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This House of Ill Repute

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“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian calls out over the rain. “How much longer?”

Lan Zhan turns on his horse. The white of his robes flares like ice every time lightning cuts across the sky. It’s rather spectacular still, even after an hour of riding through the storm.

“Your injuries?” Lan Zhan says, forcing his voice over the roar of the wind.

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian shouts back. “Just cold. I want a fire and out of these robes. They weigh more than the donkey by now.” He wants a fire and dry clothes and a drink, to be exact.

Lan Zhan looks him up and down as if he is not quite convinced, which is pretty funny given the relentless rain all around them. “Let’s break up the journey. There’s a town we passed yesterday on the way, we can look for an inn there. I don’t think it’s far.” Then he sets his horse back in motion.

“Sounds good to me,” Wei Wuxian calls out, and prods his horse to move, and the donkey to obey and trot along behind them. He smiles as Lan Zhan’s hair is whipped up by the wind, another far-off lightning bolt gleaming off Lan Zhan’s robes.

The truth is, he got a little banged up in their encounter with the water spirits, a far enough fall that Lan Zhan fed him spiritual energy to make his breathing easier. He’s basically fine, and compared to other injuries he’s suffered over the years, it’s nothing. Only the jolts of riding combined with the chill and the wet robes clinging to him make him a touch less comfortable than he’d otherwise be, and he’s looking forward to a hot meal and talking to Lan Zhan without having to shout, in a nice warm room.

The donkey, on the other hand, is disliking the weather on principle, and every once in a while needs convincing that standing still in the dark in the rain isn’t going to get it to a nice warm shed any time sooner. “Come on,” Wei Wuxian says encouragingly, tugging the reins on his uninjured side to keep it going.

It’s the kind of dark and imposing weather that makes normal people frightened, scared of the ghosts they see in shaking branches and treacherous shapes slithering through wet grass. But to those who know ghosts and the taste of true darkness, the shadow play of thunder and lightning feels like a safe and cherished adventure, Lan Zhan’s drenched elegance flashing up ahead a reliable beacon.

Really, if it weren’t for the stiffness creeping through his muscles and making his bruised side hurt, Wei Wuxian wouldn’t even mind the rain.

~~~

The town isn’t much, and in the mud and dark it’s even less than that. A dirt road, a couple of smaller tracks leading off it, ordinary houses and some shops, all closed. Only now and then do they see a light flicker through somewhere, with everything boarded up against the rain.

The horses tread slowly on the softened ground. When Lan Zhan stops, Wei Wuxian draws up next to him. “Not exactly Colorful Robes Town, is it?” he says.

Lan Zhan gives him another examining look, even though Wei Wuxian hasn’t whined about being uncomfortable since their brief stop for directions. “This is the last town I remember seeing before the mountain pass. It would be unusual if there wasn’t an inn or a rest stop for travellers.”

They have just started moving again when a short distance ahead, light spills onto the street from an opening door. Even through the rain Wei Wuxian hears the unmistakable sounds of people having a good time. “Hey, Lan Zhan,” he says as he tugs on Little Apple’s reins to move them faster. “We’re in luck, let’s go!”

The light fades as the door is slammed shut again. As they draw nearer, a flash of lightning illuminates the grey outline of the man who apparently had to leave an inn in the middle of the rainstorm, trudging homeward in a hunch. Poor soul.

“Stables,” Lan Zhan points out. Along the side of the building are stables big enough to accommodate the occasional travelling party. Looks like they found what they were looking for.

Lan Zhan hovers as Wei Wuxian climbs off his horse, even though he’s only favouring his sore side a little. They tie up their horses and Little Apple and grab their travelling bags, and then make their sodden way to the entrance.

Even standing under the little roof is a relief, though the wind is still blowing water at them from whichever direction it fancies. Mindful of not letting in the rain, Wei Wuxian pulls the heavy door open a sliver, enough for them to slip through.

It isn’t a wild night out here in Nowherestown, but the warmth is instant. A group of men in rough work robes are drinking over on the right side, and there are two tables with couples eating, enough empty space. The floor behind the door is covered in rags and Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan both dutifully wipe off their shoes, though they will continue to make puddles wherever they will go.

Some of the men at the group table are laughing at their drenched figures. Wei Wuxian waves at them, which makes them laugh more. Two sad cultivators getting lost in the middle of a rainstorm probably doesn’t happen to them often.

The lady of the house comes fluttering towards them, a middle-aged woman in skillful make-up and a fine but worn, beautifully printed robe. “Young Masters, come in, come in, this is not a night to be travelling!” she says, though Wei Wuxian notices she meets them close enough to the door that they continue to drip on her rags, instead of the shining wooden floor. A very practical woman. “Are you coming for some entertainment?”

Given the dripping situation, not Wei Wuxian’s priority. But he beams at her, noticing her heavy perfume.

“We are hoping to dry off and get some rest after a long journey,” Lan Zhan says. “Would you have a room for the night?”

The woman gives them a long look up and down, and a slow grin. “We have a room and much more, Young Masters.” Wei Wuxian has also noticed the make-up on the female halves of the two couples currently giggling together over their wine, and some discord between the girls’ pretty robes and the simple style of dress of their male friends, and he throws Lan Zhan a look.

Lan Zhan is his most polite self, nodding at their landlady. His face is still wet, gleaming in the inn’s soft light, which is a cute look on him. “We also have two horses outside and a donkey that would need feeding,” he says. His expression only barely betrays that he is uncomfortable imposing on the inn owner when he is dragging in wetness and donkey care requests. “Would you have someone who can see to them?”

“Oh, of course,” she says. There’s a brightness to her answer that tells Wei Wuxian that she’s just matched Lan Zhan’s demeanour to the weight of his coin pouch.  “Just leave it to me. You poor things really got drenched, didn’t you. So I’d say first things first, lets get you upstairs and then we’ll fix you up with a nice meal in good company. With the wind this bad, I recommend eating down here by the fire, we make sure to keep it cozy. I can find you some dry clothes while we get yours washed and dried, too!” She is gesturing to a younger girl who was just tending to the fire, and shoos her ahead to find temporary clothes for the Young Masters.

Lan Zhan looks for a moment like he might object to the idea of borrowed clothing, but Wei Wuxian interjects, “Thank you, that would be great.” He’s wet and cold enough to just let Lan Zhan’s coin pouch work for him.

Lan Zhan looks at him briefly, then says, “Yes. Thank you.”

They follow the madam up the wooden stairs to the second floor, where a few rooms seem to be leading off the main hall. “We only have the one room that is what the Young Masters must be used to,” she says, motioning to the sliding door at the end of the hall. “I’m afraid the other rooms are quite a bit smaller, but we do keep them clean, if one of you is all right with that.”

“The one room is fine,” Lan Zhan says.

She looks a little surprised. “I assure you, the other rooms are really not bad, and they are perfectly serviceable. There’s no need to share unnecessarily.”

“It’s fine,” Lan Zhan says. The hesitation in his glance at Wei Wuxian is probably only visible to those who know him well. “Isn’t it?” It’s been a recurring theme on this journey that Lan Zhan prefers not to leave him alone when they are amongst strangers in strange places, and since Wei Wuxian has spent more time alone than he cares to, this always suits him fine.

“For sure,” he says, giving the madam a wink. “He’ll just win if we draw for it and I don’t want to miss out on the nicest room of the house.”

She still seems thrown for a moment, but then gets over it with the resilience of the hard-working and coin-conscious, and smiles at them with the promise that there will be wine and hot tea waiting for them after they’ve changed.

~~~

The girl in the plain robes brings them two stacks of clothes along with some cloths to dry themselves off. The fabric is much rougher than the fine robes Lan Zhan is used to wearing, but Wei Wuxian thinks the colours are deliberately chosen to emulate their style, an almost-white creamy yellow and a stack of dark blue.

The room is small in comparison to the bigger inns they’ve stayed at. There are purple see-through curtains around the bed, and the usual small tables, with embroidered seating cushions that have the same feel to it as the entire establishment including the madam’s robes: a little old, but well-kept.

“I think it will go well with your headband,” Wei Wuxian says as he hands Lan Zhan the light set. Lan Zhan’s obvious reluctance to put on a stranger’s clothes is endearing, but at least Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to argue about why he doesn’t want a soaking wet Light Bearing Lord dripping all over the floor and the bed. Lan Zhan takes the stack, and says very properly, “Do you want to change first?” with a nod towards the decorated modesty screen.

“No, you go ahead,” Wei Wuxian says with an encouraging wave.

The screen, he realizes when Lan Zhan’s silhouette is moving behind it, is a bit less modest than you’d think. It also, he further realizes, is decorated with subtle outlines of shapely boobs. Subtle enough that if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you won’t notice, so Lan Zhan will probably be safe. It’s almost more subtle than Wei Wuxian would expect, but then again, they did get the best room.

In any case, he doesn’t peek and he’s not going to say anything, at least not right now when he still wants Lan Zhan to buy him dinner downstairs. Maybe he’ll save it for later.

The simple pale robe covers Lan Zhan from his shoulders to his feet, but the lack of layers makes him look much softer than Wei Wuxian usually sees him. He’s taken off the hair ornament, and his hair is still wet, curling at the edges.

All these new things on their journey are still exciting, giving Wei Wuxian a warm feeling in his belly before they’ve even made it to the wine, and he finds himself smiling.

Lan Zhan glances at him, then at the screen, unreadable. Still doesn’t seem to have noticed the boobs, though.

“Do you need help?” Lan Zhan asks him.

What, with undressing? The thought is funny, but he isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling when he wonders about taking Lan Zhan up on it so he sticks to the most obvious response and puts a hand on his chest. “Lan Zhan! What are you suggesting!”

“You have injuries,” Lan Zhan says.

Oh. That is true. Lan Zhan doesn’t turn away either or rescind the offer in a huff, just keeps staring passionately at a spot of wall behind Wei Wuxian.

“Nah, I’m all right,” Wei Wuxian says. “I meant it, it’s not that bad.”

Lan Zhan drops his gaze to a spot on the floor instead, and nods, stepping around Wei Wuxian to busy himself with their wet travel bags.

Behind the screen, it turns out peeling his left arm out of two wet and heavy layers is more of a pain than he expected. He’s glad the screen should at least hide the face he’s making. Should have taken Lan Zhan up on it. It would be helpful and amusing, and when he imagines Lan Zhan’s focused propriety, it makes the back of his neck prickle even though it’s just in his mind.

He should hurry up. They need to get food.

~~~

They hand the girl their robes to clean. She looks shyly confident that they’ll get them back dry by tomorrow, and Wei Wuxian is optimistic. The advantage of a house full of pretty ladies is that they probably have great facilities to keep everyone in style.

The chill in the hallway is noticeable on their way down the stairs. They’re dry but he never really warmed up, and it feels like a soft blanket settling on his cold skin when they step through the tinkly beaded curtain into the tea room. Wei Wuxian shivers in delight.

“Cozy,” he says, nudging Lan Zhan with his elbow, which to his surprise gets him a smile. Was Lan Zhan cold too?

The madam of the house has been watching out for them and Wei Wuxian gestures at the empty table closest to the fire. She nods, and Wei Wuxian thinks there are quiet instructions happening that set their first round of drinks in motion. Excellent!

Settling at the table, Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath of warm air, and closes his eyes for a moment as the thaw seeps into his skin. The group of men are laughing over a game, there are flirty whispers coming from the one couple’s table, and muffled giggling somewhere in a back room.

He opens his eyes when he feels the presence of the madam, and sees a jar of wine put down in front of him, as well as the promised pot of tea and the respective cups.

He finds Lan Zhan’s eyes on him, Lan Zhan in his unfailing, resolute posture. “How is your shoulder?” he asks.

It twinges on cue, so Wei Wuxian rolls it, but stops again when he sees the worry flash over Lan Zhan’s face. “It’s really just a bruise. You almost got it to go away entirely,” he says, smiling reassuringly. “Being somewhere warm feels good, though, doesn’t it?”

Lan Zhan considers that for a moment, but agrees with a small nod. He pours wine for Wei Wuxian, and steaming hot tea for both of them, then puts Wei Wuxian’s two cups in front of him.

Wei Wuxian starts on the wine, but also finishes the tea sometime in between the second and fourth cup of wine, since Lan Zhan poured it. They order food, and Wei Wuxian enjoys the warm spread of the wine inside him, the glow to the air that starts around his fourth cup.

Best way of ending a thunderstorm ride. Here, with Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan is comfortable in silence, as always. His lips are back to their soft pink, not the paleness of their journey through the rain. The ordinary robes almost make it seem like he isn’t wearing enough clothes, his habitual elegance wrapped in something light and thin and showing creases, a couple of dark spots where his hair brushed back and forth over his shoulders. It makes Wei Wuxian feel very fond suddenly. Lan Zhan would never go around like this in Cloud Recesses, and yet, here, with Wei Wuxian, he doesn’t seem to mind.

“You were right to insist on the horses,” Wei Wuxian says. “Thank you.” At the start of their journey, they had walked with the donkey, Lan Zhan falling in with Wei Wuxian’s established habits like he was a beginner taking cues. But after their last longer stop, with the weather turning into unpredictable fall, Lan Zhan had bought them horses, so they would not end up stuck on the long stretches between more remote towns in a sudden spot of downpour.

“You were right not to argue about it,” Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian tilts his head. “I can’t tell if you’re paying me an actual compliment or making fun of me.”

Lan Zhan tops them both up and hands the wine cup back to Wei Wuxian. “Here,” he says, barely a twitch to his eyebrows.

Wei Wuxian grins, taking the cup for a swig. “You’re being feisty.”

“I believe you are not using that word correctly.” But when Lan Zhan has put the wine jug down, there’s a smile on his face. One of the secret, gentle ones. The kinds that always make Wei Wuxian feel like something shifted in his life and there may be dreams of blood and black fog, but also this. He also has this, now.

He startles when dark green fabric sways into his field of vision. It’s two girls, one in a green robe, the other in blue, with toned down make-up and excited smiles.

The one in green looks at Wei Wuxian while her friend is hanging onto her arm. The shy one is a small town beauty, while the one in green has a sparkle in her eyes that makes her plain face look interesting. “We were wondering if the Young Masters would like us to join them,” she says.

Lan Zhan looks up at her. “Why?”

She blinks, clearly startled. Should have answered first, Wei Wuxian. “Ah,” he jumps in, waving a hand at her in apology. “Sorry, miss, he meant nothing by it. We just have a lot of things to discuss about our journey and you’d be bored, and then we’d feel bad.” He gives them both a smile and holds the wine flask out to her with a bow of his head. “I’d be so grateful if we could have a refill, though.”

The girl is polite and professional and smiling again when she takes the jug off him, though both of them still look bewildered.

Lan Zhan looks at him with an almost invisible frown. “Was that wrong?” he asks. The frown flickers. “Did you want them to join us?”

For a moment, Wei Wuxian wonders if Lan Zhan is more aware and a lot smoother about this establishment than he expected. It’s a strange thought, as if they’d actually go and…

Wei Wuxian shakes the image off, it’s weird.

“Wei Ying. Was that wrong?” Lan Zhan asks a little more forcefully. He looks more concerned than he should be.

“What? Oh. No. I was just thinking… of something else. It’s all fine!”

Lan Zhan examines him for a moment longer, but then seems to take his smile as answer that all is, indeed, fine. “What do we have to discuss about the journey?”

“What?”

Lan Zhan is breathing deeply. It’s actually easier to see with him wearing the thinner robe. Another thing to like about them. The opening of the robe dips slightly deeper too without an inner layer. “You said we had things to discuss about the journey.”

“Oh, yeah,” Wei Wuxian rallies. That’s not hard. “Where are we going next?”

But before Lan Zhan can answer his really a bit stupid question, he sees the madam approaching, together with the girl in plainer robes, carrying their food.

“Our food!” he points out, which is not really necessary but if Lan Zhan is as hungry as Wei Wuxian feels, he should know as early as possible.

“Here you are, Young Masters,” she says, putting down one tray and spreading out the dishes. As the girl distributes the second half of the dishes, steam rising enticingly, the madam gives them a small bow. “I hope it will be to your liking.”

“It looks very fine, thank you,” Lan Zhan says.

“Is there anything else that might be to your liking?” she asks, with a friendly, non-suggestive smile. “I fear I was off the first time?”

This one even takes Wei Wuxian a blink or three to follow. Then he feels stupid about that, but blames it on his still slightly frozen brain. He waves her off. “No, not at all, I’m sorry if we were rude. We’re just…” He gestures at the table and their food and Lan Zhan in the nice dry robes. “We’re really not looking for anything else.”

“I see, of course,” she says with another polite bow. Pauses, and then her smile melts into a grin as she looks from Wei Wuxian to Lan Zhan and back. “Oh. I see.”

It gives him a sharp jolt, though it probably shouldn’t. In this kind of establishment, with the knowing grin she’s giving him, it’s not even a slight. Wei Wuxian shakes himself and takes pity on Lan Zhan, before she gets any clearer. “No, please,” he smiles at her, and sighs for extra emphasis of how this is way more innocent than she is currently piecing together. “The truth is, we were caught out in the rain, and we went for the first establishment that looked like it might offer us a meal and a dry bed. We’re really only here for the room and a roof over our heads.”

“Oh,” she says again; again with a little thoughtfulness. The dry bed and the roof over their heads are obviously not incompatible with other forms of entertainment, and maybe she finds it strange that they are clearly not pinching Lan Zhan’s pennies and still not interested in her girls, or maybe she’s worried about…

“Don’t worry, we’re still good customers,” Wei Wuxian says in the voice of a conspirator. “I drink a lot, and he’s good for it.”

She laughs, a deep pleasant laugh that is clearly not about trying to sell them anything. “All right, then, if you boys change your minds, just let me know. I almost had a bit of a riot over who’d get to join you, so you’re breaking some hearts with your restraint.”

“I’m afraid he does that all the time,” Wei Wuxian says with a remorseful face and a tilt of his head towards Lan Zhan, and she laughs again, before encouraging them to enjoy their food and taking the serving girl back with her.

He’s not entirely surprised to find Lan Zhan observing him. Wei Wuxian feels his ears turn warm from the scrutiny.

He gestures at the food. “Let’s eat! I’m starving.”

Lan Zhan is considering whether to pick up his chopsticks. Then he does, but he doesn’t move on to eating. “What were you talking about?”

Wei Wuxian puts a dumpling in his mouth. It’s tasty, and gone quickly, so he stuffs a second one after it. Then he makes eyes at Lan Zhan. “You want me to talk while eating?”

“You were making jokes with the mistress of the house that I didn’t understand. Was I not supposed to understand them?”

Wei Wuxian stops. That… it sounds wrong like that. He admittedly doesn’t need Lan Zhan to have a freakout over the fact that they ended up in a brothel, but they have been honest with each other for a long time now. Wei Wuxian feels a flush creep up his neck, like he fell into a schoolboy habit he’d left behind.

“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I wasn’t making fun of you.”

There’s a blip of appreciation on Lan Zhan’s face. But the question remains, Lan Zhan’s gaze insisting.

Wei Wuxian is still feeling a little warm from guilt, and now trying to phrase an explanation for Lan Zhan is turning out more difficult than expected. “It seemed like you hadn’t noticed we’re not exactly at a regular inn,” he says, far too awkward for a man famous for being shameless. “I didn’t want you to feel embarrassed.”

Lan Zhan had clearly not expected that. His stillness is how he looks when startled, before he slowly turns his head to take in the two flirty couples and the make-up on the girls, the madam behind the bar and perhaps a review of her earlier remarks. His eyes go wide.

Wei Wuxian bites his lip. “I think it’s a slow night, or it would have been more obvious,” he offers. It’s true, too.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan stares at him with quiet forcefulness. The kind that might make something in the room explode. “You should have told me.”

“I didn’t know either, remember the dark and wet part?”

“We should go.” There’s a tension in his posture that says he’s a moment from getting to his feet.

“Where? Into a thunderstorm?” He’s actually pretty sure Lan Zhan wouldn’t want them back out in the cold, but the ongoing shock in Lan Zhan’s expression makes Wei Wuxian think he should maybe make the argument anyway. “Come on, Lan Zhan.” He raises his hands in a pleading shrug. “We’re dry, there’s food, there’s drink. Don’t tell me you’ll make me go out there again.” He leans over and drops his voice to a whisper. “I’ll protect you, if you’re worried.”

“I’m not worried,” Lan Zhan says, a flare of fury that takes Wei Wuxian aback. It takes Lan Zhan a moment to cram it under a lid, and he looks disoriented when he does, the flight posture easing down but his grab for the tea cup with none of his usual poise, just a reflex to get past the moment.

Wei Wuxian busies himself with his wine and gives Lan Zhan some time, before he peers up again. “It’s really just an inn with some… extra stuff,” he says. Admittedly this is probably covered by some Lan rule or other, not that the Lan clan rules would mention anything as explicit as ‘brothel’. “We’re fine. It’s all my fault for not telling you sooner, and now we’ve already ordered.” He gives Lan Zhan one of his more cautious smiles and waits. Much as the sneakiness was fun, he doesn’t actually want Lan Zhan to be upset.

Lan Zhan’s eyebrows twitch. Then he calmly picks his chopsticks back up, and takes a bite of meat.

Okay, they’re staying then. Wei Wuxian has another delicious dumpling, empties his wine cup, and feels the uncertainty turn back into excitement. The Light Bearing Lord in essentially underwear, drinking tea in a brothel. Their traveling days are good times.

“The food’s good, isn’t it,” he says, to make some lighter conversation.

Lan Zhan nods curtly but approvingly. Then he reaches for the wine jug, and gestures at Wei Wuxian’s cup. Wei Wuxian holds it up for the refill.

“You promised to get through a lot of drinking,” Lan Zhan says with a raised eyebrow. Ha ha. “You shouldn’t make empty promises.” There’s a ring of something older in the joke than Lan Zhan teasing him about his drinking promises, but Wei Wuxian can’t quite figure it out from Lan Zhan’s tolerant expression.

But he figures this is also Lan Zhan letting his unpleasant brothel surprise go, and so he smiles his agreement, and toasts him.

~~~

Measured by Wei Wuxian’s wine progress, when the madam of the house brings Wei Wuxian his third jar, Lan Zhan makes normal eye contact with her. By the fourth, Lan Zhan’s sharper, tense stiffness has turned back into his regular appropriate pose, and when the madam asks them a tentative question about their travels, clearly hankering for some entertainment herself, he gives a silent assent to Wei Wuxian inviting her to sit.

He tells her about their encounter with the water spirit, which wasn’t that formidable a creature by itself but had decided to set up shop in a river with rough terrain and waterfalls. Getting it cornered had been the most difficult part. “Lan Zhan did the really hard work,” Wei Wuxian says after he’s told her about his fall, and whined about his poor bruised shoulder a little. “I was mostly the distraction.”

“That’s a lovely thing you did for the people of that town,” the madam says, with the attention of someone who usually only gets to listen to stories about mean wives and bad backs. She accepts a drink from Wei Wuxian’s wine jug, “not that I want to keep the Young Masters,” and Lan Zhan gives her another respectful nod.

“That one was actually easy, it was just a stupid slip-up that I fell down that ledge,” Wei Wuxian says. “About three weeks ago we had to beat back an army of ghost puppets in this valley and we didn’t know what kept making them.” Wei Wuxian tells her that story, too, complete with as good a description of all of Lan Zhan’s best moves that he can manage with his slightly protesting shoulder, and how they finally found the source of the puppets. It’s a more exciting story than the water creature, but he also remembers that he never felt in danger. Neither, he thinks, did Lan Zhan. They fight well together, in this thing that Lan Zhan refers to as “traveling” when he names anything at all, and that Wei Wuxian is doing his best to not refer to as rogue cultivating even for a joke. It’s been a great few weeks.

When he looks over at Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan is wearing his small smile, and it makes his next sip of wine feel warmer and tinglier. Lan Zhan likes hearing the story back too, he realizes.

The storm has settled in, howling around the house and driving wind against the window sheets, and it’s become clear that none of the customers are venturing out to go home tonight, and that additional guests are highly unlikely, unless there are more stray travelers seeking shelter. A couple of ladies, including the two who tried to advertise at their table, have joined the group of men, and the drink is flowing freely. At the madam’s wave, the plain robes girl who’s so far been in charge of food and laundry sets up a zither in a corner, and soon there is gentle music in the background.

It feels perfect.

“But, Young Masters,” the madam says with a lowered voice, “you didn’t come to our town because of any funny business?” She says it in a teasing tone but underneath is a sliver of concern, as if this just occurred to her.

Wei Wuxian waves off her worry. “Nothing ominous at all in this town except this day of horrendous weather,” he promises.

“We’re on our way to Silver Pearl City, but decided to break up the journey,” Lan Zhan says.

“Ah, good,” she says. “I admit I usually hear about anything newsworthy around here, but you boys had me worried for a moment.”

“So you tell us a story now,” Wei Wuxian says. “What is the latest exciting news in these parts?”

She laughs and, after checking that all the tables are properly tended to, tells them a hushed, gossipy story of  a time when someone’s wife had shown up to drag her husband home, and it turned out the rider she’d been following had really been her son, and there had been a big scene where she smacked him right in the middle of the inn and then paid his tab, which made the young man want to die.

Wei Wuxian laughs at her description of the antics, and agrees it would have made him want to die too. He then thinks of Madame Yu dragging him out of a brothel and paying his bill like he’s a child, and it hurts a little to think of what’s gone, for all of them. But, still, he smiles at the image, because it’s funny.

Lan Zhan is quiet, but that is not unusual. His hair has dried from the warmth of the fire, with a few more crinkles and curls than usual. His attention feels softer than his disapproval would.

“I’m sure you’re used to much more impressive houses in the cities you travel to,” the madam is saying, and Wei Wuxian shakes himself from his somewhat pensive stare at Lan Zhan.

“Oh. No, not really,” he says. “We’re really very boring the rest of the time. The Lan clan rules are pretty specific and we try to stick to them unless there’s an emergency.”

“Oh,” the madam says, eyes flickering over Lan Zhan and then back over Wei Wuxian with some shock. “Lan… as in… the Young Masters are from the Lan clan?” Wei Wuxian almost giggles as she quickly seems to want to smooth out her robes. But he knows the feeling.

“He is,” Wei Wuxian says. “They wouldn’t have me, my memory’s too bad. I can’t remember all those rules.”

Lan Zhan shoots him a sharp look, but then lets it go, politely confirming to the madam with a nod.

Wei Wuxian is not going to tell her that not only is Lan Zhan from a famous sect known for its high moral standards, he even used to be Chief Cultivator until three months ago, when the official transition finally happened. Twelve weeks ago former Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji embarked on a journey of deepening his cultivation techniques by finding strange creatures across all lands.

He found Wei Wuxian six days later. The creatures haven’t been that strange, but all the people they’ve helped were truly grateful.

“I should have asked before,” the madam says, still flustered. “I apologize if anything was inappropriate.”

“Not at all,” Lan Zhan says. “I thank you for your hospitality.”

“It’s usually more obvious when he’s not all wet,” Wei Wuxian says. “Though I think the robes you picked for him suit him beautifully, don’t you agree? I like seeing a little bit of color on Lan Zhan.”

Lan Zhan is giving him a suspicious look, but Wei Wuxian just grins at him. Lan Zhan looks pretty good when wet, too, though admittedly Wei Wuxian prefers the context of a hot bath or, if absolutely necessary, the cold pool, as impressive as the dramatics of their rain ride have been.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t miss the flicker of agreement on the madam’s face as she looks at Lan Zhan, even though what she says is a safer, “Young Master Lan honours us,” with a small bow. Then she scans their almost-empty plates and picks up the wine jug. “Shall I send another one over?” she asks Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian agrees enthusiastically, and she withdraws, for now satisfied with a few more stories interesting strangers brought her way.

Wei Wuxian sees her instruct one of the free girls to keep their wine coming. The Lan reveal probably double ensures that they’re not going to be made a repeat offer Wei Wuxian will have to turn down.

“That was a fun story, wasn’t it,” Wei Wuxian says. “Small towns can be exciting, too.”

“It was amusing,” Lan Zhan says. “But for the parties involved, it must have been very embarrassing.”

“I’m sure,” Wei Wuxian grins. He leans back on his arms, pausing just for a moment as the wine jug is replaced.  As he assumed, no further advertising of other services occurs. Lan Zhan is faster than him so he lets Lan Zhan pour more wine into his cup, and sighs.

This is a good end to their water creature mission. Shacked up nice and warm while the storm is thundering outside, giggles bursting out here and there at the other tables, the little melody playing in the background, a nice glow in his stomach from wine and feeling just a little on a rule-breaking adventure, Lan Zhan…

Lan Zhan coping admirably with where they ended up. Practically making small talk with a brothel madam.

“I think you play much better than her, Lan Zhan,” he says, tilting his head subtly towards the zither girl.

Lan Zhan has another half-invisible frown flicker over his face. “She looks young, and she has no spiritual energy,” he says. “I’ve had many more years to practice.”

“I can still pay you a compliment, though, can’t I?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m in a good mood.” Because sometimes he wants to tell Lan Zhan how amazing he is, but it always sounds stupid before it’s even out of his head. The music, though, that is clear fact. Even now, his mouth feels dry. But he says, “I like the travelling.”

Lan Zhan gives him a small, warm smile back. “I like it too.”

“And I like this place,” he adds. “It was kind of a total accident, but isn’t it comfortable?”

Lan Zhan blinks in uncertainty. His gaze travels over the room, getting stuck on the group table, where people are sitting in other people’s laps now, and then the bar, where one of the unoccupied ladies is apparently doing some math with a ledger, the brightness of her outfit and make-up at cute odds with the business concentration in her face.

“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian says when he notices Lan Zhan thinking some sort of anxious thought. “I think we’ve made our position clear. Pretty sure earlier was the last sales pitch of the night and we didn’t take them up on it, so…”

Lan Zhan turns his gaze back towards the table. Has a slow sip of tea, slower even than usual. There appears to be a weight on his shoulders when he looks back up at Wei Wuxian.

“Would you like to?” he asks. He is so serious, almost fragile about it, that it takes Wei Wuxian more than one moment to connect the question to what they were talking about.

“Um. No?” He’s still stunned at the question. As a possibility, it never even crossed his mind.

Should it have?

Lan Zhan nods, but something isn’t settled. The zither keeps a tentative melody in the background, as Lan Zhan keeps thinking, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why he’s nervous all of a sudden.

“When you traveled on your own, would you stay in this kind of place?” Lan Zhan asks. He’s looking at Wei Wuxian’s collarbone or thereabouts.

Wei Wuxian picks up his cup, gestures lazily. He finds an easy shrug and a smile. “Nah, the weather’s never been as bad as this,” he says.

Lan Zhan doesn’t react to the joke. “I meant outside of weather.”

Yeah, of course that’s what he meant. Wei Wuxian is not an idiot, just unable to answer the question he’s currently stuck on, which is one step further than Lan Zhan’s question, which is technically pretty simple because… He’s swallowing against more dryness, and keeps the wine in his mouth for a moment. “No, not really,” he says.

Lan Zhan’s eyes flick up. “Not really,” he repeats.

“I meant no.” For a sweaty moment, he thinks Lan Zhan is going to ask him why not, and then he feels stupid, because for one thing, he’s always broke. For another…

Lan Zhan is staring at the table, drawing some meaningful conclusion. Wei Wuxian says nothing for a moment, just watches Lan Zhan control his expression and think whatever he’s thinking.

A while ago, he might have taken the silence for judgment. He’d maybe have gotten sulky, being judged for something that wasn’t even on his mind and that isn’t Lan Zhan’s to judge anyway. But he’s weirdly pulled into Lan Zhan’s quiet, the strange contrast of the coziness of the room, and how fast it had him feel out on a ledge. There’s a sizzle in his stomach and a question he almost crosses out, then doesn’t.

“Would you like to?”

With a jolt, Lan Zhan looks back at him. There’s a sharp breath, like he’s genuinely shocked.

Wei Wuxian leans forward. Lan Zhan’s reaction is baffling, but in its own way, this feels like much more solid ground. “Hey, it’s the same question you just asked me! Minus the travelling alone part, but still!”

Lan Zhan looks like he’s still trying to connect several dots and some of them might have rubbed off or faded.

“I mean, I’m sure there’s a rule, but if there wasn’t a rule, or if you didn’t care about the rule…”

Finally, Lan Zhan shakes his head. “No.”

Okay… okay, he hadn’t really expected Lan Zhan to come out with a surprise confession of lust for the financially compensated ladies. So it’s a surprise how relieved he feels. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, but just checking.”

Lan Zhan gives him another long look, and then says, “It isn’t related to any rules. I have no desire for anything like what was offered to us tonight.”

Wei Wuxian nods, still a bit flushed on relief. “Yeah, I got it. I wasn’t trying to tease you. I just got nosy too. Is that bad?”

The tense focus stays on him for another beat or so, until Lan Zhan’s face smooths out into actual peacefulness. “No,” he says, one of the reassuring ones. He even smiles, which is unexpected but always welcome, always bright.

Okay. So they have that settled.

They have a few more sips, and once Wei Wuxian grins at Lan Zhan when the zither girl plucks the wrong string, which earns him another very hidden smile that Lan Zhan would probably deny.

He’s suddenly more aware that Lan Zhan is a lot less comfortable here than he is. When one of the couples decides it’s time for more private adventures and they both get up with some giggles and whispers, Lan Zhan sits stiffly and staring hard ahead until they’ve disappeared through the tinkly curtain to the stairs.

Wei Wuxian swirls his wine jug around, which he took custody of at some point to save Lan Zhan all that work pouring, and finds it’s close enough to empty that he can finish it now if he tries a bit. The deep gulps hit even him a little when they settle in his system.

He doesn’t really want to leave just yet. He could spend more time in this mood, which feels like dangling just a little further outside Lan propriety. But Lan Zhan has already indulged him pretty far, and he must be tired too after their fight with the creature and the energy transfer.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he says. “Should we go to our room too?”

Lan Zhan’s eyes widen, which isn’t the relieved reaction he expected.

“I mean, aren’t you tired? And this bunch is just going to get rowdier,” Wei Wuxian explains with a nod towards the bigger table. He holds up the empty jug. “I think I’ve done us proud, I’d be ready to go to sleep.”

This goes over more smoothly. “Yes, of course,” Lan Zhan says. “You’re right. We should rest.”

They will presumably settle the whole bill in the morning. Wei Wuxian waves at the madam behind the bar, who gives him a curious smile back. Lan Zhan surprises him then by actually walking over to her, but it turns out he’s just remembering to make sure the horses and Little Apple have been seen to, which is a really good and Lan Zhan thing to do.

Wei Wuxian steps through the tinkly curtain and holds it half open for Lan Zhan behind him, though he doesn’t catch all the colourful strands.  A couple of them brushing over Lan Zhan’s shoulder somehow entertains him.

“What is it?” Lan Zhan asks, stopping, and Wei Wuxian only realizes then that he’s been smiling again.

“Nothing,” he shakes his head, and turns to go ahead up the stairs. He feels the wine now, his legs heavy already from being so cold and then thawed. Lanterns light the way up, swaying lightly from draft. The storm made everything dark before, but somehow the late hour conjures up a heavier atmosphere, like some fun but dangerous mist is clinging to the air.

Lan Zhan’s steps are steady behind him, a warm presence, stirring that mist. Wei Wuxian flashes on the madam drawing sudden conclusions about their room, their one room. They really look no different making their way upstairs, do they, from other people in this place, so it’s not so preposterous…

No, Wei Wuxian isn’t hanging off Lan Zhan’s arm with a giggle and a batting of eyelashes. They just need rest. Warm and comfortable in an unexpected place, where he’d never have expected to end up with Lan Zhan.

But had he ever expected Lan Zhan joining him, traveling by this side - choosing to travel with him? The storm is still howling, like ongoing music to their adventure, and Wei Wuxian is feeling its song in his bones, a shiver of a melody.

On the second floor, the light is even softer than along the stairs. Their room is at the end of the corridor. Someone is giggling behind one of the other doors, and Wei Wuxian almost jumps. It’s silly. He knows they’re not alone here. He doesn’t mind the other people here, or the traces of perfume, or the charge that seems to linger in the hallway. It’s a cold and black night and people shacking up together is a good ward against the darkness.

He turns back to Lan Zhan, a quick smile, just wanting to make sure he’s still there.

Lan Zhan has stopped at the top of the stairs. There’s something strange in his face, a deep preoccupation Wei Wuxian can’t read as well as when Lan Zhan is angry or happy, or making fun of him in a very Lan Zhan manner.  Has he discovered any boob paintings? “Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t startle or react caught. The odd uncertainty is still flickering over his face, until he seems to finish whatever the thought was, and says, “It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?” Wei Wuxian asks. It bothers him a bit he can’t tell what was going on, the buzz in the air tilting into uncertainty. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Lan Zhan says, smiling. Lan Zhan’s smile anchors the vibrations in the air. “Nothing’s wrong. Let’s go rest.”

~~~

It’s a wide bed, room enough for three, though two is a much better number. Wei Wuxian grins towards the ceiling as he pulls the blanket up around his neck, thinking of some of the illustrated books he’s read. The space for three probably comes in handy once in a while, in the best room of the house.

He is feeling snug and tucked in, though somehow sleepiness isn’t coming. He thinks he can hear voices through the wall, whispers and some laughter, muffled by blankets and skin, and his ears are a bit warm, maybe from the strain of trying to listen in when he shouldn’t. He laughs a little to himself and tugs the blanket down for a bit more air.  The room isn’t warm as such but not as chilled as the hallway, and despite the storm, only the tiniest draft can be seen in the flicker of the candle.

The blanket isn’t as fine as anything Lan Zhan is used to from the Cloud Recesses, but warm and comfortable. Wei Wuxian turns to his side, to look at Lan Zhan’s profile. They have left a small shaded candle burning. This is a thing Lan Zhan prefers when they stay in strange places, his sword within easy reach and the room not in complete darkness. Wei Wuxian has never felt in any danger since they started traveling together, but he doesn’t object. It gives him things to see.

Like that brief frozen stillness when something thumps against something twice in close, rhythmic succession. Wei Wuxian curls in a little, watching the stillness dissolve into Lan Zhan’s normal, proper sleeping face.

“Are you asleep?”

That stillness is back. Wei Wuxian feels a tiny jolt of excitement that he was on the right track. Lan Zhan heard him.

It feels sometimes like he is exploiting a loophole, with Lan Zhan’s new propensity for actually answering him. But Wei Wuxian isn’t tired yet after all, and there’s a lot less to distract him in this room than what is going on in those other rooms with the laughing and the thumping, so he’s indulging himself.

It takes a while, but then Lan Zhan says, “No,” otherwise not a hair on him moving.

“But it’s rest time already!” Wei Wuxian says, making his face innocent so Lan Zhan can’t hear the amusement. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

Lan Zhan is still not opening his eyes. Wei Wuxian waits, staring so intently that Lan Zhan can’t possible keep ignoring him.

“There is no reason,” Lan Zhan says. As if on cue, there is another thump, loud enough to make Lan Zhan’s eyes snap open.

“Too noisy?” Wei Wuxian says. He’s biting his lip. They slept in a stable for three days when they were exorcising a spirit in a small town before the water spirit, and he has seen Lan Zhan sleep through the noise of inns and villagers’ crying babies when they were tired and safe enough.

Lan Zhan is now staring at the ceiling with what Wei Wuxian is guessing is determination to not acknowledge anything that might be considered noisy. Not even the little rhythm that whoever is next door has got going that now has the next door bed hitting the wall at a nice regular pace. Wei Wuxian sees the little bob of a tense swallow on Lan Zhan’s bare neck.

“What are you thinking?” he prods.

“I’m not thinking anything,” Lan Zhan says. His voice sounds dry. “It is time for sleeping, not thinking.” He hasn’t lied this stupidly to Wei Wuxian in a long time.

“Hmm, sounds like there’s disagreement about that,” Wei Wuxian says. The bumping of wood against the wall is distracting him too, but also makes him grin.

Lan Zhan breathes audibly and shifts tensely, like a levitating log, closer to the edge of the bed. Huh. How does that help?

Wei Wuxian shuffles after him so they’re back at the same distance. “What’s wrong?”

“I said we should go,” Lan Zhan says. There’s a rigidity to his body that Wei Wuxian also hasn’t seen in forever, as if old reflexes are coming to the surface and twisting in horror at the indecency.

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says, reaching over to pet Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Some people are just having some fun.”

Lan Zhan flinches then freezes. His throat moves visibly and there’s a tension in him that makes Wei Wuxian wonder if he’ll shuffle himself off the bed. It’s weird because they’ve been closer than this, and sleeping on the floor isn’t going to help with the noises from the people next door.

Wei Wuxian pets him again, but gently. No response.

Lan Zhan is so hard to resist sometimes. “Or are you jealous? You think we’ll look like we’re not having any fun?” he asks, which succeeds in making Lan Zhan turn his head and glare at him.

Wei Wuxian stretches up to where the bed touches the wall and bangs his palm against it, thump, thump thump thump. Suddenly there’s a flurry of blankets and pale yellow robes and Lan Zhan much closer, and he’s captured Wei Wuxian’s wrists. Pulls them down, squeezing them between their chests. “Wei Ying!”

Wei Wuxian is still giggling, but slowing down in the face of Lan Zhan’s wide-eyed terror.

“It’s just some noise, Lan Zhan,” he says.

Lan Zhan is breathing sharply, his paleness broken by a flush. The grip around Wei Wuxian’s wrists is tight, but painless, just tingling with the heat of the sudden movement and Lan Zhan’s embarrassment. He’s oddly aware of the pressure, the touch of every finger as if they were spells wrapping around him.

“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says. He means it, even though he doesn’t think it’s so bad he should feel a shiver. “I won’t do it anymore.”

Lan Zhan stares for another moment, too many thoughts to track rippling over his face but then shut down quick, a sweep of coolness as his grip eases. He appears to be looking for words. “I…”

Wei Wuxian almost grabs Lan Zhan’s hands right back. He wanted to tease Lan Zhan, not make him hate this place or feel insulted or whatever has him so thrown. He doesn’t, because it might not help, and it leaves his hands held up between them as helpless as Lan Zhan’s stare. “It’s just some noise,” he repeats. “Nobody cares what we hear, or what we think. They don’t care that I banged on the wall either. I promise.”

“I’m…” Lan Zhan blinks, and Wei Wuxian thinks he might shut down the conversation entirely, just do the Lan thing and lie back on his back. But apparently the new answering questions approach extends to unasked ones. “I’m not used to not caring,” Lan Zhan admits eventually.

“Really?” He can’t help a smile. Oh, Lan Zhan is the brightest and the most proper, even through his most rebellious moments. But looking at where he is, with whom he is, Wei Wuxian thinks he can’t worry that much any more about the judgment of others. “You go around with the Yiling Patriarch…” He trails off at the marvel of that all over again.

Lan Zhan’s stare goes deep, a burning conviction that takes Wei Wuxian by surprise. “I do,” he says.

Wei Wuxian’s mouth has gone dry again and his heart is kicking into a nervous speed. Lan Zhan is saying something important and Wei Wuxian feels like he stumbled and knocked something over. He didn’t want to do that anymore. “Well, some people would say…”

He stops when Lan Zhan leans into him, a hand on his face, cutting him off with more shock than any muting spell. “No,” Lan Zhan says, first, and then shakes his head, too, slowly, as sure as his sword finding its target.

The touch, Lan Zhan’s palm on his skin, just messed up by his hair, gives Wei Wuxian a shiver, like the warmth of it is traveling through him and curling around his insides, making his limbs feel strange and wobbly. He doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. Doesn’t want to break this fragile spell, one he isn’t the master of.

Lan Zhan’s eyes are still wide, but there’s an unbearable certainty in how his hand cups the side of Wei Wuxian’s face. Wei Wuxian shivers from holding himself still. He has no certainty at all. Just ants running up and down his back and a flash of heat breaking out over his skin. There’s no lightning here, just the soft gloomy warmth of Lan Zhan’s body close by and the glimmer of the candle making Lan Zhan’s face shine and his tension like the breath before a fall.

He wants to kiss me, Wei Wuxian thinks. Clear as cold pool water, and sharp as snow.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, so hoarse he can barely hear himself, and it feels weird and out of control that he sounds like that, and he should… stop, and think, and wait for that glittery feeling all over him to fade so on this one thing, this one important thing in his life he does not fuck up, does not gamble with it.

Lan Zhan is swallowing, not moving.

He wants to kiss me, but he won’t.

The hand on Wei Wuxian’s face is there and waiting, hot like he’s never felt Lan Zhan before, his body taut, a zither string waiting for the answer to come back.

Yes, Wei Wuxian would say to the tune, and then be scared, and because he’s scared he turns his face into the touch, his lips brushing Lan Zhan’s palm, and because it’s Lan Zhan he doesn’t stop, stretching forward into Lan Zhan’s startled breath, and puts their mouths together.

It tingles, and then shivers all the way down to his toes, and then it’s gone, Lan Zhan rocking back. A fleeting moment where Lan Zhan looks at him with dark eyes and confusion and a bit of fright, but then he exhales, pulls himself back in with the hand in Wei Wuxian’s hair.

Lan Zhan’s lips are soft, his breath a little huff. The first quiver racing through Wei Wuxian makes him think of those few times he was kissed by adventurous maidens in Yunmeng but then he can barely remember any of that, when Lan Zhan holds on to him and the smush of their mouths becomes the strangest, deepest wave, rushing through him and leaving him a mess.

He’s diving off somewhere high and dangerous, and Lan Zhan is kissing him, and then the pieces come back together with sense and logic and rightness.

“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles. Easy, leaning in and closer and wrapping his lost awkward hands around Lan Zhan’s shoulders. They sway first, towards Lan Zhan’s side, and then the other way, Lan Zhan half-covering him and the kiss going deeper, stormier than any he’s ever had.

He grabs on to Lan Zhan, the heat on top of him, the spinning realization that they will do what the other people here are doing, it will happen, somehow, Lan Zhan kissing him and pressing against him and the noise is in Wei Wuxian’s ears, a hot pulse louder than any banging on the wall.

How, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know if Lan Zhan knows, if Lan Zhan has ever thought about it. He must have, he was waiting.

He was waiting. Wei Wuxian is dizzy and he has no idea if either one of them is a good kisser but Lan Zhan’s kisses feel amazing and his hips pressing against Wei Wuxian make him shudder and push back, and Lan Zhan’s hand is slipping from his face down into his robes, over his naked shoulder—

He’s left gasping when Lan Zhan tears himself away. Lan Zhan’s breath is fast, his lips dark, oh, dark with kissing. The woolly fog in Wei Wuxian’s head is hard to think through, and his own chest is heaving, staring up at Lan Zhan, who is hesitating now, is he… but there are no doubts, Lan Zhan goes around with the Yiling Patriarch and pours him wine and shares a bed with him in brothels and kisses him like a drowning man, these are not doubts.

“Yes,” he says, aloud this time in case there was still a question and Lan Zhan makes a cut off little noise but still maintains the distance, his forehead knotted with a fight for control.

“What’s wrong?”

Lan Zhan doesn’t let him go. Just holds himself still as he finds his control, his hand still curled around Wei Wuxian’s shoulder under the fabric of the borrowed robes. There’s a raw regret in his eyes that makes Wei Wuxian’s throat go tight and his insides plummet.

“What’s wrong?” he asks again, his fingers clinging to the fabric of Lan Zhan’s robes. He’s not going to just let go, not now. He hopes Lan Zhan doesn’t want him to. “Lan Zhan?”

“This place,” Lan Zhan says. He sounds hoarse with emotions, out of breath from kisses. “It’s not a place of honour.”

Oh, that. Maybe Lan Zhan didn’t get over his brothel terror as much as he’d thought, but… “It doesn’t matter,” Wei Wuxian shakes his head, trying to chase this thing away.

Lan Zhan’s fingers brush over his shoulder, then pull back out from under his robe, and Wei Wuxian’s heart twists. But Lan Zhan doesn’t entirely let go. Instead his fingers brush through Wei Wuxian’s hair again. You’d never think the Light Bearing Lord would touch a person like this. Wei Wuxian never thought Lan Zhan would ever touch him like this. “It matters. You always think it doesn’t. The things…” Lan Zhan looks both entirely sure of himself, and like he’s about to fall to pieces. “This, here,” he says thickly, the touch of skin burning through Wei Wuxian. “It isn’t how you should be valued.”

Something melts hot and disorienting underneath, but on the surface, he understands, his mind going, oh, oh, it’s just that. “I’m fine, Lan Zhan,” he says, finding a smile that for a brief moment feels unusually like wearing someone else’s clothes. “It’s fine.”

Lan Zhan shakes his head slowly, even though Wei Wuxian can still sense the heat coursing through him, the quickness of his pulse. “It isn’t fine when you are ill-treated,” he says. “It’s never been fine.”

It falls into place, he gets it. All the way down, the pieces fitting right. Smile turning real, and serious. “It’s just a place, Lan Zhan,” he says. “The people were kind to us and there was just some banging on the walls because someone’s enjoying themselves.”

He sees Lan Zhan swallow hard at the reminder. Hesitation. He never moved away. He’d been waiting.

Wei Wuxian cups his face with both hands. It feels wild and feverish to be touching Lan Zhan like this, but he doesn’t let go. “Any place I am with you,” he says. “I know I’m honoured.”

Lan Zhan’s eyes widen, fragile like he’s been hit with a spirit weapon, and then something solid is settling. Not quite a smile, but acceptance, heavy but understood. Slowly, with no rush, Lan Zhan leans back down towards him, and Wei Wuxian feels his skin break out in sweat from Lan Zhan’s warmth and his pink lips and how beautiful he is, before Lan Zhan kisses him again.

He didn’t know he wanted this. One day he’ll think about that, wonder about that, but now he’s kissing Lan Zhan back. The frenzy has turned into a high simmer of want, a shivery control flowing from Lan Zhan into him. Lan Zhan’s strength is as solid as in battle, and Wei Wuxian feels just as sure.

Lan Zhan kisses him slowly, slow enough that Wei Wuxian can feel the awkwardness more, Lan Zhan’s lips trying this much pressure, that angle. Wei Wuxian is not all that practiced either and his toes are curling under the duvet, his breath coming sharp. Now and then there’s a break and when Wei Wuxian blinks his eyes open, Lan Zhan is just looking at him, a bit scared and a bit flushed, but never long enough that it feels like stopping.

They’ve touched plenty in the past and on their journey, but Lan Zhan’s hot palms directly on his skin are something else altogether. Wei Wuxian is getting sweaty and finally kicks off the blankets entirely, though when he’s freed them from the fabric and Lan Zhan leans over him, he isn’t any cooler.

Lan Zhan never speaks much, so his question, his hands on the front of Wei Wuxian’s robes, is silent too. Wei Wuxian on the other hand is never delicate, so he squirms and twists until his answer is clear and there’s warm air ghosting over his chest.

Air, and Lan Zhan’s gaze, memories breaking through their fervor. Lan Zhan’s eyes are caught on the scar, the Wen seal broken and jagged down the middle. Lan Zhan’s breath comes out in a shudder, and his fingers trace a hovering line on Wei Wuxian’s chest, next to the broken skin.

Everyone who had a part in that is dead.

Wei Wuxian puts his hand on top of Lan Zhan’s and guides it down, flat, makes them cover the whole scar. Then he lifts his head and puts a kiss on Lan Zhan’s mouth, insistent.

Lan Zhan makes a suppressed noise and his mouth opens, and somehow Wei Wuxian knows to lick him and it’s not weird. The worry over scars is gone or has been put away for later, as Lan Zhan’s hand travels all over him and Wei Wuxian doesn’t know if he wants to press against that touch or lick deeper into Lan Zhan’s mouth or both.

He’s naked except for the pants and Lan Zhan is practically naked for Lan Zhan already, but still, he might have just realized that he wants to see Lan Zhan with his clothes off but now he really wants Lan Zhan with his clothes off, see him and touch him and… touch him. So he pulls the same hands-on-the-belt maneuver Lan Zhan did and for a moment just wants to do it, but then breaks the kiss and finds Lan Zhan’s eyes because Lan Zhan… Lan Zhan…

Lan Zhan is dark in the face. Nervous. His hair, held back by nothing but a ribbon, is coming loose, the length of it swept over one shoulder, and his breath is coming hard. He’s nervous to be naked. But he doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian either, which makes Wei Wuxian’s heart hammer like a war drum, undoing the belt.

There’s a scar on Lan Zhan’s chest too. He’s seen it before, briefly from the side, and that it’s a Wen crest has his fingers shaking suddenly. He never asked.

Everyone who had a part in that…

Lan Zhan kisses him quiet before he can ask a question. A gentle brush. His eyes are dark, but clear. “It doesn’t matter now,” he says. He looks at Wei Wuxian or a moment, like gathering himself for a plunge. “I want to be with you. Please continue.”

Wei Wuxian shudders, his head a little dizzy from Lan Zhan being all clear and practically racy. But here’s an instruction he wants to follow, and while it’s a little crazy that he’s going to have the Light Bearing Lord naked in their brothel bed, he was almost done with the belt and it’s maybe a little fiddly, but he’s going to get this… off…

The yanking motion makes him tense briefly, it’s nothing, but Lan Zhan has seen. “Does your shoulder hurt?”

“Not enough that I care,” Wei Wuxian pants. Dumb thing to say, though, because Lan Zhan pulls back and tries to find focus through his cloudy gaze.

“Seriously, I promise I’m not lying,” Wei Wuxian says. “Please don’t stop kissing me.”

Lan Zhan weighs that for a split second but then takes his word for it. Really takes his word for it, his lips moving from Wei Wuxian’s mouth along his cheek, to his neck, to his temple, down to his shoulder.

“Please don’t stop touching me,” he mumbles, and finally gets that belt undone and a good handle on Lan Zhan’s robes, pulling them out from between them even as Lan Zhan is leaning heavier against him.

They’re past it. Scars and worries and shame. Lan Zhan trembles when Wei Wuxian pulls him down flusher, and there’s a hard bulge not secret to either of them, but he doesn’t startle. His hips press against Wei Wuxian in small jerks and his breath is getting faster, his hands drawing broad trails of heat on Wei Wuxian’s naked torso, tickling and burning at the same time. Still taking Wei Wuxian by his word.

Wei Wuxian’s going to do the same. He was supposed to continue, right?

He holds his breath a little when he squirms his hand between them, hearing Lan Zhan’s unsteady exhale, and Lan Zhan lifts his hips up just enough. The pants are loose, easy, and then he squeezes his eyes shut when he touches Lan Zhan’s stiff cock and it feels like the hottest thing he’s ever held in his hand.

Lan Zhan makes a sharp noise, his hand going tight on Wei Wuxian’s waist. Wei Wuxian moves his hand, sweat all over him but no moisture let in his mouth, and then Lan Zhan is pressing hard into him, grabbing his hair and his face sinking into Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, hot panting and messy kisses against his neck. Wei Wuxian barely manages to do anything, barely staying afloat and making his hand tight the right way. The bed shakes from Lan Zhan’s jerks and when the top beam hits the wall noisily Lan Zhan freezes once, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t, just turns his head towards him and they’re not really kissing, it’s too messy, but Lan Zhan is huffing a desperate noise into his hair and against his cheek as suddenly there’s more heat pulsing in his hand and hot wetness against his stomach.

Lan Zhan’s breath is heaving. Wei Wuxian feels stunned like he’s been flung against a wall, but in the best way, somehow, and once he’s snuck out his arm he grabs Lan Zhan by both shoulders and pulls him down and tight. 

Lan Zhan goes limp and heavy, in a way Wei Wuxian has never seen him or felt him. Never. The weight feels good and his own dick agrees with that, and then he giggles a bit when he thinks he’s scandalously pressing his dick against Lan Zhan.

Who is still breathing into Wei Wuxian’s neck, and then brushes over Wei Wuxian’s hair with more small-scale coordination Wei Wuxian thought he was capable of. “I missed the joke,” Lan Zhan mumbles, but it sounds fond, not worried or apprehensive.

“No joke,” Wei Wuxian says scratchily. “You’re amazing. Don’t ever stop touching me.” He wraps one leg around Lan Zhan’s hip and squirms a bit.

There’s a soft huff against his ear. A Lan Zhan pause, for words. “I plan to only when unavoidable,” he says. “And then only briefly.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. He thrusts his hips against Lan Zhan and Lan Zhan rocks against him, for a while, until Wei Wuxian’s dick is getting impatient, against Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan props himself up, his headband stark and still tidy against his flush. His smile is making Wei Wuxian’s head more stupid than the arousal.

It’s the sunniest, deepest underwater feeling when Lan Zhan touches him the way he touched Lan Zhan. Completely strange, and breathtaking. Lan Zhan does it slower, taking room to test and look and Wei Wuxian is shivering inside his skin, but he doesn’t rush him on, drowning in building heat and still Lan Zhan’s smile, and his focus, until finally he has to close his eyes at the edge, coming apart and washed away, and then held safe by Lan Zhan.

He’s still panting, dimly aware of the double mess mostly on him, and the sweaty heat of Lan Zhan’s body, and then the gentle weight of Lan Zhan settling. “Wei Ying,” he says, somewhere between a kiss and a breath against Wei Wuxian’s ear. The relief in it makes Wei Wuxian’s knees weak lying down.

“I told you,” he says feebly. “This is a good place.” His limbs are all floppy but he still feels like banging on the wall, he feels like telling the world. He accepts, magnanimously, that Lan Zhan would probably not appreciate that, so instead he just clutches onto Lan Zhan’s shoulder, giving nobody space for robes just yet.

There can be robes later. And more adventures, and more of this. Everything of this.

Lan Zhan rests his head on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, his fingers drawing patterns on Wei Wuxian’s chest, or maybe promises. “You did,” he says.

~~~

Wei Wuxian skips so many stairs on his way down that on the ground floor, he has to turn before the curtain to wait for Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan is descending in his usual way, straight posture, arm pulled back, head held high. Clean robes in tidy layers, his sword by his side. Wei Wuxian has seen him a hundred times like this, and a hundred times more in his mind in dark and lonely moments. His face should not be this warm and he shouldn’t be staring at the majestic flow of Lan Zhan’s robes like he’s never seen them before, because he definitely has. He saw Lan Zhan put them on.

“I can’t believe you let me sleep in,” he says brightly when Lan Zhan is finally at the bottom of the stairs.

“Why not?” Lan Zhan says. There is only a small trace of hesitation in his expression. “I’ve let you sleep in many times.”

“Yeah, but…” It’s true, too. Why did he say that? “We might be the last to leave, I heard people moving about while we were getting ready, it’s pretty amazing they really got our robes all dry, isn’t it?” He holds the curtain aside for Lan Zhan to stop through, feeling highly aware of how the brilliant white swishes when Lan Zhan passes him. “We haven’t had that kind of service in many of the other inns, right?” The curtain falls closed behind them both and it sounds loud enough to Wei Wuxian’s ears to be an announcement bell. “Admittedly we’ve also never had terrible weather like that but I’m glad they came through! It’s terrible having to put on wet clothes again, isn’t it? I know I’d be very uncomfortable. You’d probably put up with it and not say a thing but I’d whine and then you’d get annoyed and then Little Apple would get cranky and it’ll take us forever to get to—”

Lan Zhan stops, and Wei Wuxian nearly stumbles into him. They’re halfway between the stairwell door and the bar, where the madam is attending to some accounting and has surely seen them. Lan Zhan’s expression is calm, drawn over a tiny ripple of uncertainty. Wei Wuxian bites his lip and swallows and is pretty sure Lan Zhan is going to tell him to shut up.

He honestly doesn’t care about the superior laundry service of their brothel. It’s just that he’s still feeling tingly every time he remembers how he woke up to Lan Zhan half naked and there was a lot of bare Light Bearing Lord skin right in front of his face. How he woke up and Lan Zhan was right there, hadn’t run downstairs for breakfast or covered up or turned upset while Wei Wuxian wasn’t looking. Instead he smiled, shyly like morning sun.

Wei Wuxian really doesn’t know where all these damn ants under his skin are coming from.

“I’m going to pay our bill now,” Lan Zhan says. “Is there anything I should take into account concerning our robes?”

“Um,” Wei Wuxian says. “Maybe say we really appreciated the maid girl? She did good work?”

Lan Zhan nods minutely. “I can do that.”

It’s only when they’re at the bar that he realizes from the set of Lan Zhan’s shoulder blades that Lan Zhan is nervous.

The madam greets them with a smile. She’s perfectly made-up, in a different set of older but elegant robes, the traces of fatigue after what must have been a long night barely visible around her eyes. “Was everything to your liking, Young Masters?”

The ants race each other up Wei Wuxian’s back again, but he still finds himself smiling excitedly, and shoots Lan Zhan a look.

Lan Zhan’s face is the slightly wide-eyed sort of frozen. He’s retrieving his coin pouch slowly, each shift under tight control. “We had a most pleasant stay, thank you,” he says, the normal polite thing, looking like he’s barely stopping himself from going into seclusion. Wei Wuxian really wants to poke him in the side just to put all his free-floating energy somewhere, but stops himself out of kindness.

“For sure!” he says. “What a lovely house you have.”

“I’m delighted to hear it,” the madam smiles, glancing down at her notes where she has added up numbers.

Wei Wuxian leans over the top of the bar. “Did I do good?” he asks.

She looks up from her reckoning. “I’m sure you did excellent, honey,” she says, with a sly eyebrow.

Um. Wei Wuxian isn’t used to blushing this much. Or blushing at all and not knowing what to say. He feels his own grin somewhat dazed and stupid on his face, and marvels at this whole new muting spell Lan Zhan can apparently cast now by rolling around naked with him on a bed.

They were naked on a bed.

Lan Zhan saves him by counting out the money they owe. He, too, looks red in the face, but there’s a calm deliberation in the small bow of his head towards the madam. “Please also give our thanks to the young woman who saw to our clothes.”

“She’s my daughter,” the madam says with some pride. “I’ll let her know.”

“We are grateful we could find shelter here,” Lan Zhan says, with earnest, flushed propriety. “It was very fortuitous.” Wei Wuxian’s stomach gives a tight flip

Unfairly, she doesn’t tease Lan Zhan, but thanks him respectfully, and wishes them a safe journey onward.

When they step outside, the air is clear, the skies overcast. The rain has finally stopped. The town looks more alive, a cart dragging through the mud a few paces ahead, a woman two houses down scolding a child for getting his shoes dirty. Wei Wuxian feels oddly sulky that they aren’t greeted by the bright blue and warming rays of sunlight that would seem appropriate to this day, but then he looks at Lan Zhan and finds everything bright enough anyway.

Their horses are waiting in the stables, but ready to go. Little Apple gives a grumpy jerk of its head when they approach. The other stalls are empty, like they truly are the last ones to leave.

Lan Zhan takes care of fastening their travel bags, before he turns to Wei Wuxian. “You are fit to ride, I take it?” he asks.

He’s… the flush comes on so fast it makes him a little dizzy, memories of dirty drawings and ancient schoolboy jokes and early morning wonderings tumbling over each other. But, they weren’t— they didn’t…

A frown flickers over Lan Zhan’s face. “Your shoulder?”

Oh. Wei Wuxian hadn’t even thought of his bruises all morning. Who cares about shoulders? Wei Wuxian’s brain is currently trying to translate some not so highbrow art into what it might look like and feel like with Lan Zhan’s hands taking hold of his hips, curling up along his back, naked

“We could just go back!” Wei Wuxian blurts out, sudden enough that his horse dances a step away from him.

“Back?”

Whoops. He didn’t really think this through. Or see this coming. Or think at all. So he stumbles forward. “Back to the room,” he says. “We have no schedule, right? Nobody’s exactly waiting for us.” It kind of gives him his balance back to see Lan Zhan get it and reel, in a very motionless Lan Zhan way.

“It’s…” Lan Zhan is blinking. “It’s morning. We just paid. We would…” He shuts himself up, staring at Wei Wuxian with a mix of panic and bravery, a quick rise in his chest.

He’ll do it, Wei Wuxian thinks. Lan Zhan would flush to the roots of his hair, getting back their room barely after breakfast with everyone seeing them knowing for what, but he’d do it, if Wei Wuxian put his mind to it now. For a moment, the thought of dragging Lan Zhan in there and have him explain to the madam that they would like their room back is the funniest thing, and dragging Lan Zhan upstairs and behind closed doors makes Wei Wuxian feel sweatier than an unintentional ribbing about his riding fitness, but… but Lan Zhan’s already spent the night in a brothel, and took all his clothes off, and kissed him.

Maybe that’s enough brazen not-caring for Lan Zhan, for now. Wei Wuxian can be the one waiting this time. “You’re right, we shouldn’t dawdle, and who’s going to slay the monsters in Silver Pearl City,” he sighs dramatically. “Let’s get going before they’ve all moved away!” He nods at Lan Zhan encouragingly and pats the horse, and sees it when the relief flickers through Lan Zhan’s eyes.

With easy practicality, Lan Zhan turns and fastens his sword to the sword strap on his saddle. Then he surprises Wei Wuxian when he doesn’t untie the reins, but instead turns back to him, a warm focus in his eyes.

He puts his hands on Wei Wuxian’s waist, and through three layers and a leather belt Wei Wuxian feels it like the glow of coal, stoked by a gust of air. With slow decisiveness, Lan Zhan steps in, and kisses him on the mouth. “Silver Pearl City is only about four hours in good weather,” he says. “There will be an inn there.” His eyes dip briefly to Wei Wuxian’s collarbone, but then he looks up again, no panic, just brave, a secret smile.

“What if there’s bad weather?” Wei Wuxian asks, hoarsely and stupidly.

Lan Zhan kisses him again, brief and sweet, and Wei Wuxian thinks he needs those hands on him to keep him steady. “I think we will be fine from now in any weather,” Lan Zhan says. “Good or bad.”