In his first weeks at Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian spends enough time needling the perfect Second Jade of Lan and enough time perusing Nie Huaisang’s stash of forbidden books to develop some vivid notions, which follow him into his bed after curfew.
He imagines how he might finally manage to break through Lan Wangji’s patience – in another fight perhaps, both of them panting and driven to the limits of their skill, perfectly matched. And then Wei Wuxian would say some last infuriating thing, like a talisman or an arrow hitting its mark, and Lan Wangji might simply—seize him, so sudden that he’d have no time to argue, shove him into—a wall, perhaps, or a table—press up behind him with his stone-statue strength and ruck up his white lecture robes and just—
He’s a little hazy on the mechanics of it all: Nie’s books mostly tend to go in for vivid tableaux. But it’s Wei Wuxian’s own imagination, so he can skip ahead to the part where Lan Wangji’s hands are bruise-tight on his hips and Lan Wangji is driving into him with hard, steady, punishing thrusts, still expressionless and looking almost bored with it, only a faint sheen of sweat on his brow betraying the effort.
He doesn’t know exactly what it might feel like, despite his solitary experimentations. The men in the woodcuts had always seemed to be having a good time of it, anyway, even when they were making feeble protestations about their virtue.
Wei Wuxian could make protestations about his virtue – tragically intact – if called upon, though he’s not sure that Lan Wangji would believe him. He’d think that someone so shameless and rule-flouting had to be up for whatever he might get, and so he could just—move on him and take it, take him, get so caught up in Wei Wuxian that he wouldn’t even notice if someone were to walk in and see the picture they'd make.
His skin prickles all over with heat. It wouldn’t be like losing – he’d have Lan Wangji exactly where he wants him, every inch of his attention, and the whole time Wei Wuxian would be tossing defiant and doubtless very witty rejoinders over his shoulder, making him work for it, saying, ‘Is that all, Lan Zhan? Surely you can do better, where’s the famous discipline of Gusu, oh, yes, like that, come on and—’
In reality, of course, Lan Wangji could simply cast a silencing spell on him to keep him quiet. But he doesn’t like the thought of that – stifled, unable to beg or draw enough air into his lungs, not in control. And besides: reality is very much not the point of the exercise.
By the time that they leave Gusu, he has come up with an entirely different fantasy.
In this one, they are somewhere dim, shadows moving around them like water, and Lan Wangji is lying on his back. He looks almost drunk or under compulsion, the way he did that night in Wei Wuxian’s room, except that Wei Wuxian is sure that he’s not – that he could stand up and move away, if he chose to.
He doesn’t. He lies there, his breath coming quick and shallow, while Wei Wuxian leans down to part and peel away the layers of clothes that he keeps wrapped around him like armour, until all the pale perfection of Lan Wangji’s skin that he had glimpsed in the Cold Spring is laid out before him.
He would take off the forehead ribbon last, winding it around his own wrist as he spread Lan Wangji’s unbound hair out over the—pillow, or the grass, or wherever they might be.
Then Wei Wuxian would touch him, slow and deliberate, testing out all the places that he likes best himself, watching for the shudders and the faint yearning arch that Lan Wangji would not be able to overcome.
‘Do you like that?’ he’d whisper. ‘Tell me you like that.’
But Lan Wangji would never allow himself to admit as much, even as he is trembling in his stillness, biting his lip bloody to stop from crying out. Wei Wuxian could reach down and soothe that little hurt with his thumb – perhaps even lean in and kiss him there, just soft enough to be a tease.
As an image to bring out late at night, it is no less effective than the last, though he feels a little peculiar after indulging in it. His stomach swoops under his palm with something that is no longer arousal and isn’t quite shame. He finds himself thinking, instead, of the faint, unexpected curve of Lan Wangji’s smile.
Then, there is a period when all desire is punched out of him entirely: when he cannot imagine his body ever feeling any sensation but pain.
In the three months that Wei Wuxian spends in the Burial Grounds, taming the vengeful spirits that want to flood into the howling void inside him, he does – humiliatingly – have a delirious vision of Lan Wangji coming for him. Of the sound of a low, certain voice calling his name amidst the writhing darkness. Of Hanguang-Jun arriving in a blaze of blinding glory like a comet, picking Wei Wuxian up gently in his arms, and carrying him away. Of being taken to the cool, quiet stillness of Cloud Recesses, and laid down upon a soft bed shaded by curtains. Of that calm presence remaining by his side, ever watchful, while he slept.
Only that. He wishes, more desperately that he can remember wishing for anything, that he could fall asleep for years and not dream.
After they meet again, the picture alters slightly, fuelled by the banked frustration that he can see in Lan Wangji’s eyes.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t bring it to mind too often: only sometimes, when the itch of power under his skin grows almost too strong to bear, and all he can think of, past the haze of drink, is letting it out – letting it rush right through the thin boundaries of him to destruction.
He stretches out on the floor – in some cheap Yunmeng inn, he doesn’t want his sister to see him like this – and imagines how it might be. How Lan Wangji might stride in and regard him with – not the mingled contempt and fear that everyone else shows, but that furious, burning look. How he might not only lay Wei Wuxian on the bed but follow after him, fully clothed, pressing his wrists down firmly into the sheets.
There would be no carnal intent behind it, of course – what is there left of Wei Wuxian, now, that anyone might want? Only the heavy weight of Lan Wangji’s body covering his own: making him rest, making him solid, making him stay.
(There is another moment, when he wakes in the dark to a-Yuan’s crying, and half-turns over his shoulder to say, ‘Lan Zhan, could you…?’
But that hardly counts. He remembers nothing of the dream afterwards except for a sense of utter contentment, snapping like a thread of gossamer silk.)
When he is dead and reborn and they are reunited, there is a time when Wei Wuxian has nothing to wish for at all.
Lan Wangji is always with him – walking by his side, sipping tea across the table from him, tending his wounds and buying his meals, waiting to hear what he will say with the grave, careful intensity that Wei Wuxian discovers he has missed more than breathing.
So it is extremely, maddeningly inconvenient, that he can feel his remade body sparking with renewed awareness, running like licks of flame along awakened nerves. He watches the angle of Lan Wangji’s face in the moonlight, the dance of his fingers across the guqin, the graceful movements with which he wields a sword, and knows that he is beautiful and that Wei Wuxian longs after him, in every possible way.
Resolutely, he tamps it down. He may not be a proper cultivator anymore, but he still has some self-control.
He knows – he is becoming increasingly, devastatingly aware – that Lan Wangji cares for him, as no one else alive in this world now does. That he is long since used to Wei Wuxian’s excesses and his careless words. That, if Wei Wuxian were to forget himself and reach out, he would not recoil from him in horror.
But he might—withdraw, pull back the unguarded softness that he has been permitting Wei Wuxian to see in the amused set of his mouth and his loosened hair, become the frosty statue of Hanguang-Jun again. He does not think he could bear that, now that he has been allowed so close.
So he stays in the doorway of the Silence Room as the snow falls, looking back at Lan Wangji playing as beautifully and precisely as he does everything else, with no sign of all that he has suffered – for Wei Wuxian, because of Wei Wuxian – visible in the straight line of his shoulders.
He takes another gulp of the Emperor’s Smile that Lan Wangji brought to Cloud Recesses for him, and imagines stepping back into the lamp-lit warmth of the room and kneeling down beside him. Waiting for Lan Wangji’s hands to come to rest with the close of the melody, and taking one of them in his own.
He has never been known for his patience, but he thinks that he would gladly sit there for as long as Lan Wangji would let him, holding his hand and brushing his thumb across the knuckles, getting to know all the sword and pen and string calluses that mark his skin. Perhaps eventually, if he was greatly daring, raising it to his lips.
Lan Wangji glances up at him as he plays, the secret smile folded in the corner of his mouth, and he can practically feel that look: fondness and loyalty, a caress of warmth up his spine in the icy night.
It is enough, Wei Wuxian tells himself. If he can only manage to keep and store up this feeling, dearer than the finest liquor, it will be far more than he deserves.
Wei Ying, he hears and turns from the cliff, alive and joyful, to see that he is truly there: no less beautiful than when they parted yesterday. Never less beloved.
Wei Wuxian steps forward without looking and immediately trips over his own feet, half-falling – and Lan Wangji’s arms reach out to catch him, just as they always do.
‘Couldn’t live without me already, hey Lan Zhan?’ he tries to tease.
‘No,’ Lan Wangji says, very serious. ‘I could not.’
His hands are tight on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, his face entirely open. Wei Wuxian feels something blossoming in his own heart, almost painful, and shivers under the touch.
His sense of time goes strange and syrupy, both revelling in the moment and hastening onward, to what he suddenly knows, in a deep and wordless way, will happen next. They cannot really be talking over each other – Lan Wangji is far too well-bred for that – but all that he will recall of the conversation later is scattered fragments, and the cautious glow of happiness in Lan Wangji’s eyes.
‘I am sorry—’
‘No, why would you be—’
‘I don’t know what you might have heard, about my—’
‘Zewu-Jun told me—’
‘I never wished to do that. To keep you there with me against your will, when you ought to be free. It was different when you needed me to protect you. But now, I thought it would be selfish to—’
Wei Wuxian has never thought that he would see the day when he just needs Lan Wangji to stop talking.
He slides his palms up the sides of his neck, meets his gaze and says, as firmly as he can: ‘It’s not against my will. I’ll always need you. Lan Zhan, you can be selfish; please be selfish.’
‘Wei Ying,’ he whispers, as though it were the most secret and shameless of admissions, ‘come back with me. Stay with me.’
They are so close that Wei Wuxian can count his eyelashes, feel the beating of his heart. His own body is on fire, sweat breaking out between his shoulder blades. It seems as if they are swaying into each other: as if the slightest breeze would topple them over.
‘I’ll come back,’ he says, hearing the hoarseness of his own voice. His fingers itch to touch the skin above Lan Wangji’s collar. ‘I’ll go anywhere with you. But please, Lan Zhan ah Lan Zhan – can the first place we go be somewhere closer, and with a bed?’
Lan Wangji goes utterly still against him and Wei Wuxian draws back, struck with a misgiving that the sunshine had briefly burned away: that the stirring of his own blood had fooled him, that there is only fellowship here after all. ‘If,’ he adds, ‘that’s…something you want?’
‘I want,’ Lan Wangji forces out and shuts his eyes for a moment, stepping away as though he finds it inhumanly difficult. His ears and the tip of his nose are pink. Wei Wuxian cannot stop looking at him.
He barely remembers the journey down into the valley, to the nearest town that has an inn. He rides the donkey with Lan Wangji walking beside him, as tall and upright as ever, except that his free hand has come to rest on Wei Wuxian’s dangling ankle, stroking back and forth across the bone.
Wei Wuxian has never given much thought to the sensation in his ankles before. He fears that he may shortly compound his ill fame by becoming the district’s first known case of spontaneous combustion.
At last – at last – they’ve found the inn, and stabled Apple, and Lan Wangji has paid for the room and they are inside it and the door is shut, and Lan Wangji’s back is against the door. He looks almost frightened – almost as young and as ruffled as he had all those years ago, when Wei Wuxian had not yet learned to read his moods: had not yet known to be overwhelmed by this sudden wave of tenderness in seeing them.
‘We don’t have to,’ Wei Wuxian tries to tell him.
Lan Wangji makes a noise in the back of his throat, surging forward. And then somehow, finally, the two of them are kissing, heated and clumsy, his fingers tangling in Lan Wangji’s hair to cushion his head against the door.
It’s so good that he wants to laugh, to run into the street and shout, Listen up, all of you not kissing Hanguang-Jun – you have been missing out! But that would mean stopping, and he certainly does not want to do that.
Lan Wangji’s hands are tight on his waist, sweeping up his back. He opens his mouth to let Wei Wuxian in, to let him try some of the things he’s heard about, and then he draws back a little to nip at his bottom lip, and tilts his head to place urgent kisses at the corner of his mouth, and his chin, and the vulnerable place below his jaw.
All thought of showing off vanishes from Wei Wuxian’s head. He clutches at him, already more breathless and aroused than he’s ever been in his life, and boasts helplessly, ‘You really do want me.’
‘Yes,’ Lan Wangji says by his ear, sounding impatient. He sets Wei Wuxian back from him and starts undoing his outer belt with sure, deliberate motions, which nearly makes his mind go white again.
‘There’s no need to say it like that, Lan Zhan. How was I supposed to know?’
He thinks Lan Wangji might chide him for having a poor memory – as though Wei Wuxian hasn’t been looking, as though he hasn’t dreamed of any sign of this. But instead he only says, in his quiet and unanswerable way, ‘You were not.’
Wei Wuxian has to kiss him again, pressing close, shutting his eyes tight to keep back the moisture starting there. He can feel the warmth and hardness of Lan Wangji’s body and he wants to feel it more, without any barriers between them.
‘Come on,’ he says, between small kisses he can’t resist. ‘There’s a bed.’
He tugs Lan Wangji backwards with him, and they manage to get each other’s robes off: not thrown on the floor, but not folded with any particular attention either. All of Lan Wangji’s attention is on him, in his thin loosened shirt and trousers. He can feel himself flushing under it, though he’s never been particularly shy.
It makes him want to do something outrageous, so he leans back on his elbows in the most provocative pose he can manage – given that he’s still wearing one shoe that he has to fling off into the room – and says, ‘You can have me, if you like. You know. Like those pictures I showed you once?’
The crimson of Lan Wangji’s ears shows that he remembers. How angry he had been; how much Wei Wuxian had wanted him to do it anyway, even when he hadn’t known exactly what it was he wanted.
Lan Wangji doesn’t look angry now. His chest is white and smooth, in the open neck of his shirt; Wei Wuxian wants to put his mouth there, to know that it’s flesh and not alabaster, to trace the scar that he hasn’t yet asked about.
‘I’ve never,’ Lan Wangji admits: not as though he’s ashamed of it, but stating a fact. ‘Not anything, like this.’
It’s not exactly a surprise, but it sends a little frisson through Wei Wuxian anyway. It won’t be rough and frenzied, he thinks – Lan Wangji will be slow and careful to a fault with him, overwhelmingly methodical, not minding his own pleasure but holding him close and rocking in like the tide. Maybe they won’t get there tonight. It doesn’t matter.
‘It’s all right,’ he says gently. ‘Neither have I.’ He gets hold of the ties of Lan Wangji’s shirt and tugs him forward, until he has to put his knees on the bed or topple in. ‘But I have a very active imagination.’