The sun was shining like a living thing, gentle and mild but so very bright. It touched breathless on the young grass, brushing over patches of ground and winding paths.
It was a beautiful sun, for a beautiful day, and Wei Wuxian felt fragile contentment burrow in his bones. The energy of the dead was gone, corpse bile washed from his skin and sunlight replacing it ever so gently.
He felt happy.
It was a strange feeling for this beautiful day, but there was so much strange about this place and its gentle grass.
He turned to the road and watched it bustle, watched as the temporary camp of yesterday was turned into a home. There walked A-yuan, trailing behind Wen Qing with a basket of flowers. Here worked Granny, old hands digging into the ground and laying wood into place.
Between the Wen Remnants worked disciples from so many clans, with strong muscles and wary eyes but—
But they were helping.
The sun shone down onto the land and Wei Wuxian knew happiness.
Lanling was a land of peerless skies and fertile fields, he thought, as he watched Wen Ning hold up the shell of a building with a single arm.
It would be a good place to settle for a while.
A rustling and a shimmer drew his eyes up the sky, made him stare into the gentle light of the sun. There, a glimmering flash of divine steel, a trembling current in the air. Wei Wuxian swallowed, breath catching in his throat for a long heartbeat.
Then he smiled.
The stream of pale robes against the sky was unmistakable. Before that bright light, harsh but fair, Lan Zhan looked like the moon come to drive the sun across the horizon.
Wei Wuxian felt a terrible happiness bubble in his chest, followed by a quake of dread.
Here he stood in this gentle-green field. Here, he was threadbare and shabby with madness, coated by the stain of blood and crushed bone.
But Shijie had cradled his face and brushed away his tears, had pressed smooth fingers into his cheeks and smiled at him. Her smile was such a brilliant thing, he thought, and felt the warmth of it linger on his skin like a blessing.
He was not worthy, but she had given him forgiveness and that made his spine straighten with pride.
He smiled, as Lan Zhan landed. He laughed, a sister’s permission making him strong, and waved an enthusiastic hand.
“Lan Zhan,” he called, walking towards the man with a dancing step and a grin that could light the sun. It only felt like a half-lie, and that was such progress. The day was so beautiful, and A-yuan was following Wen Qing like she had hung the moon.
It was a good day.
“Wei Ying,” came the response, gentle and methodical. But the voice was tight, bound by emotion Wei Wuxian couldn’t name.
That face was calm as ice, but a storm swirled in golden eyes. In the long years Wei Wuxian had known Lan Zhan, he had never seen such a glimmering of emotion.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, you missed me, didn’t you?” He laughed out, testing the moonlit waters of Gusu for a response. He expected the tension of a no, the hard stare of a never.
But Lan Zhan just stared at him with eyes like thunder and a face like jade. The man spoke a single word, and it echoed through the air as an avalanche.
A healing heart beat in his chest, Wei Wuxian knew, but it was driving into a fever-pitch now. The sun was shining onto his skin and leaving him warm, leaving him breathless. When had that sun grown so relentless?
The man had missed him. The man had missed him.
“What—” He stopped, felt the light burn overhead and the gentle clamor of construction surround him.
He was in the beginnings of a home he didn’t need to guard, anymore. With Jin Zixuan’s promise and careful guard, the Wen remnants could be left to survive on their own. He was bound and trapped by duty no longer.
He could leave. Wei Wuxian was as free as he had ever been, and the corpse bile had been washed from his skin.
Lan Zhan had missed him.
“You can’t just say that, Lan Zhan. With a face as fine as yours, how is that fair?” His voice was teasing but his smile held only truth, only the delicate beat of his heart.
He was still worn from too many tears, still raw and vulnerable. He could not bear this acceptance.
The other man just hummed and stepped in, standing beside him as specter and guardian. Wei Wuxian looked up at that beautiful face, traced hungry eyes over the lines of an elegant jaw and gilded eyes. The man made him think of gentler times, of long hours spent in the Library Pavilion with ink staining the stretch of his fingers.
He thought of Come back to Gusu with me, and wondered at why the man was here.
“You here to try to drag me back to Gusu with you, Lan Zhan?” He couldn’t help the words, couldn’t help the fear clutching at his throat. He smiled and laughed, spoke with a teasing tone, but he felt such worry.
He didn’t want Lan Zhan to be here to remake him. But there was no need for fear, no need for that horrible dread.
Lan Zhan stared at him with golden eyes and spoke quiet and firm.
“No.” The man said, voice melodious as the guqin he played with long fingers and endless skill. “I am here to stay.”
The words echoed like thunder and the crash of a waterfall, breaking over Wei Wuxian’s skin and leaving him breathless.
To stay, the man said, like he could drop every responsibility that bound him to the Lan Clan and leave.
To stay, the man said, like something here was worth staying for.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t hear for the heartbeat pounding beneath his skin. The sun was so warm, and he couldn’t breathe.
He spoke instead, disbelieving and hopeful.
“Here? You want to stay here? Why would you want to stay here?”
He couldn’t understand, didn’t know what words to speak. Why would the man of jade and peerless skill want to stay here? There was nothing but a half built village here, nothing but the remnants of a clan Wei Wuxian had worked so hard to protect.
The grass was green and lovely, but it was so humble.
Lan Zhan shook his head, strands of black hair shifting with the movement like ink spilled into clouds. He looked as frustrated as Wei Wuxian had seen him, the lines of emotion curling out from his eyes and cracking into that peerless face.
“Not here, Wei Ying. I will stay with you.”
Wei Wuxian blinked against the shock in his chest, against the happiness. This was too strange to be believed to strange to be real.
He had blood curling like smoke against his skin and gaunt hands that were stained crimson. There was no joy in his face but a sharp fury, and not gentle edges but anger.
The Yiling Patriarch was not worth Lan Zhan.
But here the man stood, with golden eyes staring into his and speaking a thousand promises. Here Wei Wuxian stood, with Shijie’s forgiveness pressed into his cheek.
Had he cried enough to earn this, yesterday?
Wei Wuxian took a step to the side. Lan Zhan followed, effortless and casual as if he was strolling across the polished stone of Gusu.
He took another step, and again, Lan Zhan followed.
The laugh that cracked across his voice was unstoppable and breathless, too desperate and too real and so happy.
“Lan Zhan, you really are ridiculous.” The words were fond, and Wei Wuxian smiled as he spoke them.
He forgot about the blood on his robes, of the corpse bones lining his memories.
He looked at Lan Zhan and smiled under that relentless sun.
For a moment of delirium, he thought the man smiled back, small and hopelessly precious.
But a blink took it away, and he knew it to be a trick of the light.
It took a month to build the village, even with Wei Ning’s strength and Wei Wuxian’s skill. At the end, standing among sturdy buildings and planted fields, he could only feel a deep satisfaction.
The sun shone a nourishing light on the crops growing around him, bright and cheerful. The wall built around the village was low and made of a rough and charming stone.
It was for privacy and not protection, and that made all the difference.
Beside the largest building was a small pond, and on its still surface floated a delicate spread of lotus blooms, white and pink petals catching the light and leaving it breathless.
He glanced at them and watched the curl of their steams, saw the healthy green of the pads floating atop the water.
The transplants were doing very well, he thought, with a dancing grin. Shijie’s next visit might make them bloom, knowing the strength of her smile. Maybe they would wither beneath Jiang Cheng’s furious glare, but it didn’t matter.
He would take curled flowers and lightning crackling like thunder for his brother’s company.
Slow, with all the time in the world and a lazy happiness, he took a breath of spring air, let it rush into his lungs and fill him.
It was a good day.
He lifted a modest porcelain cup, the wooden table before him sanded smooth and homely. Steam threaded into his nose and made his spine drop its tension.
He leaned back and basked in the sun like a cat spread out under the noon-day light.
It was a beautiful day to watch the lotus blooms float across the pond. It would be all the better when he could pluck their seeds and show A-yuan the best way to peel the delicate food.
Wei Wuxian smiled into the sunshine.
The robes wrapped around A-yuan’s shoulders were not threadbare but thick and soft. The tea steeping in his cup was not humble but fine and delicate. The medicine in Wen Qing’s house was not the scraped together remnants of plants but the cultivation of Gusu Lan.
It was plentiful, and he finally knew rest.
He took another sip of tea, let the flavor linger on his tongue. It was good, calming and centering in a way he could afford to appreciate.
But he had always been more for wine than tea, and years of an inventor’s lifestyle had not changed that.
Maybe Lan Zhan and he could journey out and fetch Emperor’s Smile. It was a treat he had thought of much, over the long years.
What he wouldn’t give to drink it again and share a cup with Lan Zhan. Could the man hold his liquor, he wondered, fingers tracing around the rim of his plain cup.
Would Lan Zhan stumble and fall? Would he lose that carved-jade composure? Or would he drink like a god of wine and not even blush?
Wei Wuxian didn’t know, but for the first time in years he had the space to find out. There were gentle lotus flowers in the pond beside him, and the sun shone across sturdy buildings and the humble beginnings of a new life.
Here and now, he could lay down his burdens and rest. He had been given no greater gift.
On the eve of the sixth month, Wei Wuxian became the inventor and innovator of the cultivation world.
He still didn’t quite know how it had happened.
It was a regular visit from Shijie, her smile outshining the very face of the sun. She walked through the humble village with fine golden robes and a quiet happiness that spread through the air. Jin Zixuan walked at her side, expression softened from pride to the doting care of a man in love.
Wei Wuxian just grinned like a loon.
The three of them settled beside the lotus blooms, steaming cups of tea resting before them and the clamoring giggling of children layered in the background.
They laughed and giggled themselves, Wei Wuxian doing anything in his power to make Shijie smile. The world revolved around her laugh, and it always made the blood beneath his nails feel so powerless.
He would do anything for that smile.
It took only a moment for Lan Zhan to emerge from the chaos of the playing children, peerless face calm as ever but hair ever-so-slightly tangled. In a glimmer of white robes, the man walked up beside him, folding to the ground beside Wei Wuxian with endless grace.
If those charmed robes could bear stains, Wei Wuxian knew there would be muddy marks from hip to foot from the playful dancing of A-yuan.
He wanted to see those marks like nothing else.
Shijie’s voice drew his attention up and away, to a quiet smile and a beautiful laugh. Golden eyes lingered in his mind, but Wei Wuxian pushed them away.
Lan Zhan had already proven he wasn’t going anywhere.
The sun glimmered off Shijie’s face as she spoke, delicate and kind. “A-xian, have you finished that talisman?”
Ah, he thought, setting his tea down on the table with a careless hand. Lan Zhan caught it before it could tumble over, strong hands reaching past him to hold the modest porcelain.
He spared a single cheery smile for the man, watched golden eyes go bright and happy for an instant, before he leapt up to dig through chaos of his inventions.
The talisman, he thought, discarding the scraps of inventions in search of it. He needed to find it, for Shijie, for her quiet request. This table in the glorious sun was where he held court, and it was scattered with brushes and the tattered remains of a thousand scrolls and half-written ideas.
There had been an effort to clean before Shijie’s visit, but it had only succeeded in moving the mess into hiding. There was no hope for it now.
Wei Wuxian had tried, at least, but now he just laughed and dived into the wreckage of an inventor’s scattered mind.
It took him a long moment and two deep sips of tea before he found the talisman inside the chaos. A pale scroll shimmered with delicately marked lines, black ink bleeding dark on the white surface.
It was a careful thing, made to let out a gentle light on the darkest nights.
A-ling had been sleeping poorly, Shijie had said, and asked for a light that would not risk a fire. Wei Wuxian had never brought the full force of his genius to bear so quickly.
He handed it to Shijie with proud hands and watched her smile shine even brighter. He hadn’t thought it possible, but Shijie had always lived by their clan’s motto.
The lotus petals drifted across water and the sun glimmered around them, breaking before the force of their happiness.
Wei Wuxian just laughed and stole his tea back from Lan Zhan’s careful hands.
“Have you considered sending your inventions, formally, Wei Wuxian?” Jin Zixuan’s voice was cautious but polite, born of pride but familiar.
They had spent six months learning to be brothers, and that bond was taking root between them now. It was still fragile, but it had a strong foundation and Shijie’s smile to give it purpose.
So he sipped his tea on this sunny day and considered it. “Sending them in as in giving my inventions away?”
The thought wasn’t appealing, really. So much death had come from his hands and the strokes of his brush. He shifted, leaning towards Lan Zhan’s comforting presence. In the glimmering light of the sun it was hard to remember the darkest times, where bone had cracked beneath his fingers and marrow had flowed onto his skin.
But he still could, and that hurt all the worse.
“Yes, with credit.” Jin Zixuan nodded, elegant and refined. The man’s eyes were dancing over Shijie’s hands, watching for any hint of exhaustion. A childbirth was exhausting, Wei Wuxian remembered, and watched Shijie’s fingers with double the precision.
“I think you could do a lot of good, A-xian.” Shijie’s words were soft and her smile kind. She reached forward to press a loving palm onto his arm, and the warmth made him feel clean and bloodless.
One invention had saved the life of her husband. Another had almost taken it.
What would do the least harm?
He smiled, but this was a fragile thing beside the glimmering lotus blossoms.
“Ah, maybe maybe. Shijie, I can just make useful things and send them to you.”
Things that couldn’t be used for war, he thought, remembering the Wen blood on his hands. He hadn’t needed to lift Chenqing to his lips in months, but the black lacquer flute still hung at his waist.
It was a weapon and reminder, for what he had almost wrought.
Could he move the world forward? Could he shape the future? Could he do it without cursing more people to death?
His fist clenched at his side, restless and trembling. There was so much he didn’t know, so much he couldn’t. The future wasn’t his to know, but it was his to shape.
That was all the more terrifying. Desperate, he reached for Lan Zhan, for the familiar weight of calloused fingers. They had grown to fit into the same space so well, these past months, that the action was instinctive.
The man rubbed a firm thumb into his palm and Wei Wuxian felt his heart gentle.
“I’ll think on it, Shijie,” he said, and melted into the warmth radiating from his hand. The sun shone so brightly, but it held nothing on those calloused fingers.
Wei Wuxian wanted to feel that hand forever.
Two months later, he delivered patterns for demonic attractors to the hands of the Gusu Lan Sect, and watched them become common. The patterns went out with Lan Xichen’s careful promises and more careful scrutiny.
He stood beneath the sun and watched the world being to notice him as something other than a war-beast.
Lan Zhan held his hand then too.
It took him a year to realize he was in love.
The sun was setting on the sleepy village, light breaking over carved wooden walls and shimmering through a thousand blades of grass. He watched it and felt all its fracturing light as if it was his own.
It had been a long day of invention, and it would be a longer night. Energy was thrumming through his veins, relentless and manic. It bubbled up like acid and he couldn’t keep it at bay.
Once it had been turned to a bloody purpose. Now it would be turned to a protective one.
Sleep wouldn’t come tonight, he knew. He stretched up, let his spine crack into a symphony of static sound. There was too much impatience in him, and he needed to let loose his dancing steps.
Had Lan Zhan returned from Gusu, he wondered? It had been three long days; surely the man was done by now. How long could the drab halls and endless rules keep him occupied anyway?
Wei Wuxian was far more interesting, and this sleepy town filled with manic invention and children’s laughter was home, wasn’t it?
He stretched again, standing with a long sigh and a symphony of stiff muscles. The night was young, and his hands were barely shaking from overuse. Yet here he was thinking of a man far away and in mourning robes.
Here he was, waiting for Lan Zhan like a bride bound to home.
He laughed, felt amusement curl over the warmth in his chest. He liked that thought, liked the ideal dream his life had become.
What a strange turn of fate, two prominent cultivators settled into gentle invention and quiet days.
He did not have to wait for long. Methodical steps echoed across beaten earth and into his bones, and he turned to greet the sound.
Lan Zhan strode forward like a tiger, all contained strength and endless elegance. Fine white robes rippled in the moonlight, shaking over the earth and shining as silver.
The man looked beautiful, of perfect pedigree and bearing, but Wei Wuxian could only see Lan Zhan.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, you took so long? I made congee!”
The man just hummed, dropping down beside Wei Wuxian and laying a calloused palm across the strength of his thigh. It burned into his skin, into his robes. It felt like the sun had come to rest across him and given him life.
He wanted to lean into the touch and so he did, taking all that Lan Zhan allowed.
It was a good thing the man allowed him so much. It was a good thing he was so warm. It was a good thing Wei Wuxian wanted to grin into golden eyes.
This domestic life had never been something he thought he would enjoy, but now—
Now with invention at his fingertips and Lan Zhan keeping him company, he could hardly imagine another life.
Lan Zhan looked at him with molten eyes and lifted something off up. It took Wei Wuxian a moment to register the small bottles, the fine pottery emblazoned by stark red characters.
Emperor’s Smile was something he would always recognize, even long years kept from its taste.
He laughed, the sound delighted and endlessly happy. The sun had come to rest beside him, bringing fine liquor and great company.
“Ah Lan Zhan, for me? You are going to spoil me you know!” He pulled the jugs from the man’s calloused hand, scooted across the ground to lean closer.
The bottle opened easily under his clever fingers, and he took a long and delirious swallow. It tasted like smoke and smooth liquor, like the fog over mountains and the wet oak of a long rainstorm.
It tasted delicious, and he hummed around the mouthful.
Golden eyes hadn’t looked away, intense and burning. He smiled into that peerless face, laughed through the gentle warmth floating in his chest. The moon made Lan Zhan look like a statue carved from jade and decorated lovely with silver.
Wei Wuxian’s lungs felt so tight. Had he caught a cold? A-yuan had been ill a week ago, sniffling into the air like he was dying.
Wei Wuxian must have caught that passing sickness, for his chest to feel so tight.
“You want some, Lan Zhan?” He held out the bottle from tempting fingers, letting his grin go reckless and inviting.
He expected a no, expected a shaken head but no judgement.
Instead, Lan Zhan hooked the jar from his fingers and took a long swallow, contemplative and serious. There was a moment of silence, as the moon shone down around them and Wei Wuxian laughed in surprise.
Had Lan Zhan even drunk before? Did he know how to handle it?
Wei Wuxian didn’t know, and he couldn’t wait to find out. He opened his mouth to speak, a grin dancing across his face and over his heart.
The words were cut off by lips pressed against his. They tasted faintly of liquor, but all he could think of was their warmth, how they were slightly wet and soft against his.
Lan Zhan was kissing him. It was a bright summer’s day, Wei Wuxian had never felt happier, and Lan Zhan was kissing him.
The smell of sandalwood consumed him, spread across his skin and soaked into his soul. He opened his mouth, let Lan Zhan press closer, let the kiss fall deep and devourous.
After four frantic beats of his heart, after a lifetime and an eternity and all the spinning turns of a golden core he no longer had, Wei Wuxian could breathe again.
Lan Zhan had pulled back, just enough to stare at him. Their breath was shared like smoke, hot and desperate.
Oh, he thought, blinking into golden eyes. They shone like they held the sun, swirling with a thousand perfect memories.
I love him.
There was a steaming pot in his hand, hot to the touch but not searing his dead skin. It smelled thick and oaky with the bloom of summer, and Wen Ning had been glad at its smell.
It was a fine tea, expensive and smooth. But this was hardly important, really.
It was the Young Master’s favorite tea, and so Wen Ning was glad to have it in the village. He had prepared a pot, as he always did when the sun had begun to dip into the sky and scrolls were cast across Wei Wuxian’s table.
He rounded the corner with a quiet step, a gentle smile lingering in his cheeks. It was difficult to smile, through dead muscle and relentless rage, difficult to move the muscles into something that wasn’t a snarl.
But the Young Master had spent a day poking his cheeks until the expression was possible, with effort. Wen Ning could never express how much that gesture meant.
So he would bring tea everyday instead.
The first thing he saw was white robes pressed against black. The second was a spilled jug of liquor, lying to the side and dripping onto the smooth ground.
The third was something he wasn’t meant to see.
If he hadn’t been long-dead and blood-less, he would have flushed crimson as the sunset. The pot in his fingers was searingly hot, but he felt like his eyes were burning even more.
He had never leapt away faster, in all his life.
Perhaps it was best if he did not deliver the tea, today.