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Three Days and a Morning

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Wei Wuxian woke up under a warm blanket to bright daylight and the sound of birds. He slowly opened his eyes to a light blue canopy with azure tassels. The birds were chirping out a window to his right, through which he could glimpse maple leaves and rock. Suibian was in a stand next to the bed, and beyond it his eyes caught a glimpse of a figure in white, sitting tall and still in front of another screen. The panic and disorientation of waking up in an unfamiliar place subsided at the sight of Lan Wangji, and he tried to remember how he got here.

He tried to sit up, but a sharp, stabbing pain pierced his left side and his memory came rushing back — Jin Ling, the escape from Lanling, Lan Wangji carrying him through the rain. A wave of nausea swept over him again as his body relived the deep chill of the rain and the rising dizziness of a fever as he’d struggled to stay conscious, even as the last of his spiritual energy drained away.

He must have made a noise in trying to sit up, because suddenly Lan Wangji was there. The breeze stirred by his motion smelled lightly of sandalwood and clean linen. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath and steadied himself, focusing on the sensation of the warm sheets and cool air, the faint smell of incense and the weight on the bed next to him.

“The injury to your abdomen,” Lan Wangji said, with concern.

“It’s fine,” Wei Wuxian said quickly, not wanting to be fussed over.

Before he knew what was happening, Lan Wangji had pulled open his shirt, letting in a sudden waft of cold air against his bare chest. Wei Wuxian looked down at a neat bandage across his lower stomach before Lan Wangji was tucking his shirt closed again with a perfunctory motion that somehow managed to be both disinterested and possessive at the same time. There was something in his attitude that made Wei Wuxian decide it would be better not to attempt resistance. He still felt very weak. He was startled when Lan Wangji took his left arm and pulled back the sleeve, revealing the last festering cut from Mo Xuanyu’s suicidal death wish.

“Was that left from the sacrificing curse?”

Wei Wuxian didn’t ask how he knew the mark was there. Lan Wangji’s sharp intuition and attention to detail had always made him disturbingly perceptive, especially about things that Wei Wuxian would prefer he didn’t know. He nodded.

“How do you cure it?”

Wei Wuxian shook his head. There was no cure. The curse was a death contract that he had not consented to. Yet more lives lost to people’s fear and hatred of the Yiling Patriarch. “Now I know who Mo Xuanyu’s last enemy is,” he said instead. “If he dies, the curse will dispel.”

Lan Wangji looked pained. “It’s Jin Guangyao.”

They spoke about the situation at Lanling, about Jin Guangyao’s plotting secrets and the mysterious death of Nie Mingjue. Though more things seemed clear than before, there was still much that didn’t make sense.

Lan Wangji reached forward and pulled Suibian from its stand. Something tugged at Wei Wuxian’s heart to see Lan Wangji holding his old sword. It stirred memories from a past life, and tired grief at how things had turned out instead. That life was gone, buried under too much loss and hate. And yet he had freely chosen this path, and could not look back.

“Your sword,” Lan Wangji said, passing Suibian to him.

Hesitantly, he took it, running his hands over the smooth wood. It felt familiar but distant, like returning home after a long, long absence. They had grown apart, and though the intimacy remained, the distance felt huge. Suibian used to resonate with his spiritual energy, moving like an extension of his own life force. Wei Wuxian’s sword skills had been excellent, and he felt a wash of grief at remembering the joy of dancing through the motions of a fight with a good opponent. Like Lan Wangji.

“Thank you,” he said simply. With a deep breath, he drew Suibian a few inches from the sheath, and caught his own reflection in the bright metal. In his already weakened state, the spiritual effort took more out of him than he expected, and after a minute he resheathed the sword. “Did it really seal itself?”

Lan Wangji wordlessly grasped the handle and tried to pull the sword out, but it wouldn’t budge.

They exchanged a glance, and Wei Wuxian sighed. A sword and its master were closely linked. That Suibian had sealed itself meant that the sword was also in mourning. With gentle hands, he placed the sheath down beside him. It seemed his life was surrounded by loss.

Suddenly something clicked into place, and Wei Wuxian looked around at the room. It was familiar. He had woken up in this same bed once before, after Wen Ning had appeared and the encounter with Jiang Chang. “This is…the Jingshi?” he asked, putting it together.

Lan Wangji nodded. “Yes.”

“You brought me back to Cloud Recesses?” Wei Wuxian said, sitting up with alarm. “What if your older brother finds out?”

“My brother will trust me,” Lan Wangji said evenly. “He knows you are here.”

“What happened?”

“You fainted, and I brought you here. We encountered my brother on the way, and he said that as long as this matter is unresolved, we are under his protection here.” Lan Wangji paused, meeting Wei Wuxian’s gaze. “He is honest and fair. You can trust him.”

“Jin Guangyao will come here looking for us.”

Wei Wuxian made to get up, but Lan Wangji stopped him, firmly putting a hand on his arm. His eyes flashed commandingly, and Wei Wuxian stopped moving.

“He won’t come here until he has consolidated his forces and is sure we are nowhere else,” Lan Wangji said. “We still have some time.” He leaned forward again, putting the back of his hand to Wei Wuxian’s forehead, a look of concern passing over his face so subtly that Wei Wuxian almost missed it.

“You still have a fever. Don’t get up. It was a serious wound.”

Wei Wuxian tried to protest, but Lan Wangji looked straight at him. “Wei Ying,” he said firmly.

Something in his voice made Wei Wuxian obey, and he lay back down against the cushion. Lan Wangji replaced a corner of the blanket that Wei Wuxian had disturbed, and his expression brooked no argument.

In one smooth motion, Lan Wangji got up and returned to where he had been sitting earlier, just to the left of the bed. Wei Wuxian saw that his guqin was lying on the low table. He sat down, draped his sleeves out of the way, and put his fingertips to the strings.

Wei Wuxian had heard a lot of Lan Wangii’s playing over their past few weeks together. Among other things, they had played “Rest in Peace” every night to calm the saber spirit’s agitation. But all of that had been directed at others, not at himself. He could count on one hand the number of times Lan Wangji had played like this, directing his guqin’s spiritual power into the notes for him. The last time had been the previous instance when he had woken up in this bed, and before that had been after the Sunshot Campaign, when he had used the yin tiger seal.

He remembered that in the years before his death, Lan Wangji had tried again and again to let him play for him, to cleanse the resentment that swirled around his aura and to guide him back to the orthodox path. But Wei Wuxian had always refused, knowing that without a golden core that way was no longer open. He had accepted what he was. Lan Wangji would have to as well. As long as the guqin was trying to change him, he could not accept its efforts.

This time, though, as the sounds of the strings filled the air Wei Wuxian felt something different. That had been sixteen years ago. Now everything had changed. The notes sang of clean sunlight and cold water, of the healing that came from honesty and clarity, of being able to see straight through to the bottom. The sounds washed over him like mountain water, rinsing away the grief and the pain and leaving only himself. It felt an enormous relief, as though a huge weight was dissolving away. He closed his eyes, and tears fell silently from the corners, sliding down to dampen the hair at his temples. Nothing other than this mattered anymore. Nothing more than this.

Wei Wuxian slipped into a healing sleep as Lan Wangji played on.

The day had already been half gone when Wei Wuxian first woke up, and he slept again through the afternoon, waking only in the early evening. Lan Wangji had been reading, and put down his book when Wei Wuxian sat up again. This time he didn’t fuss when Wei Wuxian put on his clothes and got up. He moved gingerly, with one hand to his side, but the fever seemed to have passed and he felt considerably better.

He walked to the front entrance and slid open the screen doors, breathing deeply into the draft of cool air that passed through the room. Outside, the sun was already below the bamboo tops that surrounded the courtyard, and the white pebbles shone pink in the evening light.

Lan Wangji got up and came to stand beside him. Wei Wuxian stepped carefully onto the porch outside and Lan Wangji stayed glued to his side, his white robes just sweeping the ground. They made a slow pass together around the courtyard, visiting the little covered gazebo in the corner, and had almost returned to the steps leading up to the porch when Wei Wuxian stopped suddenly and put a steadying hand on Lan Wangji as the ache in his wound sharpened with a careless step. Lan Wangji quickly took his arm and supported him back into the room, guiding him over to the square table opposite the bed where there was a kettle heating over a low flame set into the floor.

Lan Wangji settled himself across the table and poured two cups of hot tea, passing one to Wei Wuxian, who made a face.

“No chance of wine, is there?” he asked hopefully.

“No wine,” Lan Wangji said firmly, glancing up at him. “You’re still recovering. Have some tea.”

Wei Wuxian pouted and picked up the cup. The warmth felt nice after the brisk walk, and the steam carried a pleasant floral aroma. Trust Lan Wangji to drink only the best tea. After all, it was all the man drank. Wei Wuxian sipped it slowly, refusing to acknowledge that actually it was quite nice.

“I don’t remember this place, when I studied here,” he said, looking around again at the room. It was decorated like all of Cloud Recesses, in a clean and airy style, with blue hangings and sparse ornamentation. This room, however, seemed slightly different. It was filled with more books than normal, and something about it gave the impression that this room was lived in and used, rather than being for guests.

Lan Wangji considered him from underneath his lashes. The pause was long enough that Wei Wuxian thought he wasn’t going to reply.

“It’s at some distance from the main buildings, and off limits to outside students. You wouldn’t have seen it,” Lan Wangji said at last. Wei Wuxian knew this from the last time he’d stayed here, though that had only been one night. Lan Wangji fell silent for another long moment, his eyes downcast. “These have been my rooms lately.”

Wei Wuxian looked at him in surprise. For one thing, he didn’t think Lan Wangji had lived in this place when they were students, so he must have moved in sometime later. The tone of his voice implied there was some reason for the change. Suddenly another question occurred. There was only one bed, and if this was Lan Wangji’s room, “Where did you sleep last night?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Lan Wangji poured them both another cup of tea. “On the floor. I wasn’t sure if you would wake up, and I didn’t want to advertise our presence here. Very few people come to this house without reason.”

Just then there was a gentle knock at the door, and Lan Wangji got up to answer it, returning with a large tray of steaming dishes. It smelled delicious, and Wei Wuxian filed away this piece of information about Lan Wangji to ponder later.

Wei Wuxian stared nearly drooling as Lan Wangji set out the food and handed him a bowl. He realized suddenly that he hadn’t eaten in over a day, and was ravenous. The smell of rice and vegetables filled the air, and at least half of the plates were full of spicy peppers, which were his favorite. “So good!” he exclaimed between bites, stuffing himself with food. He savored the hot and salty sauces, wondering whether the quality of the cooking had actually improved since their student days, or whether the students had been deliberately only given simple fare. When he finally showed signs of slowing down, Lan Wangji placed another piece of roasted meat in his bowl, and he ate it obediently.

“How are you feeling?” Lan Wangji asked at last, as Wei Wuxian set down his chopsticks.

Wei Wuxian beamed at him with the happy eyes of one who had eaten well and wanted nothing more in the world. Lan Wangji returned his grin with one of those tiny half-smiles of his and began stacking the empty plates back on the tray.

“I feel much better,” Wei Wuxian said, with a hint of teasing creeping into his voice. “You’ve never fed me this well before.”

Lan Wangji did not take the bait. Both of them knew that he had, in fact, been responsible for feeding Wei Wuxian nearly every good meal that he’d eaten since his reincarnation, and before that as well.

“And the wound?”

Wei Wuxian considered, and decided to give an honest answer. “It hurts, but it’s healing. The rest today was good.” Things had felt better when he first woke up, but with the exertion over the past hour, the ache was beginning to return.

It was still too early for bed, and since Lan Wangji seemed unlikely to bring him any wine, Wei Wuxian browsed the books in the room while Lan Wangji put the tray of dishes back outside for a junior to pick up. Most of the volumes, to his surprise, were poetry.

“I never knew you liked poetry,” Wei Wuxian said, leafing through the volumes. “You should come to Yunmeng. The best poets live by the water,” he said, grinning. The smile slowly slid from his face as he realized Jiang Chang would probably never let him return to Yunmeng ever again, and he turned to hide his expression.

Lan Wangji silently appeared behind him — how did he always do that? — and pulled a book from the shelf to hand to Wei Wuxian. “Yunmeng poets are good,” he agreed. “But not the only masters.”

Lan Wangji picked up the book he had been reading earlier and they both settled back at the table, drinking tea and reading as the last of the evening light outside faded to darkness and the stars began to twinkle. The book Lan Wangji had given him were the poems of a woman named Yu Xuanji, and they were both sad and hauntingly beautiful. Wei Wuxian added another mental mark to the “secretly sappy” column under Lan Wangji’s name in his head.

A distant bell rang, signaling the Gusu Lan Sect’s strict nine o’clock bedtime. Though he preferred to stay up later, Wei Wuxian knew better than to defy the Lan schedule. He put down the book but winced as he moved to stand up, grabbing his side and inhaling sharply at the pain.

Lan Wangji stood up quickly and stepped around the table, kneeling down to help Wei Wuxian to his feet. His grip was gentle but strong, one hand on Wei Wuxian’s upper arm and the other around his waist. Wei Wuxian leaned more heavily on his support than he would have liked. He felt very weak, and was suddenly exhausted.

Lan Wangji helped him across the room and set him down on the edge of the bed. Wei Wuxian tugged off his shoes, pretending not to watch as Lan Wangji pulled the sliding doors and shades closed for the night, putting out the extra lights. He moved like some sort of tall water bird, with an elegant gliding motion and no wasted movements. Something lurched in the pit of Wei Wuxian’s stomach at the sight of him at home in this quiet setting in the gathering darkness. He wondered how many solitary nights Lan Wangji had spent here over the past years.

Wei Wuxian tucked his feet under himself, sitting upright on the bed. Lan Wangji finished his circuit and stood by the main door. He nodded at Wei Wuxian and some tiny muscle moved at the corner of his mouth. It was so small that he would have missed it if he didn’t know Lan Wangji well enough by now to read his emotions in these tiny gestures. In anyone else it would have been a smile. In Lan Wangji, it was a subtle softening, an ever so slight incline of the head, a hint of something moving deep beneath the liquid eyes.

“Good night,” Lan Wangji said softly, turning toward the door.

“Wait.” The words almost surprised Wei Wuxian, leaping from his mouth. “Where are you going?” This was his room, after all.

“A guest room.”

Wei Wuxian looked at him pitifully. “Don’t go.” Suddenly faced with Lan Wangji’s departure, he didn’t want it to happen. The thought of spending the night alone in this huge room at the top of the mountain made him shiver.

Lan Wangji turned to regard him with full intensity. Wei Wuxian wanted to squirm under the gaze, but sat resolutely still. He didn’t want to give Lan Wangji the satisfaction. A sudden pang of embarrassment flit through his awareness, but he squashed it.

Appearing to make a decision, Lan Wangji walked swiftly over to the bed and Wei Wuxian swallowed thickly, not wanting to acknowledge another flutter in his stomach. But Lan Wangji just grabbed a pillow from the mattress next to Wei Wuxian and pulled an extra blanket from the shelf, walking across the room and spreading it out on the floor.

“Lan Zhaaan,” Wei Wuxian whined, drawing out the final syllable of his name in a textbook pout. “So faaaar.”

Without looking at him, Lan Wangji refolded the blanket and walked back over to the bed where Wei Wuxian sat. He set the pillow back from where he’d taken it and sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling off his boots.

Wei Wuxian stared. He hadn’t expected this. Lan Wangji of the past would have rolled his eyes and left anyway, perhaps getting a touch defensive if Wei Wuxian had pushed it. But this Lan Wangji moved deliberately, with the clarity that came of knowing his own intentions. There was no discomfort or embarrassment here. Wei Wuxian swallowed again at the realization that something had changed in his friend, and he suddenly felt very exposed and powerless without the ability to goad Lan Wangji like he’d used to be able to. “What are you doing?” he asked meekly.

“Not going,” Lan Wangji said simply, casting a level gaze at Wei Wuxian, who tried desperately to read his expression. Without revealing anything, Lan Wangji set his boots neatly next to the other pair and stood up again. He placed Bichen in the stand next to Suibian, and began untying his waist belt.

Wei Wuxian wet his lips, totally unsure what territory they had just entered as Lan Wangji carefully took off his outer layers and hung them neatly somewhere behind the curtain. He moved easily, without any self-consciousness, and Wei Wuxian felt suddenly like he didn’t know exactly what he might have got himself into. Lan Wangji returned to the bed, dressed only in a loose white undershirt and trousers, and crawled across to the far side, lying down next to Wei Wuxian and pulling the covers over himself. He closed his eyes, lying there in the stiff corpse position that Wei Wuxian assumed all members of the Lan Clan must sleep in.

Wei Wuxian refused to give the satisfaction of showing his surprise. With a practiced nonchalance, he took off his own robes, tossing them aside much less neatly, and blew out the last candle, crawling under the covers next to Lan Wangji. They lay there together in the darkness, listening to the crickets. Wei Wuxian couldn’t tell whether Lan Wangji was sleeping or not, but his breathing was deep and even, and he didn’t move at all. After a long time, Wei Wuxian finally dared to shift himself, adjusting to a more comfortable position and digging deeper under the covers.

The bed was not wide, and though they weren’t quite touching, he was keenly aware of Lan Wangji right next to him, solid and warm. After a long time, when he was fairly sure Lan Wangji must be asleep, he turned his head to look at the pale face silhouetted on the pillow, dark hair falling gracefully from the curving forehead. Though Wei Wuxian had grown accustomed to being around Lan Wangji’s cold beauty, he had never seen it quite like this, soft and intimate in the moonlight. Yes, something was definitely coiling deep in the pit of his stomach, and it wasn’t the dull ache of his wound. Wei Wuxian resolutely ignored the feeling, knowing with a sneaking suspicion that once he looked at it, there wouldn’t be any going back.

Instead, he wondered for the thousandth time just what twist of fate had brought him back to life, given him this body, and placed him here next to the one person who still loved him in this world. It was simply too much to fathom; his mind slipped off the boggling incomprehensibility of it and fell flat before the only option left: total surrender. Not knowing how or why he was alive, not knowing what change had worked upon his friend, not knowing what tomorrow would bring, Wei Wuxian slowly fell asleep, feeling safe and warm for the first time in a long time.

 

***

 

Lan Wangji woke up just before the morning bell at five a.m., according to his routine. Wei Wuxian had shifted in the night, sprawling across more than his half of the bed. Lan Wangji was somehow not surprised. Despite the fact that he was squeezed against the backboard and one of Wei Wuxian’s elbows was digging into his side, he was also not annoyed. In fact, he felt enormously tender, and actually remained in bed an extra five minutes past the bell savoring the inconceivable fact that Wei Wuxian was sleeping softly in his bed.

With his eyes closed and hair slightly disheveled, Wei Wuxian looked like a small boy, terribly vulnerable and, dare he say it, innocent. When they had both been younger, Lan Wangji recalled, Wei Wuxian had bounced about with an easy grace and been free with his mischievous, impish grins. Those were rarer now, and he moved with the dangerous, coiled ease of a mountain tiger instead of the playful bounds of a kitten. In sleep, the quiet pain that seemed to linger these days in the corners of his eyes slipped away, revealing a smooth and handsome face that Lan Wangji rarely saw look so at peace. He felt a warm feeling in his heart, which he took as a sign that it was past time to get up.

Very carefully, he extricated himself from the blankets so as not to wake Wei Wuxian. He dressed quickly and slipped out the door, making his way up the misty paths to the waterfall on the mountain. It was still dark when he set out, but he knew the way even without eyes.

There was a large, smooth rock in the middle of the stream running out from the waterfall, and Lan Wangji took his customary place seated upon it. Arranging his robes, he settled into stillness, letting his heart rest in the roar of the waterfall, the gurgle of the water under the rocks, and the first birdsongs of morning. The deep ravine slowly grew lighter as the sun rose behind the mountains, casting a soft glow across the whole valley, which was barely visible between the trees below. After a long while, Lan Wangji stirred, setting his guqin across his lap, playing for the trees and the sky and himself.

There were many feelings that had been stirred up since Wei Wuxian was resurrected that needed care and tending. Lan Wangji had spent years after Wei Wuxian’s death sorting through his anger and grief. In some ways, it had been good that he had been under confinement for the immediate period following those first days, because he had not been sure what exactly he would have done. Instead, he had closed himself in the Jingshi, his mother’s old courtyard, empty since her passing, and let his emotions work themselves out in the safety of those stone walls and the stillness of the cold spring cave. His brother had come to see him, and brought Ah Yuan at regular intervals, but no one else passed the gates of the Shadow Bamboo Court for those three years.

Eventually, after many years, Lan Wangji had finally found some peace. He forgave himself for the doubt and confusion that had kept him from standing beside Wei Wuxian until it was too late. He forgave Jiang Wanyin and his own brother and the other clan leaders for their roles in what happened. He clarified his disgust for the acts of those who slaughtered the Wen Clan survivors and sought to pin blame on Wei Wuxian no matter what he did, and resolved that never again would he stand by while such injustice occurred. He raised Lan Yuan as his own son, teaching him how to hold a sword and play the guqin and listen to his own heart to tell right from wrong. None of it had been easy, but no one knew why they path they walked was their own.

Throughout it all, the grief had been constant. At first it had been a roaring tidal wave, gradually ebbing as the years passed until it became a familiar ache. It had never completely disappeared, and Lan Wangji had never tried to make it go away. The thing that had been both the most obvious and the most challenging to clarify was his feeling for Wei Wuxian. In the end, it ended up being quite simple: Lan Wangji loved him completely. He had been too young and confused to understand it until too late, but no matter how he tried to run from it, the love was real and brooked no denial. He would not make the same mistake again. Against all odds, Wei Wuxian had returned from death, and this time Lan Wangji would stand beside him until the end.

Playing the guqin out here was just another form of meditation. Lan Wangji had been well trained. He met the pain as a gate of cultivation and allowed the emotion work itself out, flowing through him and away with the river. Lan Wangji was born in the mountains, but his heart was in the icy water of the yearly snowmelt, pouring down through the rocky canyons. Gradually, he became still again like the glacial pools high above, a perfect mirror to reflect the drifting clouds, with clear water all the way down to the marbled pebbles deep below.

When the valley was completely light, Lan Wangji felt sure enough about his intentions to return to the Jingshi. He stopped by the kitchens on his way, picking up some of Wei Wuxian’s favorite stuffed buns for breakfast and placing a request for further meals to be sent to them in the Shadow Bamboo Court. Returning with the buns, he saw Wei Wuxian standing on the porch, doing his morning exercises. They were suitably gentle, he noted with approval.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed upon seeing him, breaking off mid-motion and leaping down the stairs with entirely too much energy. He tried to hide a wince as he landed, but he wasn’t that subtle and Lan Wangji knew what to look for.

“I brought you breakfast,” he said, handing over the covered basket.

Wei Wuxian peeked inside and looked up with a predatory grin. “Buns! My favorite!” He pulled one out and took a huge bite, but they were still quite hot inside and he rapidly fanned his mouth in an undignified manner. Lan Wangji walked past him to take a seat in the sun on the porch steps.

Wei Wuxian followed him, skipping along and taking another huge bite. “La- Zha-,” he said through a full mouth, sitting down on the step next to him.

Lan Wangji looked at him, and he swallowed loudly.

“What are we going to do today?”

“How are you feeling?” Judging from the observed behavior, he already knew the answer. It was a relief, to be honest, because he had been quite concerned about the wound and fever. But Wei Wuxian was still far from healed, and Lan Wangji felt sure that more dangers still awaited them.

“Much better.”

“My brother will protect us here, but we shouldn’t be too obvious. What no one knows, no one can tell.” The kitchen staff would be discreet.

Wei Wuxian nodded and took another bun. They were good. Lan Wangji took one as well, tearing it in half to cool before taking a bite.

“But Lan Zhan, I’m so bored,” Wei Wuxian said, looking like a sad puppy. “I can’t read poetry here all day.”

Lan Wangji considered. It was true, trying to keep Wei Wuxian here would be torture for both of them. “We could go up the mountain,” he said eventually. “Few people walk up there, and none without permission.”

Wei Wuxian nodded eagerly with a gleam of delight in his eyes, and Lan Wangji didn’t know if his poor heart could endure this.

They packed a small bag with some food and clean bandages, just in case the wound reopened, and headed off up the trails behind the courtyard. Lan Wangji carried Bichen and walked in front, and Wei Wuxian tucked his bamboo flute into his belt and followed behind.

Lan Wangji had grown up on these trails. He led them up an unfrequented path, which skirted the river and climbed the mountain on the far side. He knew that Wei Wuxian had done much unauthorized exploring back here when they were students, but he doubted that he had ever found this path. There were more obvious routes with better views up the way, but only those who truly knew the mountain could discover its deeper secrets.

They climbed quite steeply, but Lan Wangji went slowly and made sure Wei Wuxian stopped to rest. He seemed to be doing fine, and the walk was keeping him quiet for once, so they went on. The trail split two or three times, but Lan Wangji continued with confidence. Eventually, he led them off the path entirely, and up a short scramble of rocks until, all of a sudden, they emerged on a long rocky spur above the waterfall. Below them, the entire valley lay spread out like a painting, vanishing into the shifting clouds. They could hear the waterfall crashing, but only the spray of it was visible over the edge. It was fed by a narrow outlet from a small rocky lake that pooled on the edge of the cliff, its waters remarkably calm given the stream that flowed into it from the other side. Their vantage point had a few trees to provide shade and shelter, and because of the angle was protected from view from below. The panorama was stunning. It was an ideal spot.

Wei Wuxian actually gasped as he cleared the trees and caught sight of the view. Lan Wangji felt satisfied.

They sat down on the overlook and caught their breath from the climb.

“How did you find this place?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Lan Wangji looked at him, then away. “Believe it or not, I also like to explore. I found this place when I was young. It was where I would go when I needed to be alone.” After a moment, he added quietly, “I’ve never brought anyone here.”

Wei Wuxian looked at him and Lan Wangji didn’t dare meet his eyes. His voice was low. “I came here too, after…after you were gone.”

Silence hung between them for a long moment, but Lan Wangji was comfortable with silence. He didn’t know what Wei Wuxian was thinking, but he felt his warm presence there beside him, and that was enough. Finally, with an effort, Lan Wangji turned to meet Wei Wuxian’s gaze. There was something soft in it, and sad.

“There is a way down to the lake, if you’re careful. It’s good swimming in the summer,” he said.

Wei Wuxian smiled, with a mischievous light in his eye. “Swimming!”

“Not for you,” Lan Wangji said, nodding at his injury. “Not with that.”

“But Lan Zhan, I love swimming! I grew up swimming in the river and catching fish with my hands.” He voice grew softer. “I miss it so much.”

“We’ll come back again one day, and we can go swimming.” Something caught in Lan Wangji’s throat as he said it.

“Do you promise?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Lan Wangji turned to him. “If we both survive this and heaven wills it so, then yes, I promise.” As they looked at each other, Lan Wangji felt like his entire heart was exposed. And yet he couldn’t hide it any more than he could deny it. The only thing he had ever been able to do was be honest and upright.

After a long moment, Lan Wangji relented. “Follow me, and be careful on the rocks. You can put your feet in, at least.”

He led them down another hidden path to the narrow rocky beach around the lake. Wei Wuxian took off his boots and hiked his black robes up enough to keep them dry. He dipped one bare foot into the water and quickly pulled it out again.

“Lan Zhan! It’s cold! Colder than the cold spring!”

Lan Wangji smiled softly. “Yes,” he said. “It comes from the snow.” He sat on a rock and removed his own boots, conscious that Wei Wuxian was staring at him as though he’d lost his mind. Well, let him stare. He’d grown up with this lake, after all. The Lan Clan wasn’t against enjoying life, they just preferred not to make a spectacle of it.

Taking quiet refuge in the feeling of cool rock against his bare feet, Lan Wangji held up his robes with much more decorum than Wei Wuxian and stepped into the water without flinching. It was indeed very cold, but he knew what to expect.

Wei Wuxian gingerly put one foot into the water, then the other one. He splashed around for a few minutes, exploring the perimeter of the lake.

Lan Wangji closed his eyes and let the cold of the water penetrate his bones. His memory flashed, unbidden, to the first year after Wei Wuxian’s death. When things had been most overwhelming, he had come here and floated in the middle of the lake until his toes went numb, and let the water hold the pain. A tear slipped down his cheek at the memory, and he quickly wiped it away.

He returned to the beach and sat on a large flat rock, letting his feet dry in the sun. Wei Wuxian, having satisfied his curiosity, followed after a bit. They shared the leftover buns, and Wei Wuxian lay back on the ground and closed his eyes, crossing his arms behind his head.

Lan Wangji removed his guqin from his qiankun sleeve and set it on his lap. Slowly, softly, he began to play, imbuing the notes with healing and cleansing. Something else also crept in, a warm love that that welled up from his core and expressed itself in the music. He let it be there; it wouldn’t do harm.

Lan Wangji had waited for so long for Wei Wuxian to let him play like this, to gently wash away the anger and resentment that hovered about him like a dark fog. Some nights it was all he’d dreamed of doing. But Wei Wuxian had refused, had looked him in the face and walked away from the orthodox path. In the end, Lan Wangji let him go. Some things had always been clear. To try to tie down a creature like Wei Wuxian would be to kill him. He had to be free to find his own way, even to destruction. Lan Wangji counted himself the lucky one to be able to walk alongside.

Now, though, after sixteen years they both had changed. Lan Wangji had grown up. He knew himself now in a way that he hadn’t, back then. And Wei Wuxian, well, death had done something to him as well. The anger was gone, though the sadness remained. Lan Wangji played now, not to save his friend, but to love him as he was, each of them in their own place.

He played for a long time, and the sun passed over their heads. Eventually he stopped, and Wei Wuxian stretched.

“It’s time to return. The dinner bell will ring soon.”

Wei Wuxian brushed the sand off his black clothes and stretched. He walked over to Lan Wangji and, surprisingly, took his hand and gently squeezed it. His fingers were warm and soft. “Lan Zhan, thank you for bringing me here.” The words were quiet, and he seemed to have trouble getting them out.

Lan Wangji swallowed, not trusting himself to reply. He gave a small nod and looked into the distance, as though saying goodbye to the view.

He led them down again off the mountain, taking a different path than the one that brought them here. The lake was a known destination, and there was a better marked trail that led to it. They walked again in silence and returned to the bamboo courtyard. There was a covered basket of food waiting for them outside the gate, and they took it inside to eat.

Dinner was a repeat of the night before. They were both hungry after the walk, and ate well. Afterwards, in the evening, Wei Wuxian sat on the floor against the bed and fiddled with his flute, attempting to make it more in tune. Lan Wangji watched him out of the corner of his eye, knowing that no amount of fussing could make the rough instrument sound like Chenqing.

Lan Wangji himself sat at the square table and drank tea, reading.

When the lights-out bell rang at nine, Wei Wuxian groaned and protested, but didn’t resist as Lan Wangji began to put out the candles. The schedule was the schedule, after all.

While he was sitting at the table, Lan Wangji had considered his options for sleeping arrangements. Regardless of what Wei Wuxian might profess to want, Lan Wangji could leave and stay in one of the guest rooms. But the thought seemed cold and lonely, and something told him that they might not have much time together remaining. Surely there were powerful people who wanted them both dead. Better to take every moment as it came, and nothing for granted. He would stay, if Wei Wuxian would have him. A thick lump rose in his throat at the thought.

Moving deliberately, Lan Wangji drew the screens and blew out the lights, feeling Wei Wuxian’s eyes on him. He avoided them. When there was nothing left to delay him any longer, he approached the bed (his own bed, after all — why was he so nervous?) and undressed with careful imperviousness, removing his hair combs and placing them gently on the shelf. Then he crawled again to the far side of the bed and lay down on his back, covering himself with the blanket.

Wei Wuxian was still staring. Lan Wangji was too polite to roll his eyes, but he did turn his head to look at him, one eyebrow slightly raised. “You can have the floor if you’d prefer,” he said dryly, secretly enjoying the flustered look it garnered as Wei Wuxian sputtered and quickly prepared to join to him. Yes, though Wei Wuxian usually won the game of provocation, Lan Wangji knew him well enough to score some points now and then.

After Wei Wuxian blew out the last candle and they both settled into place, Lan Wangji spoke into the darkness. “Don’t steal the blanket this time,” he said. And then he went to sleep.

 

***

 

When Wei Wuxian woke up, Lan Wangji was gone again. He wasn’t surprised. This time the morning bell had woken him up enough to notice his bed partner departing, but he’d rolled over and gone back to sleep. If Lan Wangji wanted to get up before the sun and go sit on a rock or whatever else he did this early, that was fine by him. As long as no one expected him to do the same.

When he did get up an hour later, the sun was just beginning to peak above the horizon. He heated a pot of water for tea and went outside to drink it. This morning was colder than it had been, and he was glad for the extra layer of wool underneath his outer clothing. He sat on the porch and leaned back against the wall, where it was a little warmer, and watched the sun rise over the bamboo while his heart wandered.

Something had shifted between them in the past few days, ever since Lan Wangji had stood beside him at Jinlin Tower. His chest felt tight at the memory of standing there, in front of everyone who hated him, who wished for nothing more than to see him die a second time. He had pushed Lan Wangji away, trying to protect him, but Lan Wangji had looked him in the eyes and said, “Walking down the single plank bridge until its dark end, it doesn’t feel so bad.” Something deep had broken inside Wei Wuxian in that moment, to feel Lan Wangji was standing beside him like a mountain, solid and unmovable. And, somehow, they had made it out alive.

Wei Wuxian had never been afraid of dying, even before he fell from the cliff. There had been moments before that when he had also been sure it was the end, and he met them all with the same open heart with which he met life. That day in Qishan, though, he had not wanted to live any longer. His life had brought nothing but death and suffering to everyone around him. Every single one of them had been killed — his parents, his sister, Wen Qing and Wen Ning, the entire remaining Wen Clan, even little Ah Yuan. To choose death in that moment was better than watching four hateful armies tear each other to pieces over the shards of the tiger seal.

That was all clear enough. He understood it, though it brought him pain. But on that fateful day Lan Wangji had grabbed his hand, and there had been a flash of something else, something he did not understand, as Lan Wangji held him for that long moment above oblivion. He tried to focus on that feeling, to clarify what exactly it was that had flitted through his heart, but it was brief and full of confusion. Then he had fallen, and everything was gone. But Mo Xuanyu had brought him back, and now he had to face it all again.

The situation two days ago at Jinlin Tower had triggered that feeling again. Standing again before everyone who wanted him dead, with only Lan Wangji beside him. His heart lurched uncomfortably. Yes, there it was. Second chances like this didn’t happen, and yet here they both were again.

When Lan Wangji came back, the sun was high in the sky and his brother Lan Xichen was with him. Like his younger brother, Xichen revealed few of his thoughts on his face, and appeared unruffled at the sight of Wei Wuxian in Cloud Recesses. The three of them went inside to discuss the situation regarding Jin Guangyao, and Wei Wuxian revealed his theory about the lethal alteration of the “Cleansing Heart Song.” Lan Xichen led them to the forbidden library to search through the Gusu Lan Sect’s music collection, and they spent a great deal of the afternoon unraveling the possibilities surrounding the death of Nie Mingjue.

Afterward, they parted, with Lan Wangji leaving to speak with his uncle, and Lan Xichen walking with Wei Wuxian back to the Jingshi. Wei Wuxian had never been alone with Lan Xichen before, and felt a touch of nervousness, but when Lan Wangji looked at him to confirm it was alright, he nodded his assent.

When they entered the bamboo courtyard, Wei Wuxian paused and swallowed, seizing his chance to ask a question that had been on his mind for some time. “Zewu Jun.”

Lan Xichen turned to him.

“Since Lan Zhan’s not here, there is something I would like to consult with you about.”

“Young Lord Wei, please say it.”

Wei Wuxian hesitated. “The cautioning whip marks on Lan Zhan’s body,” he said, slowly, recalling the image of seeing Lan Wangji bathing in the cold pool, his back striped by scars. “What happened?”

Lan Xichen regarded him curiously. Like his brother and uncle, he had the same quality of looking at Wei Wuxian as though he could read far more than Wei Wuxian wanted to share. Lan Xichen did not ask how he knew about the scars.

“Young Lord Wei doesn’t know?”

“I asked him,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, “but he wouldn’t tell me. So I’m asking you.”

Lan Xichen considered for a moment before replying. “So be it,” he said at last. “I know him best. Unless it was out of absolute necessity, I doubt Wangji would ever share this in his lifetime.” He looked at Wei Wuxian. “I will be the one to tell you.”

Wei Wuxian listened as Lan Xichen told him how, after he had died, Lan Wangji had gone back to the Burial Grounds and been punished for his support of the Yiling Patriarch. His uncle had personally brought him back to Cloud Recesses and given him thirty blows of the discipline whip, forbidding him to leave the mountain for three years. That explained why Lan Wangji said he hadn’t gone back immediately to search for Wei Wuxian’s body.

Lan Wangji had never willingly broken a rule in his lifetime. Wei Wuxian felt white noise rising in his ears, to think of his good friend kneeling before such punishment, receiving each blow with serene grace. But the discipline whip was a serious instrument, not used for normal punishment. Even Lan Wangji would have had a hard time receiving its blows.

Lan Xichen finished talking, and they stood in silence for a moment. Wei Wuxian rubbed his flute and looked down.

“When Wangji was in confinement, I went to find him once and tried to advise him,” Lan Xichen continued. “But he told me, since he sees you as his confidant,” he said, looking at Wei Wuxian with a cryptic smile, “then he should believe in your character.” Lan Xichen’s expression said that he knew his brother well, and loved him very much.

Wei Wuxian had the feeling that Lan Xichen was telling him all of this because he understood something of what was between his little brother and Wei Wuxian. Lan Xichen trusted his brother completely. If Lan Wangji had decided to bind his life together with Wei Wuxian’s, then there were some things that Wei Wuxian deserved to know.

“Do you know what place this house is?” Lan Xichen asked, turning toward the Jingshi.

Wei Wuxian shook his head. Lan Wangji had said that these had been his rooms since a time, but something in Lan Xichen’s question made it seem like there was some other significance.

He told Wei Wuxian about their childhood together in Cloud Recesses, being raised by their uncle because of the estrangement of their parents and their mother’s long confinement in the Shadow Bamboo Court. Though it had happened long ago, Lan Xichen’s voice revealed his emotion in speaking of his brother’s love for their mother.

Wei Wuxian listened in silence. He knew that Lan Wangji’s parents had passed, but hadn’t known any of the story. What must Lan Wangji have felt, moving into this empty, secluded house after Wei Wuxian’s death, in the period of his own confinement?

Lan Xichen finished speaking and was silent. The evening had risen while they stood talking, and now it was nearly dark. Wei Wuxian’s heart was heavy with what he’d heard, though he was grateful to know it.

They stood together for a moment in the darkness. Lan Xichen looked Wei Wuxian in the eyes. “Wei Wuxian,” he said, and something veiled in his voice suddenly gave the impression of a large cat. “My younger brother cares for you very much. When you were gone, he mourned for a long time. Don’t hurt him like that again.”

Wei Wuxian met his gaze. He felt the weight of the comment, and wouldn’t take it lightly. He nodded slowly. “Thank you, Zewu Jun,” he said quietly.

Lan Xichen nodded, and turned away. Wei Wuxian breathed a small relief.

Just at that moment, Lan Wangji appeared in the gate. He’d taken off the elaborate combs he’d worn earlier, and now his hair was pulled back simply. In his hand, he held two jars of Emperor’s Smile. Wei Wuxian could barely believe his eyes.

Lan Xichen looked between the two of them. His glance to Wei Wuxian said, “Don’t forget,” while his look at Lan Wangji was fonder. Hiding a small smile, he departed without another word, walking with one hand behind his back.

Lan Wangji entered the house, and Wei Wuxian nodded that he would follow. He needed to take a moment to collect himself. These brothers would be the death of him!

He stood for a minute in the cold evening and looked up at the night sky, feeling his heart uncomfortably tight. He wished the breeze would blow clean through and take away all the heartache. But it was no use. He was no longer dead, and there were some things that now needed to be spoken.

Feeling like a man walking to the gallows, he climbed the steps and entered the room. Lan Wangji was seated on the floor, his white clothes gracefully arranged around him, pouring—of all things—a cup of Emperor’s Smile. Wei Wuxian was definitely a doomed man.

He stood in the center of the room, and tried to speak. “Thank…” it came out as a faint croak. It was too much to say. He couldn’t say it properly. Thank you for saving me, he meant. Thank you for trusting me when no one else would. Thank you for never giving up on me. Thank you for being your complete, infuriating, exasperating, beautiful self. I’m so sorry you’ve been through so much for me. Thank you.

Lan Wangji looked at him oddly as he squirmed. Eventually, Wei Wuxian took the coward’s way out and gave up for the moment, deciding he needed the aid of Emperor’s Smile before trying again. He sat down and changed the subject. Lan Wangji passed him a cup, and it tasted heavenly.

They spoke of Jin Guangyao and other things. Lan Wangji kept looking at him strangely, and Wei Wuxian heard the voice of Lan Xichen echoing in his ears. The situation had come to this, and Wei Wuxian knew what he had to do. He just needed a little more liquid courage to do it. Lan Wangji, curse him, was drinking tea and seemed to have made up his mind about this long ago. Wei Wuxian, as usual, was only now catching up.

It began to snow outside, and Wei Wuxian walked out to the porch. The Jingshi was aptly named. It was so quiet he could hear the snow fall. The wind had completely gone, and the bamboo was still in the night. Lan Wangji came to stand beside him.

All of the rage and fire of their youth felt like a lifetime ago. What good had it done? It couldn’t bring the dead back to life. Standing in the snow, Wei Wuxian let it all go. He was tired of it. Let them think what they would think; none of it had ever been within his control.

After a while, he heard the soft notes of the guqin coming from behind him. It was the same melody that Lan Wangji had sang to him that night in the cave. He’d never known its name.

Wei Wuxian leaned in the doorway and watched Lan Wangji play. He was completely beautiful. “Lan Zhan,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.” It was so quiet he wasn’t sure Lan Wangji would hear. “Thank you.”

Lan Wangji’s hands stilled on the strings, and he looked up. Wei Wuxian’s heart nearly stopped. The moment seemed like it lasted an eternity.

He slid slowly down the doorframe and sat on the deck. He wasn’t sure it wasn’t because his legs had turned to mush. He’d drank a jar of the wine, but not enough to blame this on it.

The guqin didn’t start again. A moment later Lan Wangji appeared on the porch and sat down beside him. They both leaned against the wall, and watched the snow fall. Lan Wangji was close enough that they were nearly touching, and Wei Wuxian could feel the warmth of his body in the cold air.

“Lan Zhan,” he managed to say, after a long moment.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji looked at him, with a hint of amusement.

Wei Wuxian looked down, and then out at the night. “They’ll hate you now too,” he said at last, quietly. He wasn’t sure he could keep his word to Lan Xichen. No matter what he did, he seemed cursed in this life to attract hate to everyone around him.

Lan Wangji spoke quietly. “Better they hate me for what I am than approve of me for what I am not.” His voice was even, and sure.

Wei Wuxian looked at him. He barely trusted himself. “And what are you?”

“Do you have to ask?”

He laughed, but there was a bit of an edge to it. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought. “Here’s to those on the narrow path, where there is no other way,” he said, raising the wine in a salute and draining the last swallow.

Wei Wuxian put the jar down and, without further hesitation, leaned against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, snuggling close in the cold. Quietly, Lan Wangji shifted to put his arm around him, his white sleeve trailing on the ground. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and just let himself be there. It felt like the safest place in the entire world. Muscle by muscle, he let himself relax.

After a long silence, Lan Wangji spoke, and Wei Wuxian felt the low vibrations in his chest. “The yin tiger seal,” he said, hesitating, as though he was afraid to hear the reply. “Did it hurt your heart?”

Wei Wuxian did not answer quickly. He owed Lan Wangji the truth. “I don’t know,” he said at last. Such a thing was not for him to say. He took Lan Wangji’s hand in his and pressed it over his heart. “You tell me.”

His heart was thumping so loudly, but the pressure of their hands held it in place. They were so close. Somehow the distance between them closed, and Lan Wangji’s lips were on his, soft and warm. Everything fell away—the years, the death, everything. There was only the smell of sandalwood, and the faint taste of tea, and warm arms around him. He hadn’t let himself believe how much he’d wanted this, and yet here it was, the most natural thing in the world.

They kissed for a long time, tangled on the porch, as though neither could believe this was real. Eventually, Lan Wangji pulled back, and gave Wei Wuxian the first full smile he’d ever seen. His eyes were soft and full of warmth.

“Come to bed,” he said gently.

He got to his feet, helping Wei Wuxian up with one hand and leading him inside, closing the door behind them.

Wei Wuxian realized suddenly how cold it was. They had been sitting with both doors open! He shivered, rubbing his arms briskly. Lan Wangji closed the other door and moved quickly to the large stove in the corner, adding a few more pieces of wood.

He returned to Wei Wuxian, who was standing dumbly in the middle of the room. Putting his arms around him, Lan Wangji kissed him again. The energy between them subtly shifted.

Wei Wuxian’s fingers moved down the white-clothed chest. He untied Lan Wangji’s belt sash, fumbling a little in the low light. Something hot was moving in his stomach, and lower down. Lan Wangji’s fingers were on his own belt, which suddenly slipped down and fell to the floor.

Lan Wangji guided them nearer to the bed and removed his robes, retaining enough presence of mind to fold them quickly over the rail. Wei Wuxian did not care, and let his fall in a puddle on the floor. Wei Wuxian half-tripped backwards, falling back on the bed and pulling Lan Wangji down on top on him. He laughed, breathless.

Their bodies pressed tightly together, and Lan Wangji’s dark hair fell forward, brushing his face. He kissed him again, and they fit together like this, moving naturally.

With some last fumbling at clothes they were skin to skin. He moved his hands over Lan Wangji’s smooth chest, exploring this forbidden territory, kissing down his jawline as far as he could reach. Lan Wangji made a noise that he certainly had never made before.

Wei Wuxian hooked one leg around him and rolled them over with a devious grin. Yes, this was much better. Straddling his hips, Wei Wuxian could kiss him properly from on top, with tongue. Lan Wangji moaned again as he pulled away and their hips got a particularly good angle.

Looking mischievous, Wei Wuxian explored downward with his tongue, kissing and nibbling from jaw to that delicious dip between the clavicles. His hands explored Wangji’s chest, working their way down his stomach. He inched himself lower, tasting everything as he went. Eventually, he got to his hips, putting one palm flat on Lan Wangji’s stomach cautioning him not to try anything, while he kissed his way down one thigh and up the other.

Despite his reputation, Wei Wuxian had never done this before. He had, however, read a great number of Nie Huaisang’s dirty books, and he knew how his own body worked. Wetting his lips and looking Lan Wangji full in the eyes, he took him in his mouth. He tasted salty and musky, and it made Wei Wuxian completely hard himself.

Lan Wangji arched his back and moaned quite loudly, and Wei Wuxian decided that he was going to take him apart thoroughly and completely, wringing as much debauched sound as possible from this poor, rule-abiding man.

Letting his body take the lead, Wei Wuxian set about learning what his tongue could do. One of the things he discovered was that he liked doing this, a lot. There was a delightful sensation of his lips around the head of Lan Wangji’s erection, and his tongue could follow the little dip along the top, licking away the salty liquid that leaked. Lan Wangji began to move, and he pressed down firmly with the hand on his stomach, using the other one to help his work, stroking below what he could take into his mouth.

Eventually—actually, before very long—Lan Wangji put a hand on his head to caution him. “Wei Ying,” he said, breathless. Wei Wuxian relented, returning upward to kiss him deeply, knowing how his mouth must taste. His own hips seemed to have a mind of their own, grinding against Wangji’s hipbone with their legs in between each other’s. The angle was a little awkward, but it felt so good, and he had no inhibition about making some noise of his own.

It caught him by surprise when Lan Wangji flipped them over again, and he was pinned by someone straddling his hips. “Oh,” he whispered, as Lan Wangji put his tongue to a spot just under his jaw, while those beautiful, strong fingers of his played down his sides.

It was another pleasant discovery that he liked being on the bottom. Actually, it was wonderful. Lan Wangji moved deliberately, using his leverage to hold Wei Wuxian in place while he did some exploring of his own, moving his hands over every inch of his torso, carefully avoiding the bandage that was still wrapped around his left side.

Wei Wuxian wriggled, trying to get some friction at his hips. Lan Wangji pushed him down. “Hold still,” he said, and Wei Wuxian obeyed, pouting just a little. Lan Wangji kissed the corners of his mouth, but didn’t move his hips. How frustrating.

“Lan Zhan,” he whined, but it came out more of a desperate pant. Lan Wangji smiled, and there was something of his own deviousness in it.

Leaning forward, Lan Wangji took Wei Wuxian’s cock in his hands, and Wei Wuxian squeezed his eyes shut in an effort not to come right there.

Lan Wangji looked very pleased with this result. He eased off, gauging his motion to the responses, clearly having learned something from Wei Wuxian’s earlier efforts. His grip was firm and rhythmic, and he paid very close attention. It was Wei Wuxian who seemed to be the one being taken to pieces.

Lan Wangji repositioned himself, and Wei Wuxian’s breath caught in his throat as he realized what Lan Wangji was about to do. Those dark eyes looked up at him, and then Lan Wangji—of all people in the entire world—Lan Wangji took his throbbing, weeping cock into his perfect mouth. Even doing this, he seemed etherial. Those lips were doing something positively demonic to him, and he couldn’t take it much longer.

Wei Wuxian whined deep in his throat and put a hand on Wangji’s head. It didn’t have the effect he expected. Lan Wangji made a sort of deep purring sound and put Wei Wuxian’s other hand on his head as well. He also slowed down a bit. But this was an even worse predicament, because now both of his hands were tangled in that hair, as Lan Wangji’s tongue continued to do unspeakable things.

More insistently this time, he pulled Lan Wangji upward and kissed him deeply and fiercely. He tasted his own salt on those lips, and yes, he could die again right now and consider himself blessed.

Their hips began to grind in motion together. Wei Wuxian held tight as the speed increased, and came gasping between them. Lan Wangji came a moment later, and Wei Wuxian got to watch his face, as his eyes closed and brows furrowed. It was nearly enough to make Wei Wuxian hard again, if his cock could have done it.

They collapsed together, catching their breath. Wei Wuxian laughed softly and Lan Wangji smiled at him with complete love in his eyes. He snuggled close onto Lan Wangji’s chest, and Wangji pulled the blanket over them both, never mind the mess.

They lay there, tangled together in the semidarkness. Wei Wuxian could feel Lan Wangji’s heartbeat, and he moved his thumb in small circles. Lan Wangji covered his hand with his own, and pulled him closer, wrapping him in his arms.

“Wei Ying,” he said softly, protectively. His hair was loose and disheveled, and Wei Wuxian knew his own must be as well. Somehow, his forehead band remained immaculate, not even a little crooked.

Wei Wuxian craned his neck to look up at it. He lifted himself slightly and slowly drew one finger over the ribbon, wondering that Lan Wangji let him do it.

Lan Wangji watched him with fond amusement. Wei Wuxian, not being able to help himself, tried to see how far he could push the limits, drawing his finger down the center of Lan Wangji’s nose and then tapped him lightly right in the center of the headband’s centerpiece. Lan Wangji gently captured Wei Wuxian’s hand and brought it back under the blanket.

“Do you know how annoying you are sometimes?” Lan Wangji asked, not unplayfully.

Wei Wuxian beamed. “Do you know how stodgy you are sometimes?” he replied.

“How stodgy was this?” Lan Wangji said with a tiny smirk, referring to what they’d just done together in bed.

Wei Wuxian conceded the point. “This has to be against at least one of your rules,” he replied.

Lan Wangji looked suddenly serious. “There are no rules against love.”

“Is that what this is?” Wei Wuxian asked. The lump was back in his throat.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said softly.

Wei Wuxian didn’t reply. He tangled himself closer and tucked his head into the small corner between Lan Wangji’s neck and shoulder, burying his face in the smooth hair. It smelled completely of Wangji, and he closed his eyes, wanting to wrap himself in it.

He wasn’t sure how long they spent like that before a small change in Lan Wangji’s breathing made Wei Wuxian look up, and he realized that tears were falling silently from his friend’s eyes, sliding down the sides of his temple.

“Lan Zhan,” he whispered.

Lan Wangji closed his eyes. “You were gone,” he said at last, his voice low and full of emotion in a way that Wei Wuxian had never heard it before. “I saw you fall. I couldn’t stop it. And then you were gone.” He paused for a moment, and more tears fell. “I missed you so much.” His voice broke and his shoulders shook with sobs.

Lan Wangji turned toward him and Wei Wuxian pulled him close, wrapping his arms around him. He held him tight as he cried, his whole body shaking and curled into his arms.

“I missed you so much,” Lan Wangji said again. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m so sorry.”

Wei Wuxian was also crying now, and they held each other tightly.

“It was my fault,” Wei Wuxian said, brokenly. “It was my fault. I was angry and confused and lost, and I didn’t want to stay.” His body shook and he let it come, not trying to hide anymore. “Lan Zhan, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m so sorry.”

They held each other close.

“Lan Zhan, I can’t be any other way,” he said at last. “I can only be this.”

“I know,” Lan Wangji said softly. “I know. You don’t have to be.”

Very gradually, the sobs passed and they loosened their grip on each other just a little. Wei Wuxian brushed a finger over Lan Wangji’s cheeks, wiping away the tears. They lay face to face on the pillow, and Wei Wuxian scooted closer so that their foreheads and the tips of their noses were pressed together as their breathing slowed.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said at last, in barely a whisper. He sounded very vulnerable, and a little afraid.

Wei Wuxian opened his eyes and pulled back enough to focus on him.

Lan Wangji wet his lips and pressed one hand tighter around Wei Wuxian. His voice was very quiet. “Do you still want to die?”

Wei Wuxian gave a tiny laugh, full of sadness and grief and forgiveness. He shook his head, and felt love surge up inside him. “No,” he said simply. And with some surprise, he realized that he meant it.

 

***

 

Lan Wangji woke to the morning bell, just as wrapped around Wei Wuxian as Wei Wuxian was around him. They had fallen asleep like that, exhausted by emotion and love. For the first time in living memory, Lan Wangji did not get up at the sound of the bell. He lay there, and looked at Wei Wuxian’s sleeping face, tucked on one curled arm. His lips were slightly parted and his hair was a mess, and Lan Wangji loved him completely.

He reached out very gently to brush a stray piece of hair away from Wei Wuxian’s face, and the sleeping figure stirred. His eyes opened slowly, taking in Lan Wangji and the fact that this was still real, even in the morning.

Lan Wangji kissed him softly on the forehead and they woke up slowly together, each taking some time to adjust to how things had changed. It felt both completely natural and utterly marvelous to Lan Wangji to lie here like this, holding such a creature in his arms. He sent a silent prayer that he could do this every morning for the rest of his life, knowing that even if they didn’t have long together, still it would be enough.

Slowly, Wei Wuxian began to stir again, and Lan Wangji kissed him, wondering at the soft taste of those full, clever lips and remembering the sight of them disappearing over his erection the night before. Wei Wuxian smiled into the kiss and deepened it, slipping in his tongue. He tasted of himself and of the morning.

The memory of last night stirred something, and Lan Wangji felt himself begin to grow hard as Wei Wuxian nudged against him, apparently with the same idea. Their bodies began to move together in an easy, lazy manner.

Wei Wuxian’s hips were growing insistent. His erection was pressed between them, and Lan Wangji could feel it rubbing against his lower stomach. Their breathing had grown sharper, and the kiss had broken into shallow nipping and brushes of lips.

Lan Wangji spread a firm hand on Wei Wuxian’s chest and pushed him down on his back. Last night had been very instructive, and he intended to learn more. Wei Wuxian, despite all his fire and talk, was actually very soft. He followed Lan Wangji’s lead easily with a wide-eyed openness that seemed to surprise even himself. If only he would behave like this the rest of the time!

“Don’t wriggle,” Lan Wangji told him, beginning to test the limits of this new behavior. Wei Wuxian stilled and watched warily as Lan Wangji straddled him while the blanket fell off around them.

Lan Wangji leaned forward and kissed the spot under Wei Wuxian’s jaw that he had discovered last night. Wei Wuxian made a little moan and closed his eyes. Lan Wangji did it again, more slowly, putting his tongue to the warm skin and nibbling gently. Wei Wuxian’s moaned more loudly and tried to move his hips.

“Don’t wriggle,” Lan Wangji said again, more firmly, not moving from his careful work of placing kisses along the way to Wei Wuxian’s ear.

Wei Wuxian tried to pout, but it didn’t last long. His head fell back, giving Lan Wangji better access to continue.

“Lan—Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian panted, still trying to move his hips. “Just—just a little more this way,” he said, trying to shift so that he could get a better angle.

“Be quiet,” Lan Wangji said, reaching his ear and giving it an experimental tug with his lips.

“Lan—Lan Zhan.”

It was barely intelligible, really. Much more of a whine. Lan Wangji added some tongue, and Wei Wuxian moaned quite indecently.

“Please, just a little more— —mmmph. MMMngh!”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes grew wide as he realized that Lan Wangji had muted him.

Lan Wangji looked up to appreciate the expression on his face. “Article 38. No frivolous speech,” he said evenly, quoting the sect rules.

Wei Wuxian stared at him in disbelief. It was extremely satisfying. He tried to say something, but it came out as another mumble.

“Tap me on the shoulder if you want me to stop,” Lan Wangji said. “Can you try it?”

Wei Wuxian looked at him.

“Wei Ying,” he repeated, more firmly. “Please try it.”

Wei Wuxian rapped him on his bare shoulder with an open palm, quite hard.

Despite what people thought, Lan Wangji was not repressed. He was reserved, yes. But he knew himself well, and he sought to cultivate a clarity and uprightness in all things, including love. There was nothing extra in his movements now; no shame, no embarrassment. To express love through sexuality was the most natural thing, and so he did it naturally, with a certain lightness. Being with Wei Wuxian made it easy, bringing out something playful and innocent in him. Lan Wangji had always followed the rules because he understood that there was a freedom within their guidance, not because he felt tied down. His behavior in bed was no different.

To see Wei Wuxian underneath him like this, looking so open and vulnerable, in his own bed, Lan Wangji felt overcome with protectiveness. Wei Wuxian was such a wild bird. Lan Wangji didn’t want to try to cage him. But having him pinned between his legs like this, writhing just a little, he did want to see how far he could go.

Satisfied with Wei Wuxian’s ability to communicate, Lan Wangji shifted his weight lower down. He planted a kiss in his navel, and then left a slow trail of kisses downward from there. Pausing, he looked up. “Don’t wriggle,” he said for a third time, and took Wei Wuxian in his mouth.

The moans weren’t quite as good with the muting spell in place, but Wei Wuxian was making some other desperate little noises that made up for it. He was clearly trying not to wriggle, with limited success.

Lan Wangji took a moment to appreciate the girth of Wei Wuxian’s cock in his mouth. He worked his tongue around the head and took as much length as he could, sucking a bit on the way up. Wei Wuxian tasted salty and clean.

After a minute of that, Wei Wuxian seemed to be enjoying it entirely too much and Lan Wangji stopped, with some internal regret.

Evaluating Wei Wuxian carefully, he looked down at him. “Don’t move,” he cautioned. Then he swung his leg over and got up off the bed.

Wei Wuxian watched him with wide eyes. Lan Wangji’s mind stopped dead for a moment to see him laid out like that, with his lips kissed red and his cock twitching.

Lan Wangji retrieved a small jar of oil from a cabinet. His back was turned for a brief moment, and when he turned back, Wei Wuxian was actually reaching down to touch himself.

Lan Wangji knocked his hand away, none too gently. “Article 14. No questioning the authority of one’s seniors,” he said, quoting another rule.

Wei Wuxian truly pouted, drawing his eyebrows together in a pathetic frown.

“Article 334. No scowling without good reason,” Lan Wangji said with a smooth face.

“Mmmmmghh!” Wei Wuxian said, and tried to scoot higher up on the bed.

“Article 98. No leaving without permission.” Lan Wangji pinned him down again.

Wei Wuxian was already nearly at his wit’s end, and Lan Wangji was just getting started.

“Article 10. No evasion of punishment,” he said, hitching one of Wei Wuxian’s knees upward, spreading him open beneath him. He poured a generous amount of oil on his fingers and rubbed them to warm it up. Watching Wei Wuxian very carefully for his reaction, he leaned forward and slowly inserted one finger.

Wei Wuxian took it easily, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back. If he could have opened his mouth, he clearly would have.

Lan Wangji moved the finger, gauging the responses carefully. Wei Wuxian seemed sensitive, but not too sensitive. When it seemed right, he added a second finger, sliding in easily with the oil. The opening was tight but yielding, and Wei Wuxian’s cock was so hard it was curving upward and bobbing a little with the motion. It was leaking at the top, though Lan Wangji had not touched it in several minutes.

Lan Wangji’s own erection was also uncomfortably hard.

He moved the fingers together, stretching the opening a little and appreciating just what he was doing, with two fingers deep inside Wei Wuxian’s asshole.

When Wei Wuxian began to squirm again, he decided that was enough and removed his hand. He poured more oil on his fingers, using them to coat his cock with a thick layer until it was shiny.

Adjusting the angle of Wei Wuxian’s knees to provide better access, he positioned himself, watching the expressions on his face. Wei Wuxian seemed already undone. The red ribbon in his hair had mostly slipped out, and pieces of it fell in a messy frame around his face. His hands bunched into fists in the blankets. Lan Wangji couldn’t resist leaning forward to kiss him gently.

“Are you ready?” Lan Wangji asked.

Wei Wuxian met his eyes and nodded.

“Tell me to stop for any reason,” he said, as a reminder.

Very gently, Lan Wangji eased himself in. He paused as much to give himself a moment to get used to the sensation as for Wei Wuxian to relax around him. It was very tight, and he made some deep moans himself as they worked together. Wei Wuxian held him closely, and when he was fully inside, he paused again for a long moment. Their foreheads were touching and their breathing was ragged. Wei Wuxian leaned in for a kiss, and their mouths met roughly.

Then he began to move, slowly at first, and then picking up a rhythm. Wei Wuxian’s legs wrapped around him and he could go deep. Fortunately there was plenty of oil, and they slid together easily.

Lan Wangji couldn’t last long like this. He had to pause several times, and once pulled completely out. Wei Wuxian moved with him and moaned loudly. There wasn’t much pressure on Wei Wuxian’s cock, and he tried again to put a hand on himself. Lan Wangji removed it and put both of his hands over Lan Wangji’s own shoulders. Wei Wuxian tangled them in his hair and tried to pull him closer. His eyes were clearly begging.

“Article 71. No corrupting the integrity of others,” Lan Wangji said, but his voice was breathless and he was near his own limit.

Putting his own hand on Wei Wuxian’s poor cock, Lan Wangji gave it a couple of good pulls and shoved roughly with his hips. He used his last presence of mind to remove the muting spell just before Wei Wuxian came hard, and he followed nearly immediately after. Neither one of them was quiet.

They collapsed together and Lan Wangji regained his senses and withdrew. The bedding was truly a disaster. He pulled Wei Wuxian to face him and kissed him very tenderly for a long time.

He got up and filled the small wash basin with a pitcher of water. It was cold, but would have to do. He wet a washcloth and quickly wiped himself off, rinsing the cloth and bringing it back to the bed. Wei Wuxian seemed dazed. Lan Wangji gently wiped him clean. Then he climbed back in the bed and spooned around him, pulling the covers back over them both.

After a long moment, Wei Wuxian finally regained the power of speech. “What did I ever do to you to deserve that?” he asked, though his voice said it lovingly.

Lan Wangji did not dignify that question with a list of the possible answers. “You could have asked me to stop anytime,” he said gently. Wei Wuxian had certainly seemed to enjoy every bit of it.

Wei Wuxian harrumphed.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and Wei Wuxian turned toward him. “Was it okay?”

Wei Wuxian smiled at him, and whatever lingering doubt had crept into in Lan Wangji’s mind dissipated immediately. The smile was completely genuine.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said. After a moment he lowered his eyes and looked very pretty. “You could…” he trailed off. “You could do it again sometime. If you wanted.”

Lan Wangji kissed him. “Article 52. No consorting with evil persons,” he said. And then he gave Wei Wuxian an evil look that would have been perfectly at home on the Yiling Patriach’s own face.

Wei Wuxian regarded him with a new appreciation and something approaching awe. They had always been very closely matched.

“I love you very much,” Lan Wangji said, kissing him again.

“I know,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Lan Zhan, I love you too.”

 

 

*****

 

BONUS SCENE: One Afternoon

They were eating lunch in a tea shop, and overheard a loud conversation between some of the other patrons.

“Have you heard, the Yiling Patriarch has returned from beyond the grave!”

“I heard he possessed a dismembered body and had to sew the parts back together himself.”

“I heard he had a secret tryst with Jin Guangyao and they plotted together to wipe out the other sects, but then he became a jilted lover and murdered the Chief Cultivator in his sleep.”

“I heard that too, but it was Jin Guangyao who was the jilted lover and tried to frame the Yiling Patriarch in front of all the other sects.”

“You’re both wrong. The Yiling Patriarch was in love with Madam Jin, and they conspired together to murder her husband!”

Lan Wangji paid the bill and they left in silence. They walked side by side down the street. When they were out of earshot, Lan Wangji remarked blandly, “It’s a shame they haven’t heard that the Yiling Patriarch enjoys getting fucked into a writhing mess and then begs for more.” His face was a study in equanimity.

Wei Wuxian cleared his throat and straightened his robe. Lan Wangji risked a sidelong glance. Wei Wuxian was actually blushing.