang Cheng’s face was red and he couldn’t listen anymore.

-

“You and Jiang Cheng will be sent to the Cloud Recesses for one year”, Jiang Fengmian tells him one day. Wei Wuxian tells as much to Lan Wangji as the two of them sit in front of a tree in the forests lining Lotus Pier.

“I get to see people like you!” Wei Wuxian laughs. “It’s all very exciting stuff. Well, not really. GusuLan sounds like a drab. But I’ve never left Yunmeng before this, you know.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widen slightly at the statements. “...People like me. Yes.”

“That’s the part you latch on?” Wei Wuxian’s rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “But yes, all stiff and stuffy just like you! Say, do you have family in the Cloud Recesses? Anyone I should be watching out for?”

Lan Wangji hesitates for a moment and then, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian blinks, “Huh. I kind of assumed you didn’t and that’s why you hang around Yunmeng all the time. Who’s in your family?”

“I have an older brother and I was raised by my uncle... I have a son as well.”

Wei Wuxian stares at him curiously. “No wife?”

Lan Wangji averts his eyes. It makes Wei Wuxian feel like he’s said something wrong. “Oh... did she pass?” he says quietly. “I just assumed, because of... the kid. I’m sorry.”

“That is alright.”

After a moment, “What’s your son like?”

Lan Wangji considers it for a moment. “Much like you,” he finally answers.

“Really? I figured he’d be more like you. All stuck up and stuff.”

Lan Wangji gives him a dry look.

Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out in response. “Just kidding! Don’t take my words seriously, okay? But doesn’t the GusuLan sect have their thousands upon thousands of rules? Does he follow all of them?”

Lan Wangji hums. “For the most part.”

Wei Wuxian snickers. “For the most part? You must realize what you have just admitted to me, yes? Because all I’m hearing is, the great son of Lan Wangji is a troublemaker!”

The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth pull up at that. It isn’t a smile, per se, but it still leaves Wei Wuxian reeling. “He takes after his other parent in that regard,” Lan Wangji says.

“Hm... I think I would have been friends with your wife!”

“You would have.”

Wei Wuxian hums, strangely satisfied at hearing at that. “So why do you hang around here if you have so many people waiting for you over there? Yunmeng is kind of far from Cloud Recesses, isn’t it? Ah, but it’s not that I’m ungrateful or anything! I like when you come to hang out with me. I’ll introduce you to Jiang Cheng and my shijie officially one of these days.”

“No need.”

Wei Wuxian frowns. “And why not? I thought we were friends!”

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. “You understand that I am over twice your age at the current moment.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “At the current moment, he says. As if the fact that you’re older than me will change tomorrow or the day after. In any case, if age is the only problem, that’s a dumb reason not to be friends with someone. I say I’m friends with the people in Yunmeng all the time, and a lot of them are over the age of one hundred!”

Lan Wangji sighs. “I believe you.”

Wei Wuxian smiles. “As you should! But enough about that.” He lies back, and relaxes his head onto his crossed arms. “Tell me more about the Cloud Recesses.”

Chapter Text

As much as Wei Wuxian loves and appreciates the sea, he is ecstatic upon finally seeing the beginnings of land appear on the horizon.

It borders on giddiness, how he feels going to experience the place Lan Wangji lives in. Lan Wangji had told him he’d be on a prolonged night hunt coupled with traveling during Wei Wuxian’s stay, and to not be expectant on meeting him there. Wei Wuxian had understood, albeit disappointedly, and resolved to experience as much of the Cloud Recesses as he could while he was there.

Jiang Cheng eyes his happy look with suspicion. He grabs his arm and leans in. “Do not embarrass us while we are there,” he hisses into Wei Wuxian’s ear.

Wei Wuxian makes an offended noise. “I’m innocent! I never cause trouble! Why do you think I’ll do something?”

Jiang Cheng only rolls his eyes. “Show me one time you haven’t done something. Cloud Recesses are nothing like Lotus Pier. There are actual rules, and they have strict punishments and curfews. Just you existing is enough to offend them.”

Wei Wuxian hooks his arm around Jiang Cheng’s neck and drags him in to give him in to rub his pristine hair as hard as he can. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?” He asks playfully, raising his voice to that of Jiang Cheng yelling at him to let go.

“Let go of-- fuck you!” Jiang Cheng exclaims, wrenching his body away.

Wei Wuxian laughs. “I won’t embarrass the Jiang Sect, Jiang Cheng. Don’t worry too much about it, or you’ll start to get wrinkles!”

Jiang Cheng grumbles, trying uselessly to straighten out his hair before they dock. “Just you saying that is worrying,” he mutters.

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, perching himself at the edge of the boat as the edges of Gusu get closer and closer.

(Wei Wuxian lies back on the soft grass. “Do you think I’ll like it there, Wangji-ge?”

Lan Wangji, for his part, is sitting straight up, hands resting neatly on his palm. “It is different from Lotus Pier.”

Wei Wuxian groans. “Giving me a straight answer sometimes would be nice, you know. Being different has nothing to do with it. I like ice cream and I like spicy food! Those are two very different things. You understand?”

Lan Wangji hums. “Wei Ying will not be used to life in the Cloud Recesses,” he says. “But if it is Wei Ying, I’m sure he’ll find his own ways to have fun.”)

Wei Wuxian doesn’t realize how much time he spends lost in his memory until he hears Jiang Cheng call out for him. “Wei Wuxian? Hello? Are you even listening to me? Wei Wuxian!”

He glances around at the scenery. The sun has almost set completely, casting a deep orange hue on everything the last sun rays touch. Just how much time had passed since Wei Wuxian had zoned out?

Wei Wuxian blinks. “What?”

Jiang Cheng nudges him with his boot. “Get the fuck off this thing. We’re here.”

-

Wei Wuxian waits until Jiang Cheng is fully asleep before he puts his plan into action. After all, if Jiang Cheng caught wind of what he was planning to do, he would have surely tried to stop him. Or kill him. Either way, Wei Wuxian was not willing to risk it.

Lan Wangji had told him about one of Gusu’s lesser-known delicacies, especially amongst the GusuLan disciples, a brand of liquor he had called Emperor’s Smile. Alcohol was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had also said, which was just ridiculous, so if he ever wanted to drink any he had to hide it well.

Wangji-ge... he’s rather alright with bending the rules of his own sect, isn’t he, Wei Wuxian thinks with an amused smile. If everyone in the Cloud Recesses is like this, Wei Wuxian doesn’t think his year-long stay will be quite so bad.

Sneaking out is laughably easy. The liquor shop is easy to find too, as it’s the one that the YunmengJiang disciples had passed on their way to the Cloud Recesses to begin with. He buys two jars and practically skips his way back. So long as he’s back before morning time, none will be the wiser.

He hops over the tall wall he had used to go over. Just before he can get one leg inside, he spots a boy standing besides the wall. The boy stares up at him, for just a moment, before jumping to meet him where he is.

Wei Wuxian stares. He vaguely registers the boy saying something to him, but he pays it no mind. The boy looks to be about his age, maybe a little taller than him, although Wei Wuxian can’t judge that for sure with the distance between them. But that’s not what has Wei Wuxian staring. The boy... he looks like a mini Lan Wangji!!

Oh! Wei Wuxian realizes with sudden clarity. This must be the son Lan Wangji was talking about!

He grins at the boy. “Hey there! You live here with your father, right?”

The boy in turn only looks back at him bizarrely. “...What?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. Even for him, what a ridiculous thing to ask right off the bat. “Nevermind that. What were you saying?”

“What is in your hand?” the boy says, confusion in his voice replaced by disdain.

Wei Wuxian grins and raises the two jars. “It’s Emperor’s Smile! If I share a jar with you, can you pretend that you never saw me?”

The boy frowns. Wei Wuxian wants to burst out laughing. It looks the same as Lan Wangji’s! The Lan family genetics really were something else. “Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” he says.

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. Right. The three thousand rules. “Right. Then, in that case, why don’t you tell me what isn’t forbidden in your sect?”

“Read the rules. Figure it out for yourself.”

“You know, your father was the one to tell me about this wine,” Wei Wuxian says petulantly.

The boy glares at him again, but the confusion in his eyes is back at full force. “Stop bringing up my father.”

“Why? Do you dislike him?” Wei Wuxian finds it impossible that anyone could dislike Lan Wangji, but he understands teenage rebellion more than anyone. He loves Uncle Jiang, and by extension he respects Madame Yu and is grateful for everything they’ve done, but when they get into heated arguments during dinner he can’t help but feel resentment unfurl in his chest.

He isn’t quite sure whether that is towards them or at himself.

“Stop speaking nonsense!” the boy exclaims.

Wei Wuxian eyes the boy’s hand go for the sword still sheathed at his side. He waves his hand not holding the two jars. “All right, I won’t bring it up.”

“Read the Wall of Rules,” the boy says again after a beat. “No alcohol in the Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t, obviously, and shrugs instead. “Okay, if alcohol is forbidden inside the Cloud Recesses, then I just won’t go in. I’ll drink it standing on this wall right here, then it won’t count as violating any rules, right?” He doesn’t wait for the boy’s answer. He opens one of the jars and starts chugging it. He feels some wine slip past his chin and down onto his robes, but it is of no matter.

The wine is more delicious than Wei Wuxian could have ever imagined! There was nothing like this back in Yunmeng. Lan Wangji had very good taste in alcohol. The burn of the wine is pleasant as it goes down his throat. When he finishes, he gives an exaggerated sigh. He sends the boy across from him a relaxed smile as he throws the now empty jar to the side. “Well?”

The boy, in turn, looks furious. More than he had throughout their entire exchange. This time, he doesn’t stop once he reaches the handle of his sword, unsheathing it and lunging towards Wei Wuxian.

Luckily for Wei Wuxian, he wasn’t considered YunmengJiang’s head disciple for nothing. He easily dodges the strike, jumping backward while clutching his remaining jar of Emperor’s Smile.

Lan Wangji truly taught his son well, Wei Wuxian manages to think, all while parrying away from the boy’s next thrust of his sword. The move makes him loosen his grip of the wine jar he had been clutching closely to himself. It hits the ground with a loud crash, and Wei Wuxian almost braces himself for the GusuLan patrollers to come to see what is going on.

“Shouldn’t fighting not be allowed in the Cloud Recesses?!” Wei Wuxian asks, inwardly mourning the loss of such delicious tasting wine.

Immediately the boy stops. He sheathes his sword and straightens prim and proper, similar to how Lan Wangji does. “So you’ve read the rules,” he says.

Wei Wuxian frowns. “That’s the part you focused on? What about my Emperor’s Smile?! Of course I haven’t read the rules. There are three thousand of them!”

The boy’s fists clench again and he makes an aborted movement for his sword, then seems to think better of it and takes a deep breath in. “If you are staying here as a guest disciple, you must follow the rules,” he says, a tint of agitation in his voice.

Lan Wangji’s son is so grumpy! Compared to him, Lan Wangji’s looks whenever Wei Wuxian decides to fool around seem like nothing.

“Haven’t you ever broken the rules? Don’t lie! You’re breaking them right now! You’re walking around much, much past GusuLan curfew. What would your father say? I bet if he were mmm-- MM? MMMNN?!” Wei Wuxian tries valiantly to pull his lips apart. What is this?! He points at the boy, and then at his own lips. “MMM!”

“Silencing spell,” the boy says by way of explanation. “I am headed back. Face your punishment tomorrow.”

But what about my lips?! Wei Wuxian thinks hysterically.

The boy, a mind reader apparently, huffs. “If you do not try to force it, the spell will be released within one incense stick.”

That’s one incense stick too long. But the boy doesn’t seem to care in the slightest, as once he’s done talking he begins to walk away, presumably back to his sleeping quarters.

Which Wei Wuxian should take not of as due as well. He stares one last time mournfully at the shattered Emperor’s Smile jar before taking off in the other direction. When Lan Wangji comes back from wherever he is travelling while Wei Wuxian stays in the Cloud Recesses, he’ll tell him all about how the first thing he did with his son was fight!

Lan Wangji will probably be less than amused, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself with joy as he makes his way back into his and Jiang Cheng’s shared dorm room.

Jiang Cheng is still fast asleep, but in the time Wei Wuxian had been gone, half of Jiang Cheng’s body now hung off the edge of the bed, and his blanket had seemingly been kicked off of him. With an exasperated huff (through his nose, because his mouth was still shut tight by that blasted spell), he lifts Jiang Cheng’s legs back up onto the bed and covers him with the fallen sheet.

He settles into bed shortly afterwards, even though he doesn’t manage to get any sleep until the silencing spell is lifted.

-

Wei Wuxian had some regrets about sneaking out and into the Cloud Recesses and spending all that time fighting and arguing with Lan Wangji’s son while he could have been sleeping.

In his desire to drink the Gusu wine that Lan Wangji had spoken so highly of, he had forgotten that the Cloud Recesses not only had a mandatory curfew, but also had a mandatory wake up time.

“Noooo,” Wei Wuxian moans out. “Five more minutes.”

Jiang Cheng thwacks him over the head with his pillow. “Do you think we’re still at Lotus Pier where you can wake up whenever you want?! Don’t bring shame to our sect on the first day!”

Wei Wuxian groans again. Jiang Cheng audibly sighs and drags the covers off of him. “Wei Wuxian!”

“All right,” Wei Wuxian mumbles. “You don’t have to hit me.”

He dresses and washes up with his eyes closed, a skill he managed to perfect at Lotus Pier. Lazily, he forgoes combing through his hair to simply throw it up in a ponytail and tie it with the ribbon Lan Wangji had given him. By the time he feels awake enough to start the day, Jiang Cheng is already standing by the door, fully dressed, and tapping his foot impatiently against the floor. “Took you long enough,” he says, annoyed.

“Beauty takes time,” Wei Wuxian says teasingly. “Not that you would know anything about that.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Jiang retorts easily. “Let’s get going. We’re already running late.”

They meet up with a disciple from the Nie sect on their way to their class, Nie Huaisang as he introduces himself. He talks knowledgeably about the GusuLan sect, apparently because the future sect leader Lan Xichen, and his elder brother, the QingheNie sect leader Nie Mingjue, were sworn brothers.

“There is one person you mustn’t offend while we are here,” Nie Huaisang says seriously.

Wei Wuxian nods. Jiang Cheng had warned him of this days ago upon realizing that Wei Wuxian had mostly been dozing off during lessons pertaining to the other sects. “Lan Qiren,” Wei Wuxian says dismissively. The acting sect leader and most prestigious elder of the GusuLan sect. Jiang Cheng had already drilled him on this. “I know, I know.”

Nie Huasang shakes his head. “Not him!”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “Oh? Then who?”

“His nephew, the younger of the Two Jades of Lan and the proudest disciple of the sect, Lan Zhan, courtesy Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian freezes. A disciple? Wasn’t Lan Wangji old enough to not be considered one anymore? Unless Lan Wangji named his son after himself? But that seemed... well. Maybe he had just heard wrong. “What did you say his name was again?”

Nie Huaisang peers at him from above his open fan. “Wei-xiong... please pay attention... it would be bad for you to disrespect him. His courtesy name is Wangji.”

“I was paying attention!” Wei Wuxian defends, ignoring his racing heart, “I just didn’t hear that one part. What does this Lan Wangji look like, exactly?”

Nie Huasang stares at him strangely. “Long hair... forehead ribbon? I don’t know, Wei-xiong. What kind of question is that?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “Nevermind, you’re right.”

Nie Huaisang frowns. “Why do you need to know so badly. You’ll meet him later today during class,” he tells him.

“No reason,” Wei Wuxian says.

Jiang Cheng scowls. “Liar. What did you do?”

Wei Wuxian thinks about what he should say. His mind flashes to the encounter last night, to the disciple who caught him sneaking in. The one he suspected to be the actual Lan Wangji’s son. “It’s just... would you say that Lan Wangji is pretty?”

Jiang Cheng blanches. “What? As if anyone in the GusuLan could be considered ugly.”

Wei Wuxian points at his head. “Forehead ribbon here, all white from top to bottom as if in mourning clothes. Long hair up to,” he points toward his midsection, “about here?”

Nie Huaisang waves his fan. “That‘s definitely him!” He pauses for a moment. “But he’s been in secluded meditation and you came just yesterday. When would you have had the chance to see him?”

Wei Wuxian recounts the story of the previous night. “He’s a good fighter,” he says.

“Wei-xiong, you’re going to die,” Nie Huaisang says seriously. “You need to be careful. You do realize he’s in charge of punishments of the Lan Sect, right?”

Wei Wuxian only laughs. “As if he has the time! If he’s top disciple, then he’s probably studying and in secluded meditation all the time. When would he have the time to come after me? And besides, his father--” Wei Wuxian stops then. His father... Lan Wangji. Who apparently a son also named Lan Wangji. Maybe it would be better not to say anything about the older one to Nie Huaisang or Jiang Cheng until he could talk to him in person and clear things up. Before Wei Wuxian drew his own conclusions.

Just then, the three pass by a building with a short opening through it.

Nie Huaisang abruptly shuts his fan closed and uses it to subtlety point through the window. “There he is!” he says quietly.

Wei Wuxian follows the movements and, sure enough, sees the boy from last night seated in front of one of the low tables. The boy, Lan Wangji (Lan Zhan?), notices their gaze and swiftly turns his head to stare coldly at the three. From behind him, Wei Wuxian feels both Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng freeze up.

“I’m not getting you out of this one,” Jiang Cheng says at the same time Nie Huaisang says, “It was nice knowing you, Wei-xiong.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “You guys are too dramatic.” He waves happily at Lan Zhan, uncaring of how the other two take a step away from him and pretend to not be associated. “Let’s go in. After all, Jiang Cheng is the one who didn’t want us to be late!”

-

Wei Wuxian doesn’t last long in Lan Qiren’s class before the acting sect leader throws a parchment roll at him and yells at him to get out. It’s not his fault though! It wasn’t anyone’s really, just Lan Qiren’s close-mindedness to Wei Wuxian’s ramblings. And in Wei Wuxian’s opinions, wondering about resentful energy was perfectly valid! All energy was energy, after all. Just because no one had tried it yet did not mean it was impossible.

Moreover, who knew Lan Zhan was such a show-off!

Wei Wuxian’s thoughts cloud over as the boy resurfaces into his mind. He heads towards an open field. At some point, he had started referring to the younger one with his given name and the older one with his courtesy. He really does not want to make assumptions without talking to Lan Wangji, the other one, the one not in the Cloud Recesses at the moment, first.

There was, after all, the very real possibility that for all of the modestness Lan Wangji had shown, he really named his own child after himself. Or at least, bestowed his son with the same courtesy name. Besides, Lan Zhan and Lan Wangji had completely different personalities. Lan Wangji was much kinder to Wei Wuxian upon meeting him, although that could just be because when they first met Wei Wuxian was a half-starved child and not a sixteen-year-old rule breaker. Not even Lan Zhan would be so immune to that, he thinks.

Wei Wuxian could also be going crazy, and that the older Lan Wangji had never existed to begin with. Wei Wuxian hadn’t lived on the streets for very long before Jiang Fengmian came upon him, but he’s sure it could not have been amazing to his mental health. He feels fine now, but maybe that’s the insanity talking.

And then... the last explanation. That the two Lan Wangjis are not father and son like Wei Wuxian had originally assumed, but the same person.

But was that really possible? Was it possible to hop around like that? Did it not go against some law written by some greater power? Wei Wuxian all of a sudden slaps his cheeks, feeling them sting under his palms. He has to keep an open mind about this! Generations ago, flying on swords and cultivation as a whole would have seemed just as unbelievable too. And, Wei Wuxian thinks half-amused, he of all people shouldn’t be talking about things that seem unbelievable when he was the one who had proposed harnessing resentful energy just a few moments ago.

Wei Wuxian pushes the thoughts out of his head as he spots disciples exiting the building slowly. Lessons are over, and these thoughts could wait until later.
-

Wei Wuxian, according to Lan Qiren, is labeled ‘a threat to humanity’. A ridiculous notion. If anything was a threat to humanity, it was the stuffy GusuLan rules!

But Wei Wuxian hadn’t dared to voice that to the Lan elder. Instead, he takes his punishment silently with a solemn face. He hopes his excitement doesn’t come through, lest Lan Qiren thinks he is up to something.

Which, to be fair, he is.

In his free time, the time he made Nie Huaisang copy his scripts instead of doing it on his own, he’d been trying to test out his last theory by asking Lan Zhan questions whenever he can.

(“Say, Lan Zhan! Is there a reason your father is such a touchy subject?”

“Pay attention in class.”)

(“Lan Zhan! Look at me please! Are there any girls here that catch your eye?”

“Shameless!”)

(“Lan Zhan, if you could do anything aside from cultivation, what would you do? Like, for example, teach-MMMMMM???”)

It hadn’t been going well, to say the least.

Lan Zhan, in turn, tells Lan Qiren about the cheating scandal he’s created amongst even the more disciplined GusuLan disciples.

He’s almost thankful for the month of punishment he receives alongside Lan Zhan. He’s even more grateful for the chance to tease the other boy for all he’s worth. He wants the expression Lan Zhan makes when he sees erotica instead of his own texts to go down in history books.

He can’t even feel too much lost when the book gets destroyed as Lan Zhan yells at him. “Get lost!”

Wei WuXian grins, “Well, well, look at you, Lan Zhan. Everyone says that you’re a gentleman of excellence, a bright pearl in the world, carrying yourself with incomparable courtesy. But look at you now! Didn’t you know that causing noise is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses? And, you actually told me to ‘get lost.’ Is this the first time that you used this phrase on somebody…” Lan WangJi drew his sword and went at him. Wei WuXian hurriedly hopped onto the windowsill, “Getting lost it is, then. Getting lost is my best skill. It’s not necessary for you to see me out!”

Just as he had hoped, Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are waiting for him at the bottom of the steps of the Library Pavilion. Nie Huaisang seems delighted recalling Wei Wuxian’s exploits, even if it was at the cost of his pornography book. Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, is less than amused.

“Now you’ve gone and offended both Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren! Just wait for your death tomorrow! No one is going to bury your corpse,” Jiang Cheng growls.

Wei Wuxian puts his arms around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. “Who cares, as long as I tease him first? You’ve already buried my corpse so many times, so what’s wrong with once more?”

Jiang Cheng swings his leg upwards to kick him. “Shoo! Next time you do something like this, don’t let me know! Don’t ask me to watch either!”

Wei Wuxian laughs, jumping away from Jiang Cheng’s foot. “Haha, I’m going! No need for violence!”

It’s when he is far away from any cultivators that he spots something. There is something behind the trees. Wei Wuxian has an idea he knows what it is.

He walks closer. And then, “...Wangji-ge?”

A moment where nothing happens. Then, “How did you know I was here?” Lan Wangji steps out from behind the greenery.

Wei Wuxian has to bite back a laugh at the imagery of Lan Wangji hiding behind a tree this entire time. “You’ve been sneaking up on me since I was six years old! I would be a shame to the Yunmeng Jiang sect if I wasn’t able to tell when someone was sneaking up behind me.”

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow.

Wei Wuxian throws his hands up in defeat. “I’m serious! You don’t believe me! Shame on you! I’m a cultivator too, you know.”

Lan Wangji sighs, which Wei Wuxian interprets as the Lan Wangji version of an eye roll.

Wei Wuxian gives. “Okay, fine. I only saw you just now when I turned around. Your white robes stand out against the green leaves. You’re robes stuck out a little from behind the tree. I’m surprised Lan W-Zhan... didn’t notice,” Wei Wuxian says, stumbling over what he should call the younger boy. “I’m sure he may have just assumed you were a Lan elder without looking too closely.”

Wei Wuxian smiles before his gaze turns calculating to look at Lan Wangji properly.

Now that Lan Wanji, the older one, is right in front of him, Wei Wuxian can see the resemblance between the two for himself. Lan Zhan is shorter, a good head and then some shorter than Lan Wangji, much closer to Wei Wuxian’s own height. The hair length is different too. The last of Lan Zhan’s baby fat clinging to his cheeks where Lan Wangji’s face is slim and sharp. What he had originally thought was genetics, he can now see for himself is almost exactly a carbon copy, cut and paste from one face to another.

Lan Wangji takes one look at his face and seems to understand.

“Your night hunt ended early, didn’t it?”

Lan Wangji nods stiffly.

“The way you had spoken, I had assumed your night hunt would be lasting for months.”

Lan Wangji swallows. “I wanted to see you.”

“Then why tell me you had a night hunt at all? Then you wouldn’t have to do something as undignified as crouching behind the shrubs just to see me.”

“You were not supposed to know I was there,” Lan Wangji points out.

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Fair enough. But unluckily for you, I did! What do you have to say for yourself?”

A long pause. “You’ve met him,” is all Lan Wangji says in the end.

Very Lan Wangji of him to cut right to the chase. Weu Wuxian nods in agreement. “I’ve met him. Or should I say,” he says, testing out the words in his mouth, “I’ve met... you?”

Lan Wangji stares at him, frozen in place by something Wei Wuxian can not see. Wei Wuxian can tell his mind is racing. “...Yes.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to make of that declaration. “Yes?”

“Yes.”

“You are the person I met?”

“Yes.”

Wei Wuxian bites his lip. “But you are... you are much older than the Lan Wangji I’ve been spending time with this whole time,” he says finally.

Lan Wangji says nothing.

“Lan Wangji, Wangji-ge, just how old are you? Who are you? Because the Lan Zhan I know of is a boy my age, and you,” Wei Wuxian eyes him up and down, “are definitely not. Unless multiple people in the Lan sect have the courtesy name Wangji—”

“I am older,” Lan Wangji agrees.

Wei Wuxian looks at him suspiciously. “But you are... Lan Wangji? Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji nods. “Mn.”

“The same as the one that I was talking to just now?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. To hear his most wildest theory confirmed by the man himself... it was too much. “...Forgive me if I don’t believe you right away. How can I believe that? That you two are apparently one and the same, and that I am meeting the two of you on the same exact day.”

“It is the truth.”

“I don’t believe it! You are both at the same place at the same time? I’m supposed to believe that?”

“...Mn.”

Wei Wuxian frowns. “Is that all you can say?”

“What do you want me to say?”

Wei Wuxian tosses his hands in the air. “An explanation, perhaps? Or proof at least. Something for me to believe you.”

“It’s Emperor Smile. I’ll give you one jar, so can you pretend you never saw me?”

Wei Wuxian freezes. It was just him and the boy, Lan Wangji, the other one, there last night. There was no way Lan Wangji could have known he said that.

Lan Wangji speaks again. “Why don’t you tell me what exactly is not forbidden in your sect?”
Another thing that only Lan Zhan had heard him say.

Lan Wangji inhales to say something else. Wei Wuxian shakes his head before he can. Lan Wangji was many things; a righteous man, a man of few words, a man who indulged of all of Wei Wuxian’s silly antics, but most importantly, he was not a liar. “Okay, okay. I believe you. I get it. I just... it doesn’t make sense for me. Why are you here?”

Lan Wangji purses his lips. “How long have you been at the Cloud Recesses?” He asks instead.

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Two months now give or take.”

Lan Wangji nods slowly. “Please enjoy the rest of your time here.”

“I’m enjoying myself. Gusu is just as beautiful as you described it. The people here as just as stuffy as I had presumed, even more so. And... the Lan Wangji here,” Wei Wuxian begins hesitantly. “He... he is different from you, even if you are the same person. He is quite cold to me.”

Lan Wangji looks pained. “I know.”

Wei Wuxian purses his lips. “He never wants to play with me, he doesn’t look at me, and he always silences me.” He grimaces at the memory of being silenced. Even once he’s released from the spell, it always left his lips tingling and sore.

“I know.”

“We were together for a month in the Library Pavilion, and he destroyed one of my picture books. I drew him a picture at the end... I don’t know if he kept it or not.” Wei Wuxian didn’t expect for the hurt in his voice to be so apparent, or that it would be there in the first place.

“I know.”

“You would know, right? It’s you, after all. You must have lived out all of these experiences with me, right?”

“Yes.” Lan Wangji looks away, as if ashamed.

“Why didn’t you give me a fake name? Or wear a mask or something?”

“I do not want to lie to you.”

“Lying by omission is still lying,” Wei Wuxian says petulantly. He’s more confused than anything about the situation, but he’d be a fool to pass up a chance to tease Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji frowns.

Wei Wuxian pouts. “You deceived me for a long time, Wangji-ge. I almost thought the Lan Zhan that’s my age is the son you were talking about! But... that son, he doesn’t exist yet, right?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head slowly. “No, not yet.”

“And your wife? Is she here too? Is she from the Cloud Recesses? Have you met her already?”

Lan Wangji looks back at him, searching his eyes for a moment. “By this point, we have been... acquainted.”

Wei Wuxian nods. “Ah, I see.” Something sour forms in his chest and Wei Wuxian suddenly does not want to talk about Lan Wangji’s future spouse any longer. “Then, you never answered me. Why are you here? Why are you with me, and not with your past self?”

Lan Wangji answers almost immediately. “I am only here for you.”

That... answers absolutely nothing. “And why is that?”

“I cannot say.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “Okay... then, are you actually even travelling? Or was that your way of saying you did not want to be caught by the young Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji nods. “Yes,” he says. “I am travelling. To here.”

Wei Wuxian pauses, before laughing softly. “Fine. You have me there. I suppose time travel counts as travelling.”

“It does.”

Wei Wuxian nods once. “Okay. Time travel. That’s fine. I can work with that.”
-

Wei Wuxian spends his remaining time with Lan Wangji asking him all about the time travel process.

(“How far in the future are you from?”

“Eighteen years.”)

(“Does time work differently when you’re here? Like does it freeze or something?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “The time elapsed is the same.”

Wei Wuxian nods in understanding. “So you can come whenever you want, but if you stay here for, say, three hours, then three hours will pass in your time?”

“Precisely.”)

(“Can everyone time travel?”

Lan Wangji hesitates. “No,” he answers. “This was made... specifically for me.”

When Wei Wuxian prods further, Lan Wangji refuses to answer.)

“Why don’t you show me around the Cloud Recesses?” Wei Wuxian asks him once he tires of questions. He’ll think harder about what he’s heard once he’s alone. “I haven’t gotten the chance to explore beside going down to Caiyi Town the night I first came here!”

Lan Wangji frowns. “That would not be wise,” he says.

Wei Wuxian feels a flare of disappointment. “Right, you’ll be seen. Nevermind then.”

“Do you have anything else today?” Lan Wangji asks him.

“Not that I know of,” Wei Wuxian says. “I was thinking maybe I should go down the the edges of the forest later tonight and get some rabbits.”

“For what?”

Wei Wuxian shrugs, almost bashfully. “Just to give to him--er, you as an apology... for being such a nuisance this month. You said you liked them, right?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widen just slightly.

“Well? Am I remembering wrong?”

“No.”

Wei Wuxian feels strange all of a sudden. “Do I do this in your past, too? Do I tease you like this? Do I give you rabbits? Do you like them?”

“Wei Ying has always been the same,” Lan Wangji says. “Not a nuisance.”

“That doesn’t answer all of my questions,” Wei Wuxian says. “Don’t think I don’t notice when you ignore me. Did you hate the rabbits I gave you that much?”

Lan Wangji frowns, then shakes his head. “Thank you. For the rabbits.”

“I didn’t even give them to you yet!”

Lan Wangji shakes his head again. “I didn’t thank you the last time,” he clarifies. “Did not have the chance.”

The sincerity in his voice almost makes a blush rise in Wei Wuxian’s cheeks. After what feels like eternity, Lan Wanji reaches up to brush a bang away from his face. “I must go.”

“Back to your time?”

Lan Wangji nods.

“Why?”

“I have lessons to teach.”

“Oh...” Wei Wuxian isn’t sure how he should respond. “Have fun then?”

“En.”

Wei Wuxian looks down. “Do you know when you’ll be back again?” He asks, almost shyly.

There is no answer. When he looks up, Lan Wangji is nowhere to be seen.

Every other time, Lan Wangji had carefully gone out of his way to turn a corner before disappearing, or walk far enough away that once he did vanish. Wei Wuxian would just chalk it up to him being so far away he couldn’t be seen anymore. Now, Lan Wangji seems to give up all pretenses, vanishing in midair.

Wei Wuxian sighs.

Finally, all alone, he lets the unease that’s been building up inside of him take over.

So he was right. Time travel apparently exists in the future, and Lan Wangji has been using it for years to visit him. It should have been a comforting thought, that he and Lan Zhan grow close enough in the future that Lan Zhan would even want to go back to visit him. But all these visits... they seemed nonsensical in terms of when he visited and how long he stayed.

If there was one thing he had learned about Lan Wangji over the years, it was that the man never did anything if it did not help somebody. Lan Wangji had sacrificed his pristine white robes in order to carry around Wei Wuxian when he was still a street orphan, after all. He had told short anecdotes of his travels to Wei Wuxian, different moments where he had stopped everything he was doing to save just a small handful of people.

Lan Wangji had a life back home. He was a teacher to young disciples, a father to a son near Wei Wuxian’s current age. There was no reason for the man to travel backwards.

If Lan Wangji truly is coming into the past to visit Wei Wuxian as he had claimed, then there must be a reason for it. Something bad must happen in the future for Lan Wangji to have become so desperate that he invented a way to go back into time to prevent it from happening.

And for some reason, Wei Wuxian was important to that. It was the only thing that would explain why Lan Wangji seemed so fixated on him, the reason why his visits always seemed to revolve around Wei Wuxian in particular.

Wei Wuxian just didn’t know why.

Chapter Text

Indoctrination.

It’s not what Qishan Wen is calling it, but that is the truth of the matter. If Wei Wuxian is being honest, he doesn’t know where the origin of the term came from, but whoever it was, he salutes them. It had spread across all the cultivation sects, both major and minor, like wildfire.

Wei Wuxian still doesn’t know if this is the reason Lan Wangji had been jumping back in time, but Wei Wuxian marks that it is a high possibility. Lan Wangji has not visited at all since Wei Wuxian had realized the truth about him, not even when Wei Wuxian was kicked out of the Cloud Recesses a month later for punching the stupid Jin Zixuan in the face.

Not even when Wei Wuxian had followed through and gotten Lan Zhan two small bunnies he had found in the woods.

Now that was a fun story he’d remember for ages:

(Wei Wuxian is practically skipping on his way to the Library Pavilion, the two rabbits tucked into his sleeves wriggling in protest. Lan Zhan, just as he suspected, is sitting prim and proper, organizing books from the looks of it.

“Lan Zhan, I’m here! Did you miss me?” Wei Wuxian almost cackles when he sees Lan Zhan stiffen at his voice.

“No,” comes Lan Zhan’s simple response.

Wei Wuxian’s smile falters for a second before it comes back full force. “Haha, don’t be so scary all the time! How are you going to make friends like that?”

“No need.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Oh, Lan Zhan. I pity you sometimes. But not to worry! I’ll be your first friend! I even bought you a present to apologize for everything between us!”

The reply comes more vehemently this time, “No need!”

Wei Wuxian smiles. “Are you sure?” He grabs the two rabbits in his hold by their ears and holds them out to Lan Zhan as if performing a magic trick. “I know you like rabbits, so here! I brought two of them!”

Lan Zhan stares at them indifferently. And then keeps staring. Wei Wuxian’s arms are getting kind of tired from holding out the rabbits for so long. He frowns inwardly. Lan Wangji had definitely confirmed that he likes rabbits. Wei Wuxian had made sure to preserve the fact in his memory.

So why did Lan Zhan look like he did not want to accept them at all?

Hesitantly, Wei Wuxian brings the two rabbits closer to himself. “Okay, then. If you don’t want it, maybe someone else will appreciate them.”

“Who?”

Wei Wuxian shrugs. The words ‘Lan Wangji’ are on the tip of his tongue, but he barely manages to avoid the slipup. “Whoever is good at roasting rabbits, I suppose! Why do you care? You don’t want them.”

Lan Zhan grits his teeth. “Killing is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

“So I’ll give them to someone outside of the Cloud Recesses!”

Lan Zhan’s jaw tightens. Wei Wuxian is distantly worried that he might actually hurt himself if he keeps it up. “I want them,” Lan Zhan says, each word said slowly and one at a time. “Give them to me.”

At that, Wei Wuxian actually does burst out laughing. “Why did I expect this kind of behavior from you, Lan Zhan? Acting like you dislike the rabbits, but in reality, you just dislike the fact that the gift is coming from me, right?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t need to hear one. He already knows that his assumption is true.

Truthfully, he doesn’t know why he acts like this around Lan Zhan. Whenever he’s with him, Wei Wuxian is suddenly filled with an urge to tease and joke, to see Lan Zhan make new reactions even if it is anger and disgust at Wei Wuxian. He could never tease Lan Wangji like this. The older version was much more likely to just go along with whatever Wei Wuxian said, which both made him delighted and irritated.

He doesn’t even regret making a joke about the two bunnies, male apparently, going at it right in front of them. Not when it makes Lan Zhan’s ears go bright red and his face contort in such a manner. Getting kicked out of the Library Pavilion and laughing until his ribs hurt at the bottom of the steps was fun, too.)

The silence since then has been— is— unnerving.

Usually, there was a sense that Lan Wangji would soon return after every departure, that he was simply busy with whatever duties he had in his own time. But this time, after the last time he had seen Lan Wangji, the atmosphere he left behind different.

It had the air of foreboding.

-

Or maybe not.

Wei Wuxian stifles back a scream at the sight of a figure waiting for him on his bed. All the disciples had been given a short break to unpack and rest up before the day’s activities, so Wei Wuxian was going to use it to sneak in a quick nap. Until this. “Wangji-ge, what the fuck?!”

Lan Wangji has no outward reaction, simply lifting his head to face Wei Wuxian.

“We are in Qishan Wen sect,” he says plainly.

“No shit!” Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. “You have to warn me next time you show up like this!”

Lan Wangji doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but Wei Wuxian can tell that any lesser man would have. “How would you like me to do that?”

Wei Wuxian gasps. “Wangji-ge, are you teasing me? Lan Zhan can’t even do that!”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond but merely pats the bedside next to him as if motioning for Wei Wuxian to sit down.

Wei Wuxian groans, but obediently sits down in the spot Lan Wangji indicated, crossing his legs to face Lan Wangji fully. “Don’t pick up all my bad traits, Wangji-ge. But before that, did you hear about why I... left the Cloud Recesses? It was earlier than planned.”

Lan Wangji sighs silently. “You acted in violence towards Jin Zixuan after he spoke ill of Jiang Yanli.”

Wei Wuxian nods vigorously. “Yes! My shijie is way too good for him! I think I may have affected their engagement... because she really does love him...”

“I’m sure it will be okay. Wei Ying did what he believed was just.”

“I didn’t want to do it at the expense of Shijie’s happiness,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “Ugh. I didn’t mean to bring the mood down. Where were you this whole time? Busy? You didn’t come to see me after the whole Cloud Recesses things.”

Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch. Wei Wuxian can tell he wants to talk more about the topic, but goes along with the topic change. “I was busy.” He doesn’t specify with what, but Wei Wuxian just assumes he is simply referring to sect responsibilities. “I was going to come this morning,” he continues, “but I was... looking for you.”

Now that was something. The confusion must be apparent on Wei Wuxian’s face to the point that Lan Zhan begins to explain even without further prompting. “There are mistakes sometimes. With the time travel.”

“Mistakes?”

Lan Wangji nods in confirmation. “I will be taken to the wrong place or my past self instead of to you. Or I will be taken to a place I do not recognize, and I will have to find you on my own.”

“Like this time?”

“Like this time.”

“Where were you taken?”

“Outskirts of Qishan. I have only been here a handful of times in my life, and location for... this... is difficult to find unless you are familiar with Wen Sect territories.”

Wei Wuxian hums. “I see... I think. I have a question though.”

“Mn.”

“How are there mistakes? For something like time travel, isn’t it safer to try and avoid anything going wrong in the first place? Isn’t it dangerous to mess with time like this?”

Lan Wangji’s lips tighten into a line. “The inventor... was rushed. They made it in haste, and thus it has come out... flawed.”

Wei Wuxian blinks. “Is it safe for you to use?”

The answer this time comes swiftly. “That doesn’t matter.”

Wei Wuxian is going to refute the point because what do you mean your safety doesn’t matter when suddenly there is a banging on the door. “Wei Wuxian get your ass out here!”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. Apparently the break was shorter than he had thought. Don’t worry about him, he tells Lan Wangji. “We still have a good ten minutes before he really gets mad.”

“Is it wise to constantly anger your brother like this?”

He isn’t my brother, Wei Wuxian thinks. After all this time, he has not called Jiang Cheng by that title once. “I know my shidi like the back of my hand,” Wei Wuxian answers.

Lan Wangji hums. “I know you do.”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “Are you patronizing me?”

“I’m not.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. “Right. You’re just honest to a fault.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Not at all. It’s just... Ugh. Nevermind. Back to the time travel thing. Am I allowed to ask questions about the future?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “You know that I can not answer them.”

“Why not? Is it against time travel code or something?”

“No.”

“So... is it a matter of not being able to tell me, or not willing to tell me?”

Lan Wangji looks as if he is debating how he should answer. “...Not willing,” he says finally.

Wei Wuxian purses his lips. “You’re scared I’ll change the future, right? But isn’t you just being here changing the future?”

Lan Wangji’s grip on his robes tightens at that.

“What, not going to answer me?”

“It‘s not.”

Wei Wuxian wasn’t expecting that. “What?”

Lan Wangji turns his head away. ”...Wei Ying, you must stay safe.”

And there he goes, changing the topic again right as he’s giving some answers. And they’re not even making eye contact anymore! “Hey, Wangji-ge! Look at me!”

Lan Wangji does.

Wei Wuxian frowns. “You can’t keep avoiding this forever. What’s going to happen? Can’t you at least give me a hint?”

“I can not tell. But Wei Ying... you must protect yourself.”

“How do you expect me to stay safe when I don’t know what to protect myself from?”

Lan Wangji huffs. “Think about it.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, slightly aggravated. He wasn’t one to get visibly upset easily, much more adept at letting go of small slights or laughing it off. But he doesn’t know how much longer he can deal with these half-confessions. “Think about it? Can’t you answer me clearly? Wangji-ge, tell me what to think about. I really don’t know!”

Lan Wangji stays silent. Wei Wuxian takes that as his cue to keep going.

“What happens to me? What must I stay safe from? You must know. It’s happened already for you, hasn’t it? Is it Jiang Cheng? Does something happen to him? Or, or, Shijie? Will my fam-- will Yunmeng Jiang be alright? Or... does something happen to you? The Lan Zhan in my time? I mean, you’re obviously alive to be here with me right now but...”

“Promise.”

Wei Wuxian gives Lan Wangji a look. He supposed that’s one way to deflect the questions. “Promise what? To be safe? How can I?”

Lan Wangji’s voice raises slightly. “Wei Ying. Think about yourself first. Your life and safety are most important.”

Wei Wuxian barks out a laugh. What a joke. He had always known his place in this world. The son of a servant, no matter if he sat at the same level as the Sect Leader’s children, was still a servant at the end of the day. Prioritizing Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli over himself had been ingrained into him since the day he’s met them.

On top of that, it’s not as if Wei Wuxian can just look away if there is someone in need of help. Jiang Cheng could scold him all he wants about his martyr complex, that doesn’t mean Wei Wuxian would be able to find it in himself to stop.

He looks back at Lan Wangji. “I can’t, Wangji-ge. You should know that by now.”

The haunted look in Lan Wangji’s eyes almost makes him want to take the words back. But before he can, Lan Wangji stands up turns away from him entirely.

“I do,” Lan Wangji says without turning his head. His voice betrays no emotion.

Wei Wuxian inhales. “Maybe you should get going.”

If Lan Wangji’s posture slumps just slightly, Wei Wuxian just assumes something is going wrong with his vision. “Wei Ying. Be well.”

In the midst of a single blink, Lan Wangji has vanished into thin air.

In the midst of the next, the door is finally swung open by a furious, red-faced Jiang Cheng.

-

Lan Zhan is limping.

If Wei Wuxian hadn’t been watching Lan Zhan so closely since Jiang Cheng had dragged him out of his chambers, he surely wouldn’t have noticed. Lan Zhan, after all, had painstakingly taken the effort to mainly sit or stand around rather than walking, to avoid drawing attention to the slight wobble in his steps. But in those rare moments when Lan Zhan was walking, the limp was clear as day.

Wei Wuxian isn’t even sure why he had started staring so much in the first place. He assumes it probably has something to do with his latest encounter with Lan Wangji, their latest conversation sparking more unease in Wei Wuxian about the future than ever before. Really, could the man be any more cryptic?

The irritation he feels at future Lan Wangji is still there, but more than that is the wave of concern he feels for Lan Zhan.

Wei Wuxian leans in close to Jiang Cheng. “Hey, Jiang Cheng? Is it just me, or does Lan Zhan’s face look darker than it usually does?”

Jiang Cheng pushes at his shoulder to put the distance back between them. “You have time to care about him? Take note of our situation right now before you begin to talk!”

Wei Wuxian bites his lip. If Lan Zhan was upset over something, then that means that Lan Wangji had already been through these struggles before. And instead, Lan Wangji was lecturing him on staying safe.

“Is something wrong with his leg?” Wei Wuxian adds. “Is something wrong with him?”

“What wouldn’t be wrong with him?” Jiang Cheng spits out, keeping his voice equally as low. “The Cloud Recesses have been burnt down.”

Wei Wuxian blanches. “You’re kidding.”

A disciple standing next to them fills them in on the rest.

Wei Wuxian exhales. “Holy shit. And they still made Lan Zhan come to this thing?”

The disciple shrugs. “The Wens,” he says.

Wei Wuxian hates how much it works as an explanation.

-

The encounter with the Xuanwu happens much more quickly than Wei Wuxian can comprehend. In one moment, he is trying to hide the pain of a branding iron while realizing that they are standing in the back of the Xuanwu. In the next, he is carrying Lan Zhan on his back off to a safe location while the rest of the disciples flee into an opening underwater.

The two are sitting across from each other, a small fire illuminating the encompassing area in between them. Lan Zhan is sitting back straight, injured leg out in front of him and both hands resting on his thighs. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, is slouched over, using a stick he snagged to draw on the soft dirt in front of him.

“Don’t worry Lan Zhan. Help will come. Either from your people or mine. Probably your disciples will come first. And Jiang Cheng will most definitely send help our way.”

Some part of Wei Wuxian is comforted by the fact that, if worst comes to worst, Lan Wangji will without a doubt help them find a way out. After all, Lan Wangji was living proof that at the very least, Lan Zhan will survive this.

Lan Zhan, however, rather than looking soothed at the comment, gets a faraway look in his eyes. “They are not coming.”

Wei Wuxian feels awkward all of a sudden. Oh, right. The Cloud Recesses. “Is everyone still there?” he asks, hoping to alleviate some of the tension that had settled between them. “Is your family alright?”

Wei Wuxian had already heard from the disciples that the Sect Leader was heavily injured, but he had faith in the Cloud Recesses. With the Two Jades and Lan QIren at the helm, they would be able to rebuild easily.

Yet, when Lan Wangji answered in a voice even flatter than his usual one, Wei Wuxian’s confidence vanishes. “My father is dying. My brother is missing.”

He feels his heart sink in his chest, one piece of it going out to Lan Zhan and another to the future Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian had lost his parents young, where he could barely remember their faces apart from a few fleeting memories and whatever scraps he could pick up from Uncle Jiang.

Wei Wuxian had known that Sect Leader Lan had been in seclusion for a majority of Lan Zhan’s life, but still. He had to have had a closer connection to his father than Wei Wuxian to his own. And to hear that said father was currently hanging on to life by a thread, on top of Lan Xichen, who Lan Zhan most definitely had been close to, going missing...

Lan Wangji had told him to be safe in the coming days. Wei Wuxian wonders why he didn’t give the same advice to his past self who clearly needed it more.

For once in his life, Wei Wuxian has no idea what to say. Even less so when Lan Zhan starts to cry.

In the light of the small fire, he can see Lan Zhan’s eyes are rimmed red from crying and slightly sunken in. The tear streaks that he isn’t bothering to wipe off glisten with the light of the fire. His lips are chapped and his hair is greasy. His forehead ribbon is still perfectly placed and aligned. Despite all that, Lan Zhan looks devastatingly beautiful.

Wei Wuxian’s heart skips a beat. Beautiful? Where did that come from?

Well, Wei Wuxian thinks as he continues to stare at Lan Zhan, whenever it came from, the thought wasn’t wrong. Lan Zhan right now truly looked like a warm piece of jade. His future wife was truly a lucky woman.

-

They give the theorized rescue parties three days, which come and go before Wei Wuxian can so much as process it.

And then.

They take matters into their own hands.

The killing of the Xuanwu of Slaughter feels as though it had taken weeks to complete. In reality, it is a matter of hours. Enough to leave Lan Zhan’s fingers bleeding and the two of them covered in muddy water and Xuanwu blood.

But finally. It was dead. Everything would have been fine had the stupid turtle not blocked their escape route. They now officially have no way of protecting themselves, no means of calling for help, and no way of escape.

Lan Zhan eyes him curiously as the two start to walk away from where the Xuanwu lies. “Wei Ying... are you feeling alright?”

“Of course I am!” Wei Wuxian responds, immediately followed by his legs giving out on him. Or maybe he isn’t fine.

Throughout Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian’s time in the cave, the medicinal herbs had run out, the majority of it having been used to heal Lan Zhan’s leg. His brand mark still bled when he moved too suddenly. On top of that, his usual sleep schedule had been disrupted so that Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian could sleep in shifts in case the Xuanwu decided it wanted to go night hunting.

So Wei Wuxian was not at all surprised when the symptoms started showing up one by one. Feeling like he was burning up and freezing at the same time, the slight sheen of sweat covering his arms and forehead, the blurry vision, the throbbing on his chest.

He has a fever.

Lan Zhan seems to have come to a similar conclusion, because he sits the two of them down in an empty patch of rock and soil and sets up a fire.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian moans weakly, leaning against a tree trunk behind him. “I’m so dizzy. I want to lie down.”

“Then lie down,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian pouts. “The ground is too hard,” he complains. “Let me borrow your lap.”

Naturally, Lan Zhan refuses his ridiculous request. He doesn’t know why he tries to push it further when he knows Lan Zhan’s answer won’t change.

He relents soon enough. “Haha, fine! I know you don’t like touching other people. I’ll let it go.” Wei Wuxian does his best to get comfortable on the dirt. It’s the fever kicking in properly that allows his body to exhaust itself enough to pull him into a fitful rest.

Sometime in the middle of his sleep, he wakes up. Well, not really. More like his brain partly wakes up, but his body is asleep as ever. He feels his body being lifted, and his upper half being placed on someone’s lap. A cool hand presses against his forehead, and another runs through his hair, gently pulling through the tangles that have slowly, yet surely, accumulated.

Haha, he thinks amusedly in his head. His thoughts are all foggy, as if he’s trying to think through a thick barrier. I’m so sick I’m hallucinating. I’m on someone’s lap. Who’s? It feels like Lan Wangji’s. It would be nice to be on Lan Wangji’s lap. Maybe I’ll ask him next time I see him.

Even when he played around and purposefully pushed himself off the lap, he felt a hand gently stroke the side of his head before being lifted back onto the lap. It’s with this feeling that his vision fades to black again.

Wei Wuxian wakes up for real sometime later, still on the hard ground. Immediately, complaints about their situation spill past his lips.

“I am so hungry,” he says at one point.

“This is so boring. It’s too quiet,” he says at another.

“I feel so cold,” he says, and shivers.

“Use your spiritual energy to warm up,” comes the reply. Lan Zhan’s first one since the complaints have started.

Wei Wuxian suddenly feels the need to play. Otherwise, he’s sure he will lose his mind from boredom alone. “Spiritual energy will only weaken me further, Lan Zhan,” he says dramatically, voice hoarse with sickness. “It would just be better to get some firewood.”

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Wuxian. “Conserve your energy by not speaking.”

“Come on, Lan Zhan. Can’t you help this poor, feeble cultivator? Help me get warm, please.”

Lan Zhan looks conflicted. “You are sick. It would be foolish to leave you here.”

“I won’t do anything except freeze to death if you don’t get the firewood.”

Lan Zhan eyes him dubiously but gets up regardless. Wei Wuxian would be lying if he said his heart didn’t skip a beat at that. “Do not move,” Lan Zhan warns.

Wei Wuxian grins. The movement makes the burn on his chest flare and an unbidden gasp leave his throat. Even several days old, it feels as raw as ever. “Where would I go?”

Lan Zhan still looks suspicious, as if Wei Wuxian will turn around and bolt the second Lan Zhan has his back turned. Had Wei Wuxian been in his right mind, he would have even been slightly offended at the insinuations. Lan Zhan spares him one last glance before entering the edges of the forest.

Wei Wuxian has perfect confidence that Lan Zhan will return to him in one piece. The Xuanwu is already dead, and if Lan Zhan could take care of that, he could take care of anything. He almost wants to laugh at the cheesy thought.

Everything seems blurry as of late. He’s not even sure if the words he’s been saying have been making any sense. Maybe it was a bad idea for Wei Wuxian to insist Lan Zhan leave him here alone. Everything looks purple, and then he thinks he hears Shijie’s voice come from somewhere behind him. He sees multiples of everything and then he thinks he even sees Lan Wangji standing in front of him.

Ah. A hallucination. Wei Wuxian grins. The hallucination walks toward him and crouches down. “Wangji-ge. Good morning. Or goodnight. I don’t know. There’s no light in here.”

“Wei Ying, don't speak. You have a fever.”

Wei Wuxian laughs weakly. He didn’t know that it was possible for hallucinations to be so realistic. “Well, that will be the case whether I talk or not, so why not talk?” He coughs. ”But enough about that. I... I heard from Lan Zhan. About the Cloud Recesses. Are you alright?”

“I’m not the right person—“

“Right. I should just ask Lan Zhan. For you, this must be years and years ago. This must barely be in your memory anymore, right?”

Lan Wangji frowns. “No. I remember.”

“Ah, well I expected that from you, Wangji-ge. Even your memory is perfect. I can say the same about Lan Zhan, haha. Truth is, I would ask him if he’s okay. I would like for him to be okay. But he doesn’t like me. You know that. He’ll surely feel as though I’m pitying him if I ask him. I don’t want him to dislike me any more than this.”

“He doesn’t dislike me.”

“I didn’t take you for a liar, Wangji-ge.”

“Please rest.”

Wei Wuxian’s vision blacks out at the edges. Everything becomes hazy for several seconds before going back into focus. “What of your brother?” he manages to say. “Is he alright?”

“I can not say.”

Wei Wuxian immediately assumes the worst. “Is the Cloud Recesses able to rebuild themselves in the future?”

“Wei Ying.”

“Is there war with the Wens?”

“Wei Ying.”

“Do we win?”

“Wei Ying, calm down. You are delirious.”

“Wangji-ge. If we’re being honest, I won’t remember this when I wake up. I don’t even know if you’re actually here right now.”

There’s a hand on his cheek. Or maybe there isn’t. “Wei Ying, I will always be here for you.”

Wei Wuxian feels his cheeks grow hot. He hopes Lan Wangji will chalk it up to the fever. “You can’t say such nice things to me, Wangji-ge. We are not friends. You say it yourself to me every time. Don’t make me believe otherwise. Don’t raise my hopes like this. It’s cruel.”

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian barrels on. “I would like for us to be friends. I want to be friends with you. But I don’t know how. This is the first time I have seen Lan Zhan since leaving the Cloud Recesses, and he treats me like a pest.”

“Wei Ying... what—“

“Ahhh, I’m so frustrated. I’d like to think I’m friends with you. But not with the current you. What kind of paradox is that? What should I do? My brain hurts thinking about it all. Am I dying? I always figured I wouldn’t live long, but I thought I had a few more years than this.”

Lan Wangji huffs as if Wei Wuxian is being ridiculous. “You will live.”

“Are you saying this to comfort me? Or do you actually know? Does the Lan Zhan of my time even care? Do you?”

There is a rustle from a distance making both Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian turn in the direction of the noise, one that would be otherwise inaudible had it not been for their enhanced hearing. Lan Wangji faces Wei Wuxian. “I am coming back,” he says.

Wei Wuxian tries to raise his eyebrow, but finds himself having no energy to do so. “You are coming back next time? Or Lan Zhan is coming back from collecting firewood now?”

“Both.”

“Okay, then I guess you can go. And I was kidding about earlier. I’m not mad at you. You don’t have to tell me about the future if you don’t want to.”

“I know.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t even know what he’s saying anymore, his mental filter completely diluted with the fever. “I’m confused about a lot of things. I haven’t eaten in a while.”

Lan Wangji reaches a hand out as if he’s going to pat Wei Wuxian’s head, but stops just short of doing so. “I know,” he repeats.

“Yeah. You know everything, Wangji-ge. You’re so smart.”

The image of the adult Lan Wangji then disperses like water when a pebble has fallen into it. In its wake, is the face of Lan Zhan, looking down at him concernedly and holding several branches and wood chunks for the fire.

“Lan Zhan?”

“En. I am here.”

Wei Wuxian smiles and closes his eyes briefly.

Almost immediately, Lan Zhan exclaims, “Wei Ying! Do not sleep!”

With much effort, Wei Wuxian opens his eyes again. “Haha, sure. But I need something to keep me awake. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. Can you play me a song?”

Even through Wei Wuxian’s blurred vision, he can tell Lan Zhan is apprehensive about the request. But instead of asking questions, he pulls out his guqin from its case and lays it out in front of him.

“Oh, will you actually do it? That’s so nice of you, to indulge me just like...” Even on the last threads of wakefulness, he understands it might not be the best idea to mention the existence of Lan Zhan’s future self. “Someone else,” he finishes.

Lan Zhan looks confused. Without commenting, he begins to hum and pluck at the remaining chords of his guqin.

Lan Zhan’s voice is deep and slightly rough as a result of lack of water, but the tune is pleasant. The song feels like a comforting lullaby, and it has Wei Wuxian sagging against the tree trunk he’s leaning upon. With each blink, it takes longer for him to open his eyes. He musters up the last of his energy to comment on the song when Lan Zhan finally finishes. “That song... it’s so nice. What is the title?”

Lan Zhan says something. His mouth moves, that’s for sure. But as for what he says, Wei Wuxian can’t hear. The expression on Lan Zhan’s face shifts to concerned.

As for what happens after, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know. He feels himself falling to the side, feels something strong and warm catch him, and then-- nothing.

-

When Wei Wuxian wakes up, he is back at Yunmeng Jiang.

If someone other than Lan Zhan had talked to him in his last moments of consciousness, he does not remember.