The Grand Master summons both of them when he returns from the gathering, which is unusual. Lan Xichen is the one who will take on the duties of Sect Leader when he is old enough; their uncle will usually sit down with him in private, after one of these gatherings, and carefully take him through what was discussed and what the outcomes were, and how they relate to the future of cultivation in general and the Lan in particular.
Lan Wangji has never been invited to sit with them before.
Cognisant of the honour, he sits very quietly for the first hour, listening carefully and making a mental list of the things which he doesn't quite understand and will need to read more about later.
And then comes this:
"I think we can see Madam Yu's hand in the Jiang sect's eagerness to make alliances, this year. By the end of the gathering there was an agreement in place to betroth their daughter to the heir of the Jin sect. And…" The Grand Master looks at Lan Wangji, who attempts automatically to sit up straighter, and discovers to his small pleasure that he is already sitting as straight as he can. "They expressed a strong desire to make a similar arrangement with us."
"The Yunmeng Jiang are prosperous and honourable," Lan Xichen says.
"Yes. It is a wise alliance to preserve. And so I have agreed to the betrothal of Lan Wangji to their adopted ward and most senior disciple, Wei Wuxian."
Lan Wangji remains quiet. He has not been addressed, and this is a matter of politics; it is only proper that it be discussed by the current and future sect leaders.
Their uncle continues, "He is not a blood son of Jiang-zongzhu, but he is treated in all ways as one. I do not take their offering of him as an insult."
Lan Xichen nods thoughtfully. "I have a question, shufu."
"Circumstances may change. What if when the time comes for the alliance to be formalised, our relations with the Yunmeng Jiang have also changed? Are we still bound to them, even if they are no longer an honourable group?"
An approving nod. It was a wise question, then. Some questions are wise and some are bad. At seven years old, Lan Wangji is getting better at telling the difference between the two. Still, he finds it best to stay quiet, if he is not sure, and see if he can find the answer for himself in the library.
"This kind of betrothal is an agreement between sects, not a formal contract," says their uncle. "We can agree to dissolve it at any time. Or either side may ask to be released from it, though to do so without a clear cause would be considered an insult." He pauses, and once again looks at Lan Wangji. "Wangji, do you understand what we have been saying? That you are now betrothed to this Wei Wuxian?"
Lan Wangji nods. "When we are older, we will be married."
"And do you understand what that means?"
He nods again. Mother and Father were married. Married people are given their own house each, full of books, and they are allowed to live there in perfect quiet and nobody may bother them at all. It sounds wonderful.
Because it is proper to show gratitude for kindness, Lan Wangji bows and says, "Thank you, shufu. I should like to be married."
The Grand Master looks at him with an expression of approving pride that only appears when Lan Wangji has performed something exceptionally well, and so he has a quiet thrill of warmth which gives him the courage to ask a question. As questions go, this is one of his more common ones, and is usually safe:
"Is there something I can read, to find out more?"
Of the 3500 principles of the Gusu Lan, one hundred and thirty-three of them pertain to marriage. These are not listed in a public place, but are collected in a small book. The Grand Master does not let Lan Wangji read the whole book at once. He has a disciple transcribe those sections that he thinks it is proper for Lan Wangji to read--and memorise, of course, that goes without saying.
Address your partner with courtesy at all times.
Honour your partner's parents and older relatives as your own.
Keep your belongings and household in good order out of respect for your partner.
When Lan Wangji is ten years old, he meets his betrothed face-to-face for the first time, when Jiang-zongzhu brings his son and his ward on a brief visit to the Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji is not nervous. He is not. He only wishes to give a good impression, to show how much the Lan respect this agreement between the sects.
He bows to Wei Wuxian, sword in hand, sleeves falling properly. Wei Wuxian bows in return, and the sect leaders begin the opening courtesies, and for all of ten minutes Lan Wangji is under the impression that he is betrothed to a boy who is perfectly normal and acceptable apart from an unfortunate tendency to fidget with his clothes.
That impression does not last.
"No running," Lan Wangji says, hearing his voice break with frustration.
"Really?" Wei Wuxian does not exactly stop running, but his hand hooks on the nearest pillar and he swings around it in a circle, ending up facing Lan Wangji. "Why not?"
"Running is forbidden in Cloud Recesses," Lan Wangji says. "It is one of the principles."
"Okay, but why?"
Lan Wangji blinks his disdain for the question. Some of Wei Wuxian's hair is coming free of his topknot, dangling next to his cheeks like stray brush-strokes, carelessly inked, out of place.
Wei Wuxian brushes the hair away with equal carelessness. It falls back again at once. He says, "That is stupid. What if the Cloud Recesses were under attack? Would the disciple sounding the alarm have to calmly walk to let everyone know?"
"Of course not," says Lan Wangji. "Anyway, they would send up a danger signal, obviously. And the principles are not stupid."
Wei Wuxian begins to say something, then catches sight of the young Jiang Wanyin, who has been practicing sword techniques with Lan Xichen.
"A-Cheng," Wei Wuxian yells--"Guess what else you're not allowed to do here!"--and takes off running.
"I told you not to call me that," snaps the Jiang heir, shoving at him.
"Do not raise your voice past the level of decorum," says Lan Wangji, but because he is not raising his voice, Wei Wuxian doesn't hear him. Just as well. He would probably demand to know if a disciple is not allowed to yell in the event of a fire, because he is an idiot who does not understand that principles are to be interpreted hand-in-hand with rational sense.
"Not every sect is like the Lan," Lan Wangji's uncle tells him, later. "We are respected throughout the cultivation world for our discipline and our extraordinary commitment to the righteous path, because it is extraordinary. The rules governing behaviour are likely more lax, in Lotus Pier. You should show forbearance while they learn."
There is nothing in the Lan principles about showing forbearance for ill-mannered pests. Lan Wangji does not point this out.
"And it is your duty, Wangji," his uncle says, "to set an example of proper behaviour."
Lan Wangji nods. He is good at that.
So he takes Wei Wuxian to the library, where Wei Wuxian fidgets his way through an explanation of the more precious and ancient texts. Then he takes both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin to sit at the back of one of the meditation classes for the senior disciples, which Lan Wangji is sometimes allowed to attend as a great privilege, if his work in other areas has been exemplary. He closes his eyes and sinks into contemplation deep enough that he stops being aware of the shifting and whispering taking place beside him.
"I'm so bored!" Wei Wuxian bursts out, after the noon meal. He flings himself onto the grass. "How do you stand it here, doing nothing all day?"
Lan Wangji stares at him. Nothing? Between meditation, his studies of the written principles and the history and techniques of cultivation, training with the sword, and training on the guqin, he frequently finds himself with not a single spare moment from the hour of rising to when he lies down in bed.
Clearly, this irritating boy is just trying to test him--to get a reaction, to trick Lan Wangji into breaking self-discipline. Lan Wangji will show him that this is a doomed attempt.
"I will show you the waterfall that is best for meditation," he says, and walks off without looking to see if Wei Wuxian will follow. He always does, whether Lan Wangji wants him to or not.
That day he learns that it is possible to tire Wei Wuxian out to the point where he stops running, but only just, and only with a three-hour walk up and down a mountain. Afterwards Lan Wangji's limbs drag on his body like wet clothes but he pushes himself through an hour's worth of sword exercises mostly to prove that he can. His betrothed, who has somehow begged a handful of fresh-baked tiny cakes from the kitchens, sits sprawled on a rock and watches him.
"You're very good," Wei Wuxian says. "When we are married, you'll have to teach me how to do all of those tricks!"
Lan Wangji has his mouth open to say, I can teach you now, but he should really be meditating, to allow the positive effects of the exercises to properly nourish his golden core; to make himself a better cultivator tomorrow than he is today. Besides, he is truly exhausted himself, now. He does not think he could bear it if he were to stumble or make an obvious error in front of Wei Wuxian, who is looking at him with a clear, easy admiration that Lan Wangji has never seen on the face of any Lan disciple. Has never seen in the Cloud Recesses at all.
"Yes," he says instead. "When we are married."
The visit lasts for seven turbulent days and is ended, like the second of the two boards that enclose the folded paper of a book, with another exchange of bows. This time Wei Wuxian's conduct is perfect. Lan Wangji stares at the top of his bent head, the strands of unruly hair hanging down towards his feet, and feels subtly mocked.
He carries around with him for the rest of that day the unease of feeling large things and being unable to sort them into their proper places, or even to push them far enough aside that he can easily meditate. So he does what he usually does, in these rare cases: he plays music. Music with no spiritual power behind it, no attempt to bend the world with a melodic progression. Just music. Just the thrum of strings under his fingertips, and a song hanging in the air like the end of rain.
When his mother died, Lan Wangji created a tune for her. He was very young; it is a young tune, simple, and does not adhere to all the ideal principles of harmony. But he still plays it, sometimes, when he wants to remember the floral smell of her skin as she leant close and kissed the top of his head while he read aloud.
He plays it now.
When Lan Wangji is sixteen he is allowed to study the full book. He skims his eyes through the known phrases and dictums until he finds a section that is unfamiliar.
Reserve the pleasures and duties of physical love strictly for your partner, and only after the marriage ceremony has taken place.
Partners shall keep separate bedchambers, and sleep a full night in the same bed only on the first night of the marriage.
The sheets of the marital bed should be made fresh both before and after.
Wash your own body thoroughly both before and after.
The other principles expand upon the nature and acts of physical love, with a focus on always asking permission and never employing force. Lan Wangji skims a finger down the columns related to moons and blood and conceiving children.
The act of physical love has the benefit of increasing one's spiritual energy, but you must meditate immediately afterwards for at least an hour in order for the benefit to be properly felt.
It's clear that the upcoming lectures to be held at Cloud Recesses are the trigger for his uncle and brother deciding that his knowledge should be expanded in this way. Not only will he see his betrothed, Wei Wuxian, for the first time in six years, but he will also be surrounded by new faces.
Lan Xichen has expressed the hope that his younger brother will make some friends during the lectures. The Book of Marital Principles is there to warn Lan Wangji, as a betrothed young man, against becoming overly close with any of those potential friends.
As if that were any sort of danger, Lan Wangji thinks dismissively. There are plenty of polite, skillful young people among the Lan disciples, and some of them have the symmetrical features and round limbs and well-presented forms that the principles exhort one to maintain in oneself, as a matter of courtesy and consideration towards one's future partner. He has never had the slightest desire to become physically intimate with any of them.
The best form of marital intimacy is not physical, the principles note, as if agreeing with him. It is the quiet contemplation of noble values and spiritual strength, in the presence of one's partner.
A few days later, a smaller and newer pamphlet appears on top of the Book of Marital Principles where it sits on Lan Wangji's favoured table in the library. This one outlines how certain principles of physical love may differ when the two partners in a marriage are both men.
The supplementary materials are less straightforward and more poetically allusive, but Lan Wangji studies them diligently. Some of the phrases elicit images in his mind which produce a faint heat that simmers in his blood, or a skittering of sensation over his skin; nothing that can't be ignored or dismissed.
And then the Jiang sect arrives for the lectures.
At first, Lan Wangji makes no connection between the marital principles and the personified annoyance that is Wei Wuxian. He’s too busy being incandescent with indignation that his betrothed would show so little respect: first he is careless enough to lose his sect's invitation, then rude enough to argue with the rules! Not only that, to actively flout them by bringing alcohol into the place!
Then Lan Wangji finds himself looking at Wei Wuxian down the length of two swords, fought to a standstill in a matter of minutes, and he is so busy being surprised by it that he has nothing with which to defend himself against the sight of Wei Wuxian's face, lit up by laughter and delight.
Oh, thinks Lan Wangji, as his skin tightens helplessly around him like a rope around the wrist.
Three days later, Lan Wangji is convinced that his body is a traitor and its every reaction should be completely ignored. How dare it have such a reaction to Wei Wuxian, of all people? Why must Lan Wangji be betrothed to Wei Wuxian, of all people?
He wants to ask his uncle why he couldn't have been betrothed instead to Jin Zixuan, who has clearly read the marital principles, and who comports himself with the dignity that befits a noble cultivator? Or even Jiang Yanli, who is well spoken and calm and makes Lan Wangji feel equally calm to be in her presence, with none of these silly, inconvenient flares of heat?
But that would not be a wise question.
And besides, Lan Wangji already knows the answer: supplementary materials, and the relations represented within them, are for those who will not be expected to produce the next heir of a sect. Jin Zixuan will be a sect leader; as his wife, Jiang Yanli will be the mother of a sect leader. Their marriage will probably be sedate and well-disciplined and perfect.
And Lan Wangji is going to be married to someone who doesn’t seem to know any of the principles of marriage, not a single one. Wei Wuxian comports himself with no respect and no decorum. He does not honour Lan Wangji's uncle as he would his own relatives--or perhaps he does, Lan Wangji thinks despairingly, watching his betrothed have a loud shoving match with Jiang Wanyin in the courtyard as though they have not matured at all in the past six years.
He addresses Lan Wangji not in the soft, courteous tones due to one's betrothed, but by joyfully shouting his intimate name as soon as Lan Wangji comes within his eyesight, and grinning all over his face as he does so. He talks back to the Grand Master when answering questions, and he asks questions of his own that are not wise.
It's entirely unsurprising that he is the first among all the visiting cultivators to receive punishment.
"Wangji," the Grand Master says, "take him to the library."
Your betrothed, your mess to clean up, is the unspoken addition. This is a lesson for him as well. Lan Wangji remembers the fidgeting young boy and looks at the fidgeting young man and thinks that here is one case where copying the Chapter of Conduct one thousand times might well have no effect at all.
He is, as usual, correct.
Lan Wangji hauls his wayward betrothed down off a mountain and installs him in the library. Less than an hour later, Wei Wuxian's upper body is sprawled across the desk in a posture of showy despair. He is dangling the corner of his sleeve across the inkstone. It will stain.
"You should maintain a proper seat," Lan Wangji tells him.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whines. "I've already done one hundred copies."
Lan Wangji doesn't reply. He reads another half-page of his own book.
"So cruel to your future husband," Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji can hear his pout, and refuses to look at it. "You should be nicer to me, Lan Zhan. Or do the Lan not believe in kindness before marriage?"
Lan Wangji directs his attention to the next page.
"No kindness? Ah, so cruel. What is one allowed to do before marriage, I wonder? Holding hands? I suppose the Lan would consider even that to be shocking. What about kissing?"
Lan Wangji knows he is being baited, knows he is allowing Wei Wuxian to distract them both from the punishment task. But he is at least asking proper questions about the marital principles. Lan Wangji has a duty to correct his ignorance.
He says, "No."
"No kissing? What about kissing…not on the mouth?" Wei Wuxian dissolves into laughter when Lan Wangji glares at him. The sound of it fills the library, shocking and bright as a sudden lantern lit in a dark room. "I meant on the hand! Lan Zhan! Where did your dirty thoughts go?"
Lan Wangji concentrates on maintaining a proper seat. He drags his gaze away from Wei Wuxian's mouth, which is full and slightly ink-stained and which curves beautifully around that lantern of laughter.
Silence, for a minute. Lan Wangji does not trust it.
Wei Wuxian's voice comes from startlingly close--somehow he has managed to cross the floor without making a sound--and Lan Wangji looks up sharply, just in time to see Wei Wuxian press an extravagant kiss to a piece of paper and then shove that paper in front of Lan Wangji's own face.
Lan Wangji's lips make contact with the paper for the barest, slimmest of seconds. Then he snatches it away and tears it in half, and lets the pieces glide to the floor.
"Not even a kiss delivered by letter, as in the great romances," says Wei Wuxian mournfully. He has settled himself beside Lan Wangji's table and is now slumped leaning on its corner. "What if we were tragically separated, Lan Zhan, and a letter written in code was the only way I could convey my deep, dutiful affections to you?"
"That would be acceptable," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian brightens, his whole body rising into something that is almost a proper seat. "Yes?"
"If we were married."
The slump resumes. Lan Wangji returns his attention to his book, and for a moment his eyes are completely unable to process what he's looking at. It's only when Wei Wuxian says, offhand tone bursting at the seams with glee, "What are you reading? Anything interesting?" that Lan Wangji's brain finally shouts pornography! You're looking at pornography!
Pornography is not, actually, forbidden within Cloud Recesses. There are some volumes of erotic poetry in the library which are clearly marked and treasured for their literary and historical value. And there are the supplementary materials, too.
None of them have pictures.
Lan Wangji lifts his gaze to Wei Wuxian's. He can feel fury making a tight mask of his face. The awful thing is that the image of the two men--their position, the artful drape of their clothes, the things not obscured by the clothes--refuses to be banished, and it's as though he is looking at Wei Wuxian through it. He is painfully aware of Wei Wuxian's slim waist, and the length of his bent legs as he rolls laughing on the floor. And what his bare thighs might look like, or his collarbone, if Lan Wangji hauled him upright by the robes and then--if he--
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, fighting down his body as it shouts its desire for actions that are not respectful and not quiet and have nothing at all to do with the duties owed to a partner.
Wei Wuxian's laughter is settling to throaty chuckles. Lan Wangji grimly shreds the offensive book, ignoring the abrupt squawks of pain this elicits, and stalks out of the library. He will apologise to his uncle later, and promise that Wei Wuxian will complete the thousand copies, even if Lan Wangji has to stand over him the entire time and--pin his legs to the floor, and--
Lan Wangji goes to sit in the cold springs. Something is clearly awry with him.
Of course much of the blame belongs to Wei Wuxian, but not all. It is the responsibility of the individual to control one's behaviour and thoughts. Just because Wei Wuxian could not control a kite in a gentle breeze, it does not mean Lan Wangji can allow his own standards to slip.
Later, Lan Wangji will pretend that he remembers absolutely nothing that occurred when he was drunk. This will not involve any outright lies; telling untruths is forbidden. It is a simple matter to preserve an unblinking silence when Wei Wuxian tries to determine, with attempts that swing between gleeful and awkward, the chances that Lan Wangji remembers and will one day turn around and wreak some kind of revenge on him.
Lan Wangji is coming to know his betrothed. Keeping him in suspense is revenge enough.
He remembers: Wei Wuxian's fingers dancing close to his forehead ribbon. Slapping him away. Wei Wuxian declaring dramatically that the Lan have so many rules, and they're so rigid and pretentious, why would anyone want to marry into this sect!
The words bang against the inside of Lan Wangji's skull in time with the snap of wood against his shoulders. He has not been beaten as punishment since he was very young. It hurts more than he expected.
The hangover is not exactly helping.
"What are you doing?" Wei Wuxian demands, mid-beating. He is wriggling and making incredulous faces; though, Lan Wangji notices, his knees have not moved a single inch, nor has he actually attempted to avoid the blows. And he is still talking. He is like a small child trying to keep taking bites of fruit as his mother forces layers of clothing over his head: the beating is no more than an inconvenience to his current activity, which is--once again--being a personal aggravation to Lan Wangji. "Wh--ow--why didn't you--"
Lan Wangji looks straight ahead and ignores him.
Afterwards they are surrounded by the other young visiting cultivators, half of whom showed a disgraceful eagerness to watch someone else get thrashed, and the other half of whom have wandered up in the aftermath to express their concern. Jiang Wanyin shakes off his sister's hand, splits his sheepish glare equally between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, and mutters something about how he wants to spend the day meditating in private, which probably means 'continuing to sleep off the liquor'.
Wei Wuxian stopped complaining as soon as he stood up, as though it were a game he had abruptly tired of. He doesn't look like he is in pain at all. Lan Wangji's own skin is stretched around waves of dull fire, and holding his posture correctly requires him to tap into the strength he usually directs into cultivation techniques.
"Wei Wuxian," he says.
Like a snap of fingers, Wei Wuxian's body turns towards his, and his posture gains a provocative edge. He clutches showily at his shoulder. "Ah, Lan Zhan. Will you comfort me in my agony, as a good husband should? Will you make me soup and rub soothing lotions into my bruises?"
Lan Wangji takes a steadying breath, which hurts enormously.
"Do not enable wrong behaviour in your partner; it harms both of you and also harms the marriage itself." It is the fifth precept of marriage.
"Do not--" Wei Wuxian gives a wounded cry, as if he's been offered vile insult, and throws up his hands so that his sleeves flap in emphasis. "You are completely impossible, Lan Zhan!"
And while Lan Wangji is still contemplating the vastness of that hypocrisy, Wei Wuxian has collected Nie Huaisang with one arm and huffed himself away in the direction of the main pavilion.
Jiang Yanli watches him go. Worry flickers over her face, and she turns to Lan Wangji.
"Lan-gongzi," she says. "I am sure a-Xian does not intend in any way to dishonour the betrothal. Please remember that he has not grown up with the admirable discipline of the Lan. He is…" She hesitates. "He is accustomed to affection being freely shown, and where it is not, he may assume that none exists."
Now she is speaking of irrelevant things. Affection appears nowhere in the marital principles. They are all behaviours: things you do, or must not do.
But Jin Zixuan looks thoughtfully at Jiang Yanli as she speaks. His lips move a very little, like he is a child learning to read, rehearsing the sounds of words as they appear inside his head. Just as Jiang Yanli turns to go after her brother, he manages to emit some aloud.
"Jiang-guniang." A deep nod. "Would you--I--" He squares his shoulders. One can practically see the words I am a sect heir and I will preserve my dignity! march across his face. "That is, would you like to take a walk by one of the streams?"
"A-jie!" says Jiang Wanyin, but it seems an empty reflex. There is nothing improper about the suggestion; nothing he can truly object to. The two of them are betrothed, after all.
Jin Zixuan stares stiffly at a point between the two siblings, gripping his sword as though it will save him. A shy smile lights Jiang Yanli's face from the mouth upwards.
"Thank you, Jin-gongzi," she murmurs. "I would like that very much."
This time when Lan Wangji goes to sit in the cold springs, it is for their healing effect, and not at all because he is having trouble banishing visions of Wei Wuxian from his mind.
As if to both punish and reward him for this fact, Wei Wuxian himself comes to interrupt him, all wide dark eyes and protests that Zewu-jun let him in, a claim that Lan Wangji is absolutely going to check later. Either his betrothed is lying to him--lying is not allowed in Cloud Recesses, and there are at least two marital principles on the subject of integrity and truthfulness between partners--or Lan Wangji's older brother is expressing his ongoing approval of this union in an oblique and very Lan Xichen way. Lan Wangji wonders at it. Wei Wuxian has hardly done anything so far to prove that he will one day make a respectful member of the Lan by marriage. If anything, the opposite.
Now, Wei Wuxian's gaze on Lan Wangji's bare bruised skin does not feel like a soothing lotion. It feels like rising embers glowing against night skies. It feels like the liquor did, shocking and smooth on the tongue.
Lan Wangji girds himself in his robes and braces himself for more inappropriate talk, but instead he is berated in a half-pouting voice. Wei Wuxian is still upset that Lan Wangji did not let him accept all of the blame for last night's disaster. Unbelievable.
"It was not your fault," Wei Wuxian insists. "I was the one who brought in the alcohol."
"I was drunk. I deserved the punishment."
Lan Wangji doesn't know what to say to that. He is not used to being contradicted; he is not used to the basic tenets of his life being thrown aside with such airy confidence. It's as though someone has looked up and declared that the sky is green.
"And," Wei Wuxian goes on, "you are the impeccable Second Jade of Lan. Your reputation is unmatched. I…" His voice softens, coaxing. "I don't want people to think less of you, because of me. I don't want them to think I'm a bad influence."
This flies so utterly in the face of all logic that Lan Wangji feels one of his eyebrows twitch. Wei Wuxian's gaze flicks to it, and he grins, but says nothing else. Perhaps he takes it as encouragement, because the next moment he is untying his clothes. A small panicked creature of an emotion kicks at the underside of Lan Wangji's ribcage.
"You were undressed," Wei Wuxian points out. "And how can it be improper? We are betrothed."
"But not married." Lan Wangji is going to have him write it out three hundred times. Five hundred times.
"Yes, Lan Zhan, I remember your many objections. But I am not touching you, am I? And you are not touching me."
Lan Wangji turns his back. Some indignant splashing noises come from behind him, which he puts down to yet another juvenile attempt to capture his attention, right up until the moment when he, too, is pulled abruptly beneath the surface of the water, and dragged sideways. It is impossibly loud and impossibly quiet, both at once. Dark. Chaotic. He struggles to protect his head, and not to inhale in panic. He should be calm and courageous in the face of his death--instead, as bubbles swirl over his face and a claw of pain begins to close itself around his lungs, Lan Wangji thinks, more furious than even Wei Wuxian has ever made him feel: what a waste.
And then the current spits him out.
When he's caught his breath he can see that the cave is pale and chilly and beautiful. Lan Wangji would almost think he was dreaming, except that he is soaked through and his robes drag at him and his cheekboned irritant of a betrothed is there as well, gasping like a landed fish and looking equal parts wild-eyed and delighted.
The pale guqin on the stone sends shivers of significance down Lan Wangji's arms. Even better, the chord assassination technique targets Wei Wuxian every time he opens his mouth, which Lan Wangji finds very pleasing the first two times it happens. Then he remembers that he owes a duty of protection not only to a guest on his sect's lands, but to the man to whom he is betrothed. Wei Wuxian is only here because he came to find Lan Wangji, after all; came to… perhaps not apologise, but something in the same family.
Lan Wangji is ashamed enough of his conduct that he helps Wei Wuxian out of the water and up to to the bank, where they stare at the rabbits wearing the Lan headband.
Wei Wuxian lights up and flaps his fingers at the rabbits. "It’s the forehead ribbon! It's how the technique recognises you as part of the Lan, and so will not hurt you."
That makes sense. Lan Wangji should have been the first to realise it.
"Quick, Lan Zhan! Tie your ribbon around me!"
He holds out his arm. Lan Wangji stares at Wei Wuxian in speechless indignation.
"What? What is it?" Wei Wuxian demands. Now he finger-flaps urgently at Lan Wangji and, when this produces no reaction, makes a lunge for the ribbon itself. Lan Wangji blocks him. "Lan Zhan, hurry up--"
"So you have read the principles," Lan Wangji says.
The use of a forehead ribbon in handfasting, as part of a Lan marriage ceremony, is principle number one hundred and two. Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, but it's to cover for the expression of a child who has been caught doing something embarrassing.
The guqin is humming with menace, clearly building up to another violent chord. Lan Wangji's forehead tingles in the chill air as he removes the ribbon; his wrist tingles even more, despite the layers of fabric, as he binds himself to Wei Wuxian. The metal symbol hangs between them. Wei Wuxian meets his gaze and does not say anything flippant, or provocative. Something has been wiped from his face like a cloth removing dust from a surface long left untended. His eyes are dark and luminous and his shoulders are straight, and he looks at Lan Wangji as--as he looked at the bottles of liquor.
I am not touching you. You are not touching me.
It does not feel that way. It feels as though Lan Wangji has reached out with a strange bloodied part of his own body and entangled them.
Sadly, it can't be said that Wei Wuxian's conduct improves after that. The Grand Master wonders aloud, in his sourest tones, whether he is learning the Lan principles solely for the pleasure of breaking them one by one.
"At least he is learning them," says Lan Xichen, with a small smile.
"Wangji..." their uncle begins, frowning.
"I am not giving him any encouragement," says Lan Wangji.
He is not. He does not look at Wei Wuxian at all, during the lectures. Wei Wuxian retaliates by creating paperman talismans--a child's game and beneath a noble cultivator's dignity, even if he seems to have unusual control over them--which tug at Lan Wangji's sleeves, and perch atop his shoulders, and hurl themselves across his freshly-inked characters with an insouciant slumping air that makes them seem uncannily like their creator.
Lan Wangji crumpled the first talisman in his fist, and gave Wei Wuxian what was meant to be a quelling glare. It was met with a smile that made his stomach whirl.
So: now, he does not react. He does not look over his right shoulder. He lets the papermen dance in playful circles across his desk, and pat him on the ear or ride for half the morning atop his hair ornament, and he pretends not to notice. Nor to hear Jiang Wanyin's mortified hissing and Jiang Yanli's quiet scolds.
And every single day, Wei Wuxian gathers up his sparkling fearlessness in both hands and does something or says something that requires punishment. Surely, nobody has ever written out the Lan principles so many times. Over and over. It is still the best punishment; he hates it, he complains about it, and the one time he is set to sweep the floors instead he spends the entire time cheerfully singing Yunmeng folk songs and replacing the verses with lewd poetry of his own invention, until he has to be punished for that.
And so for at least two hours of every day Lan Wangji is alone in the library with his betrothed, who bites at the end of his brush and cannot maintain a proper seat, and whose laughter slides over Lan Wangji's skin and burns him with desire.
Today Wei Wuxian has already spent some time complaining about how unfair it is that Wen Qing will not talk to him, when he is so curious about her skills. Everyone knows by now that she is considered one of the most promising young medical specialists in the Qishan Wen.
Now he has moved on to composing a new variation on one of his favourite melodies, which is: his sister's betrothal.
"If there ever were a reason for the rule against drinking alcohol to be lifted--"
"I do not see why," says Lan Wangji, "given you seem happy to ignore it."
"--it is that Jiang Cheng and I need to drown our despair at the fact that shijie is going to marry the peacock after all. At least he has learned to be polite to her now." Pause. Grudgingly: "She looked very happy when they let off a lantern together. I suppose he will do. Of course, shijie deserves the best man in the world--"
"I saw that," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian grins without looking up and removes the half-finished sheet from where he'd tried to slide it into the pile. He shakes out his sleeve with great ceremony and starts writing again, picking up his sentence as though it was never dropped.
"--but clearly I am already betrothed to him, so it would be awkward for me to hand him over."
It takes a moment for that to sink in, and by the time it has, Wei Wuxian has already moved on to describing the lavish wedding ceremony he and his brother have always wanted Jiang Yanli to have, and how much money must be spent on her wedding outfit. But he is waiting, nonetheless, when Lan Wangji looks at him sharply; his eyes are undistracted and clear, and he breaks off his nonsense at once and smiles.
"Stop joking," says Lan Wangji.
"You think that would be too extravagant? Nothing is too good for shijie!"
That is not what Lan Wangji meant. Wei Wuxian knows it. There is no point dignifying this kind of mischievous trap by walking right into it. Lan Wangji swallows past a pointlessly dry throat and says, "I want to fit in sword practice before sunset. Hurry up."
Wei Wuxian understands at once; of course he does. He has never mistranslated any of Lan Wangji's words, or his silences. His face lights up and he bends to his work, the motion of his brush swift if not precise. Lan Wangji watches him for a while. Wei Wuxian does not refer even once to the Chapter of Conduct, which sits closed on the corner of his desk. Fluidly and without pause he fills his sheet, and the next.
Lan Wangji bites his tongue on the urge to fire questions at him as the Grand Master does, because it is embarrassingly obvious that Wei Wuxian knows every single one of the answers. Learning them to break them, indeed.
"Done," Wei Wuxian says at last. He's already standing, sword in hand. "What will you give me if I beat you this time, Lan Zhan?"
"I don't answer impossible hypotheticals," says Lan Wangji, and his betrothed throws back his head and laughs.
Every day after that, Wei Wuxian takes his seat in the library and dashes off his copies of the precepts with far less needling and fuss. And every day, Lan Wangji teaches him something new with the sword, and is taught new things in return. He enjoys learning some of the specific styles and techniques of the Yunmeng Jiang. Wei Wuxian is a surprisingly deft and patient teacher.
One day Lan Wangji makes the mistake of asking, "Why don't you just behave in the lectures? Give the correct responses?"
"I don't know what you mean, Hanguang-jun," Wei Wuxian says, and actually flutters his damn eyelashes. "I am a slow scholar, what can I say? This discipline is so tedious, but there's nothing to be done."
"We could still do sword practice," Lan Wangji says. He hates having to point out the obvious.
Wei Wuxian produces the loveliest and widest of his smiles. Lan Wangji's heart beats like a startled flight of birds, and Wei Wuxian uses the opportunity to unleash a flurry of an attack, against which Lan Wangji only just manages to defend himself.
That's the moment Lan Wangji finds himself thinking about, the day the lectures end and the young cultivators disperse from Cloud Recesses to begin their journey home. Lan Wangji goes to the library and reads an entire historical tract from beginning to end without taking in a word, the empty silence of the room pressing uncomfortably against him from all sides, and that night at dinner his uncle clears his throat and says, "We would be within our rights to break off the betrothal, given the standard of behaviour that Wei Wuxian showed. Some of the ideas he expressed...I find them worrying."
"He is high-spirited," says Lan Xichen. "I don't believe there is any bad feeling in his heart, or corruption to his spiritual energy."
Lan Xichen has earned their uncle's respect for his judgement by now. The Grand Master frowns, but nods. Lan Wangji, uselessly, looks at his own wrist. He thinks about the shape of Wei Wuxian's mouth around laughter.
He also thinks about how Wei Wuxian deployed his needling irritation at the Wen cultivators, who observed the forms of courtesy with smirks on their faces and no respect in their hearts. He thinks of the open joy with which Wei Wuxian greeted Lan Wangji's smile and released the rabbit-painted lantern.
He thinks about the song he has been grudgingly composing, bit by bit, ever since their encounter with Lan Yi in the cave; trying to find some way to transmute the inconvenience of his feelings into music.
"Wangji," his uncle says, prompting.
"Despite it all, are you willing to go ahead with marriage to this troublemaker?"
His uncle frowns, and strokes his beard exactly once. "Well, with the Wen making their own kind of trouble, the alliances between us and the other sects are especially important. And you are old enough to know your own mind."
Lan Wangji would be happy if he never again became stuck in a water-filled cave. He has managed to exist for nearly seventeen years with no strong feelings about caves, and now the universe has trapped him in two of the things in close succession.
Lan Wangji's home has been burned, his brother is missing, the Wen seem intent on destroying the peaceful balance of the world, his hand feels empty and vulnerable without Bichen, and his leg shoots agony into the base of his spine with every step. Within him is an iron-hard rock of anger; as a good Lan disciple he should be nurturing seeds of tranquility and discipline to soften and contain it.
He is finding that difficult. All things considered.
And to top everything off, his betrothed seems determined to seize this opportunity of deadly peril to flirt with random Jin cultivators.
Perhaps the lectures did nothing but show Wei Wuxian that the Lan sect doesn’t suit him. Rigid and pretentious, he said. Of course someone with Wei Wuxian's temperament would prefer someone lively like this Mianmian, who wears her fire and sweetness openly, and provides him with opportunities to throw himself heroically in front of branding irons like an idiot. No doubt he is annoyed that he has no good excuse to break his betrothal, and is therefore stuck with Lan Wangji.
The Yunmeng Jiang don’t need another alliance with the Lanling Jin. They have one already. Two marriages between the same two sect would not make political sense. And this girl is not even--
"Ah, Lan-er-gongzi," says one of the Leling Qin disciples. "Is everything all right? You look..."
Lan Wangji transfers his gaze to this person, who flinches bodily. "Never mind," he says, scurrying away.
"We can stick a warding talisman to his back, if you like," mutters Jiang Wanyin. "To remind everyone of your prior claim."
Lan Wangji whirls to face him, indignant ice on his lips, but Wei Wuxian's brother just claps him on the shoulder and says, "Whatever it takes so that you don't send him back."
"Send him back," says Lan Wangji blankly.
"What would my parents do if you won't have him? Honestly, you're the highest-ranked person who seems able to put up with him for any length of time."
That is an outright untruth. Wei Wuxian is an impulsive loudmouth with dangerous ideas, but he is also a well-raised and well-trained cultivator, the first disciple of a major sect, beautiful and skilled.
The events of the next several hours prove that he is also the kind of person who will direct an evacuation and sacrifice himself for its success, and who shares his medicine even though he is still recovering from injuries and has sustained new ones. Lan Wangji still hates caves, especially those inhabited by demon tortoises, but...no training exercise or night hunt he's every participated in has ever given him as much satisfaction as strategising and fighting side-by-side with Wei Wuxian.
Or as much terror in victory, when he finally drags Wei Wuxian from the water.
Lan Wangji looks around for a rock to prop him against, but--but they are betrothed, and even if not, there is nobody around to see it if Lan Wangji finds himself unwilling to release Wei Wuxian from his arms for even an instant, cradling in him his lap and helping him to cough blood-stained water onto the ground.
Wei Wuxian flops back into his half-sitting position with a groan, and stares up at Lan Wangji as if he has only just realised where they are. He smiles and lifts a shaking hand to prod at Lan Wangji's forehead.
"Look at you, you are so concerned! If I knew this was what it took for you to embrace me, when we have already been hand-fasted for months--"
He breaks off and coughs again, and more blood stains his lips. He is drenched and fever-hot and his shoulders feel impossibly slight where they rest on Lan Wangji's legs. His eyes begin to flutter shut, and Lan Wangji shakes him until they crack open again.
"Wei Ying," he says sharply. "Talk. Keep talking."
"You need to make up your mind, Lan Zhan." A small laugh turns into a cough. "Be quiet, Wei Ying. Keep talking, Wei Ying. Is this what our marriage will be like? I've always liked the idea of being married, you know."
His voice has a slurred edge to it. He could be drunk except that he is shivering all over. Lan Wangji's arms tighten helplessly, as if he can make the shivering stop. He cannot. He should have learned this by now: it is impossible to make Wei Wuxian be still for very long.
"Unsurprising," he says sternly. Keep him talking. "You are impatient to try all the things in those filthy pictures from Nie-gongzi's book."
That barely gets him a smirk, which is worrying. Instead Wei Wuxian's eyes focus somewhere far past Lan Wangji's face, and the thread of his voice unspools gently.
"I think it must be nice to have a place that is yours, and someone to share it with. Don't you agree? Someone who will never be very far away, who will smile at you over soup and talk with you when you want to talk. Who will make you laugh when you are doing boring chores, and come with you to find exciting things to do as well, and--and then fall asleep with you at the end of it."
He turns his face further into Lan Wangji's sleeve, and for a few breaths Lan Wangji is too taken aback to scold him for closing his eyes. That sort of quiet domesticity is nothing like what he has ever imagined, when he thinks about marriage. The only marriage he's ever been able to examine closely is that of his parents.
And yet...there is nothing in the marital principles to contradict it. Words like truthfulness and respect and consideration--they are the walls and floor and sturdy roof. What Wei Wuxian is describing is everything else; everything that turns a structure into a place where real people can live. Lan Wangji is cold and sore, scared and tired, but something knotted tight within him releases, and a feeling like a warm breeze expands in its wake.
"Wei Ying," he says, and more urgently, "Wei Ying," when shaking is less successful this time. Anxiety spikes hot in his throat, a ball of words that he cannot say. Don't go. Don't leave me. For a single awful moment he is kneeling on stones and lifting his face to the snow, and to a door that refuses to slide open, no matter how long he waits.
He says, "Stay with me," which is barely better. He says, "Wei Ying, if you die I will not marry you."
A smile lifts the side of Wei Wuxian's mouth. Was he feigning? Lan Wangji is not going to marry him after all, because Lan Wangji is going to throttle him. But the curving lips are dusky and dark with blood, the skin around them nearly white, and when Lan Wangji fumbles to feel his pulse it is light and rapid like a man skipping over wet stones to cross a river.
Lan Wangji does not have much energy to spare. He does not care. The iron ball of anger within him has turned into an equally hard one of not-caring. It is blissfully freeing.
Wei Wuxian settles, as Lan Wangji's energy flows into him. He says,
"Will you sing me a song?"
When Lan Wangji sings for him, the melody changes in his mouth from the simple thing he has been composing. It has an extra dimension, a second thread: a sweet yearning after long years of companionship. It’s what it was missing. Now it is whole.
"You could go back to Gusu," says Jiang Wanyin. His posture is stiff but his face is all naked relief. He has already bowed twice more than is necessary, in expressing his thanks to Lan Wangji for keeping his brother alive, even though Wei Wuxian looks not much better, here in the open sunlight; he is clammy and cannot be woken. And he is the one who did most of the saving. Lan Wangji wants to shred Jiang Wanyin's thanks in his hands like wrongly-inked talismans and fling them into the lake.
"No," says Lan Wangji. "I will stay."
"I know you must be concerned about what has happened--"
"I am more concerned about what will yet happen."
Jiang Wanyin and Jin Zixuan exchange a look. Lan Wangji ignores it in favour of crouching to place his hand briefly on Wei Wuxian's forehead, monitoring, then stands again.
Somewhere in the hours before their rescue, Lan Wangji took that iron at the heart of himself and forced it into a new shape. He is still very angry. He is still finding it hard to care about anything beyond the next breath that Wei Wuxian takes.
But he is Lan and he is betrothed. They are the twin poles of him, driven firmly into the ground, and between them he can be steady.
"There is nothing to do in the Cloud Recesses but rebuild," he goes on. He has heard the latest news, from a couple of Lan disciples who made their way doggedly to the last known location of Hanguang-jun. "My brother is safe or he is not; my looking for him will not change the latter, and could even endanger him if it is the former." He bows stiffly. He longs so much for his sword. "I honour the alliance with the Jiang. I am at the service of Yunmeng, if it is under threat."
"As am I," says Jin Zixuan.
It seems the Jin are doing some honouring of their own. Madam Yu has already left Lotus Pier with Jiang Yanli and they are at Carp Tower, which is playing host to the early stages of preparation for both a war and a wedding.
"I hope there will be no need of such support," says Jiang Wanyin. His jaw is set. "Wei Wuxian and I must talk to my father. We will leave for Lotus Pier immediately when he wakes."
And so they do, and Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan go with them. Wei Wuxian complains for the length of the journey about his fever, his wounds, the food, how uncomfortable is first the wagon and then the boat. Only in the last hour before they arrive at Lotus Pier does he go quiet. Lan Wangji does not trust this at all, and so is waiting ready at his elbow when Wei Wuxian steps out of the boat, greets his adoptive father with a bright smile, and promptly faints into Lan Wangji's arms.
"Really," mutters Jiang Wanyin. Jin Zixuan gives a very small snort.
The complaining starts up again, to Lan Wangji's relief, after Wei Wuxian has slept through the breaking of his fever. Wei Wuxian's mouth is dry. He is hungry. He wants his shijie; it is very unfair that she should be visiting her future in-laws and not here, where Wei Wuxian can see her and have her stroke his hair.
"But I am glad you're here, Lan Zhan," he adds, settling himself more comfortably against his pillow. He is wearing only crimson red under-robes. The edges of his collarbones are visible. Lan Wangji feels as though he is committing an indecent act just looking at him directly.
Wei Wuxian shoots a hopeful look upwards. "Can you make pork rib and lotus root soup?"
"Wei Wuxian! Stop being so rude," says Jiang Wanyin, in the doorway. "Lan Wangji is our guest, you can't order him around like a servant." His glance to Lan Wangji contains more than a hint of please don't send him back. "I have already told the kitchens to make soup."
"It won't be as good as shijie's."
"I know." Jiang Wanyin's expression thaws into a brief smile, then snaps back. "Now stop harassing your future husband and put on some proper clothes. Father has received word that Yao-zongzhu is coming, with urgent news."
The news is not so much urgent as catastrophic. Thanks to the Wen, the Yao sect now consists only of its leader and one other man, both badly injured, and weakened further by their rush to warn the Jiang. When the men have been carried away to receive treatment, Jiang-zongzhu sits heavily. Jiang Wanyin moves at once to put a hand on his shoulder.
"Father," he says. "You heard him. The Wen will turn their attention to us, next. I have heard that Wen Chao has vowed to track down and punish all the disciples who were at Qishan."
"At least your sister and mother are in Lanling."
Jin Zixuan bows. "Given this outrage, I am sure the Jin will stand with the other major sects against the Wen. I will escort Yao-zongzhu to Lanling personally, if you wish, so that he can tell his story to my father."
"Yes." Jiang-zongzhu nods. "Lan Wangji. You should go to Lanling as well. You are a senior member of the Gusu Lan--your voice will be needed in that council." Nobody has yet heard from your brother, he doesn't say.
"I will stay," says Lan Wangji. "I am here to support the Jiang."
"The Jiang cannot act for ourselves?" Jiang-zongzhu sits back, hands folded. His eyes are still kind when he says. "We have held Lotus Pier against attack before, and we will do so again. I have Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, and all our disciples. We will defend our home."
Lan Wangji cannot argue with that. He bows his assent.
"Besides, Lan Zhan, I need you to look after my sister's future husband," says Wei Wuxian. "I don't trust him not to get lost on the way."
Jin Zixuan shares a subtle eyeroll with Jiang Wanyin. Something has shifted between the two of them, since they coordinated the rescue of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji from the cave. And they have more in common than not: two future sect leaders, soon to be brothers by marriage, both serious-minded. Both united in their continued exasperation with Wei Wuxian.
While elegant and grand, Carp Tower has always seemed the opposite of Cloud Recesses in many ways. Staying there puts Lan Wangji in mind of watching a hundred birds building nests at once. The buildings are cluttered with grandeur; the people are cluttered with haste and ornaments and gossip, and a bright-eyed determination to know more than the person standing next to them.
It's like that now, only even more so. Madams Yu and Jin hold dual court among the ladies, and are happily embroiled in planning a wedding which will now likely not happen until after the war.
Because there will be a war. As predicted, Lan Wangji finds himself in long days of meetings, from which the beginnings of a campaign grow. Then he finds himself explaining these meetings afterwards to Nie Huaisang, who has accompanied his brother the sect leader, and who sits in the back of the room peering over his fan and then approaches Lan Wangji complaining plaintively that he hadn't followed most of that--could Hanguang-jun make it simple for him?
It's after one of these tedious conversations--during which one of Nie Huaisang's tedious questions at least accidentally exposes a flaw in one of the proposed routes of approach to a major supervisory office, which Lan Wangji will bring up next time--that Lan Wangi goes to make his apologies to Jiang Yanli. She has asked him to come and take tea, and now he is late.
It takes some time for the door to the apartment to be opened to his knock. Jiang Yanli's eyes and cheeks are slightly reddened, and she clutches a letter in one hand. Over her shoulder Lan Wangji can see Madam Yu.
"A bad time," he surmises. "I will leave."
"No. No, come in, Lan-gongzi. We have received news, and you should hear it too."
Lan Wangji looks again at the marks of weeping on her face. His heart goes absolutely still within his chest, like a gasping fish struck a single blow to stop its flapping.
"Bad news," he manages.
"Yes--no! Lotus Pier still stands. Our family lives." She lays a feather-light hand on his arm and smiles. "A-Xian has written to tell us what happened."
The letter is from Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian is alive. The fish thrashes back to life; it is extraordinarily painful. Lan Wangji doesn't realise he has put a hand to his chest until his finds his own fingertips digging into the fabric.
He sits opposite Madam Yu. The Jiang matriarch usually treats him with an air of vague and courteous hope, as though she, like her son, is impatient for him to take Wei Wuxian off their hands and start exerting a positive influence over him. Today her nod is distracted.
Jiang Yanli reads the letter aloud from the beginning, a piece of kindness that Lan Wangji had not expected. Wei Wuxian's voice is audible even through the frank, quick outline of events, light on violent detail and heavy on reassurance. The Wen cultivators came as expected. They were overconfident, because the Jiang had spread misinformation that the inhabitants of Lotus Pier were scrambling and unprepared. A flimsy complaint about broken hospitality during the Qishan visit broke rapidly into an all-out fight. Talisman traps had been set up all around the Pier--a modestly elusive bit of wording, thinks Lan Wangji, from a letter-writer who is nothing if not fiendishly creative with talismans. The Jiang disciples fought cleverly and well. They took losses, but they were victorious in the end.
Jiang Yanli's voice falters when the letter comes to the bad news. The Wen force was led by Wen Zhuliu. Between them, Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Fengmian managed to kill the man, but not before...
Lan Wangji knows of the singular, terrifying ability that Wen Zhuliu is said to have. He says, with perfect control, "Which of them was it?"
"A-Cheng," says Jiang Yanli softly.
Madam Yu's fist lifts and then drives down into the cushioned seat by her side, her gaze fierce, her other fingers stealing over Zidian as if to soothe it.
The letter goes on, the sentences tangled--one can hear Wei Wuxian stumbling in his haste to reassure his sister and adopted mother that Jiang Cheng will be fine, that he, Wei Wuxian, will find a way to help him recover his golden core. He is going to visit a trusted friend who knows all there is to know about medicine. Jiang Cheng will be back to normal in no time. He swears on all the ancestors he has.
Madam Yu sniffs. "I'm sure it's all that boy's fault. My husband in danger, while I am not there to defend him! My son wounded!"
"You know that is not true. Many other sects have been attacked in the same way," says Jiang Yanli gently. "The blame is with the Wen, who have broken our peace."
Lan Wangji stands. Bows. Thanks them for the honour of being allowed to hear the news. He keeps beneath his tongue the absolute conviction that Wei Wuxian is about to march right into what is now enemy territory, to ask Wen Qing for help.
The war progresses. Lan Wangji receives a letter of his own, from Lan Xichen. He goes back to Cloud Recesses to lead a takedown of the supervisory office set up there, and spends two satisfyingly savage days purging his damaged home of the Wen. His brother joins him, with a large group of disciples. Together they begin the task of taking back Gusu.
It's hard work. Sometimes Lan Wangji will not think of Wei Wuxian for entire hours at a time.
He receives a message from Jiang Yanli, saying that she and her mother are back at Lotus Pier; that she has seen both of her brothers, and they are both well. Jiang Wanyin's golden core has been healed and he will make a full recovery, thanks to the help of a friend who risked much to come and take him away for treatment. There is reason to be concerned that this friend's help may have been discovered, and they might be in danger; Jiang Yanli asks that if the Gusu Lan have heard anything about that, would they send word to Lotus Pier?
All very sensibly opaque, and mentioning no names. There is still a war on. Letters can be intercepted.
Hot on the heels of this message comes Jiang Wanyin himself, in person, and he makes his bow to Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen with his face full of tension and his hands full of swords. The Lanling Jin have raided the Qishan Bureau and found the stash of confiscated weapons. Lan Wangji has been carrying an older sword in the meantime. The familiar weight of Bichen sends a strange heat into his nose.
Tension still hangs in the air. Lan Wangji realises that one of the swords Jiang Wanyin is carrying is Suibian.
"Is Wei Wuxian…?" Jiang Wanyin's voice is odd, flat. "I thought he might be here."
Lan Wangji stands very still. His sword balances him. "No."
"He left Lotus Pier while I was recovering. He told us he was coming to see you."
Bichen's sheath is more intricate than the one Lan Wangji has been carrying recently. He has learned the pattern with his fingertips, over the years. He can feel it pressing that pattern into the skin of his palm.
Lan Xichen says, "Wei Wuxian has not been here."
"No. All right. There are rumours everywhere at the moment, about everything, and we heard--someone heard that Wen Chao captured him. And if he's not here, and nobody has seen him--the idiot," Jiang Wanyin bursts out, a sudden flare of anger, "wandering around on his own like that when Wen Chao and that awful mistress of his have pledged to kill him personally!"
Lan Wangji takes a slow breath and loosens the grip he has on Bichen.
"Zewu-jun," he says.
Lan Xichen says, "Go."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "What do you want? Are you going to embrace me too, like Jiang Cheng? No, don't tell me--it would not be proper. Even though we are betrothed."
His voice slides over the sentences like tea spilled over lacquer. Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes and punches him in the front of the shoulder.
What does Lan Wangji want? He wants that. He wants to be able to touch Wei Wuxian with that casual entitlement; though not to embrace him. He wants to shake him by his robes and rip that black flute from his hands.
More than that, he is full of irrational anger that he should exert this much effort to save Wei Wuxian, only to discover that there is no vengeance left to take.
Look. He is old enough now to recognise that what existed between his parents was unusual and extreme. Not everyone shuts their partner up in a house, or mourns their death so intensely, far past even the usual principles of mourning. Nevertheless. Lan Wangji can feel a kernel within himself of what his uncle would no doubt call the familial weakness.
Wen Chao's bloodied body lies on the ground and Lan Wangji would like to kick it, for what this man has dared to do to Lan Wanji's betrothed; he would like to hang it from the walls and let it rot, or give it to dogs and watch it be ripped apart. He does want to lock Wei Wuxian up somewhere, so he can't run away for months on end. So he can't end up getting kidnapped and tortured, and using dark talismans and wicked spells, and looking at Lan Wangji with this new smile, which has secrets behind it.
"What do you want?" Wei Wuxian repeats.
Lan Wangji tells the truth. "I want you to stop pretending that you are not my business. You are."
Something awful passes across Wei Wuxian's face, and is gone at once. He comes close and leans in, touches their foreheads together; his skin rests against the cloud-stamped metal plate.
"Lan Zhan," he says. His breath is a caress. "Hanguang-jun. Er-gege. I am not in the mood to be scolded by you today, I think."
He's silenced by two fingers laid across his lips. Lan Wangji's heart pounds. He grabs Wei Wuxian's wrist and pushes his hand away. He knows, he always knows, when he is being deliberately distracted.
He says, "Partners should be truthful with one another."
"Partners should allow one another the dignity of their own thoughts and their own silence," Wei Wuxian parries at once.
Of all the marital principles, that was the one that comforted Lan Wangji the most as a child. Having it deployed as a weapon against him hurts enough that he can think of nothing to say in return.
The newly returned Wei Wuxian will not carry his sword. He refuses to ingratiate himself with the rest of the alliance against Wen Ruohan, during the conference in Qinghe. Even Jiang-zongzhu, who is usually lenient and fond, is losing patience with him. Lan Wangji can see his betrothed constructing distance like a stone wall, brick by brick.
For himself, he refuses to stay on the other side of the wall. He presses past flippancy and elusiveness and finally draws a sword on Wei Wuxian and says, "Talk to me."
It is one of the longest and most dreadful moments of his life before Wei Wuxian laughs and says, "All right. How about this? For old times' sake?" and then leaps up onto the roof.
So. They talk. It isn't one of their more successful conversations.
"Are you worried that I will age prematurely, through the corruption of evil practices? That I will lose my good looks?"
He preens; his smile is a provocation. Lan Wangji ignores it.
"We will be partners. Then let us be partners. You say the Lan meditation techniques help--let me keep helping."
Wei Wuxian shifts closer on the roof and spins the flute between his fingers. He trails the red tassel over Lan Wangji's hand, then uses the flute itself to tap gently on the same spot. Lan Wangji catches a startled breath. The sensation is more than physical contact, strange and sharp but not unpleasant, like being flicked.
Wei Wuxian grins. "There, Lan Zhan. My flute likes you."
Probably because we have something in common, Lan Wangji thinks. Spiritual tools like this are always possessive of their user.
Wei Wuxian lifts one end of the flute to his ear and frowns, pretending to listen to it. Lan Wangji does not find the joke particularly funny.
"Let me help," he says again.
Wei Wuxian lays the flute back in his lap. "He says you are right, Lan Zhan. Partners should give and accept support with equal grace."
Another of the principles. Lan Wangji feels one corner of his mouth curl into a smile, and Wei Wuxian's smile--the old, familiar one--meets it, and in that moment Lan Wangji allows himself to believe that they can do it, between the two of them; that there are no simple answers but they can make their own; that this will all turn out well.
He finds out exactly how wrong he was when he is standing in the dark with rain soaking his shoes and his heart breaking.
There's a gap widening here between the two of them. Somewhere are the words that will fill it perfectly, and thereby wrench the world back into place. Lan Wangji knows how to learn the words of other people, but he has never, not once, known what to say when it really matters. And nothing has ever mattered as much as this moment.
What do you want, Lan Zhan?
He says, low and forceful: "Come back to Cloud Recesses with me."
Wei Wuxian laughs like splintering wood.
"You know I can't do that. Would Zewu-jun and the Grand Master let me bring these people with me? Let them stay there in safety, and defy the other sects? Leave me alone and not try to get their meddling fingers into my mind and my choices?"
Lan Wangji is silent, and it is an entire answer.
"No. This is how it must be. And you, Lan Zhan--you are Hanguang-jun, you are the Second Jade of Lan. Your reputation can only be tarnished now by any ongoing association with me."
Lan Wangji's heart feels peculiar. Someone has dipped it in lead, and it is dragging at his insides. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you have to break the betrothal, obviously! Everyone will understand. Nobody will blame you, or think it shows a lack of honour, or anything like that."
"It would show a lack of honour."
Wei Wuxian's face runs with water. He looks deeply unhappy, and tired. So tired. "Lan Zhan. Just do it."
A sudden snap. "Lan Zhan!"
"Wei Ying." He forces it out between his teeth. "If you wish to break the betrothal, do it yourself."
Wei Wuxian sighs and gets off his horse, and comes over to him. "Sorry, everyone," he says over his shoulder. "Hanguang-jun is being rigid."
He steps under the umbrella. His hair clings to his face in bedraggled strands and up close his eyes are a blurry red, as if he has been awake far too long, or crying. Lan Wangji wants to lift his sleeves and enfold Wei Wuxian in them, use them to dry his face, tell him sternly that sleep is necessary for a sharp mind and a pure spirit. He wants to watch Wei Wuxian fall asleep in his lap, and play music to erase the lines of worry between his brows.
Wei Wuxian hisses, "I can't be the one to break it. That's even worse. Do you want everyone to say that you were not even good enough for the corrupt Wei Wuxian?"
"Clearly," says Lan Wangji, "I am not."
"That's not--augh, Lan Zhan! You are so unreasonable!" Then his face lights up, as it always does when he has an idea that is brilliant and forbidden and which will probably work. "Fine. Then I will tell everyone that you broke the betrothal."
"You will lie."
"To protect you, Lan Zhan. Yes. They will believe me, too--"
Lan Wangji, outraged beyond endurance, tosses the umbrella aside and drags Wei Wuxian even closer by a grip on his wet clothes. Rain falls onto his face. His heart pounds. They will believe it. That is unacceptable, that the world should think he would be so faithless, and that what he feels for Wei Wuxian is--is not--
Wei Wuxian makes an alarmed noise, when Lan Wangji kisses him, but Lan Wangji's grip on him is firm; he doesn't let him pull away. This kiss is clumsy at first. Lan Wangji does not care. He has been starving for months, he has been slowly turning to embers and need beneath the perfection of his robes, and he kisses the heat of it onto his betrothed's lips until he wouldn't be surprised to see steam rising from where they meet. Wei Wuxian's lips are soft and his hand is suddenly at the back of Lan Wanji's neck, beneath the cold weight of his hair, and when he yields up his mouth it is the sweetest thing Lan Wangji has ever tasted. Sweet and salt--which of them has been crying? Lan Wangji is a transformed thing, an unquiet spirit of teeth and surging blood. He will leave himself daubed all over this man and nobody will ever be able to doubt his claim.
Wei Wuxian gives a final gasp against his mouth and then pushes him away with a single shove.
"No." Wei Wuxian spins around and waves his hands. "You didn't see that! None of you! Forget it!"
The Wens look wet and tired and like this is hardly the most pressing of their current concerns; but they nod, dropping their gazes to the ground, all of them apart from a small boy who is staring with unabashed wide eyes from within an older woman's embrace. And Wen Qing, whose long-suffering expression proclaims that she did see it and she will not forget it.
Lan Wangji is aglow with satisfaction. None of them will forget it, least of all Wei Wuxian. Their betrothal will not be denied by anyone, now.
Wei Wuxian stares at him. After a moment he gives a shaky laugh. "Such improper behaviour! I can't believe I am the one reminding you of the principles, Lan Zhan! After all, we are not married."
"We are hand-fasted."
Wei Wuxian's face collapses, and it's half laughter and half something else, and this time when Lan Wangji kisses him he doesn't resist at all. It is slower, and the sweetness has deepened, gained a bitter shadow. Lan Wangji didn't think that the second kiss of his life would be such a complicated thing. Wei Wuxian presses teasing kisses to the corners of Lan Wangji's mouth, like dots of ink, and then lets Lan Wangji take control with his hands on either side of Wei Wuxian's neck. He kisses like it is the last good thing he will do in his life, like he is taking gulps of water before a summer night hunt.
Lan Wangji is aware of nothing else. The kiss could go on for hours; he would not be able to tell. How could Wei Wuxian think that he would let this out of his grasp entirely? It's selfish, he should not be selfish, but he can't help it.
"Ah, Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian winces away, finally, but his lips curve in delight as he touches the deep scratch that Lan Wangji's fingernail has left on the side of his neck. "That will leave a mark."
"Good," says Lan Wangji. He means: this happened. We are betrothed. You're mine.
Wei Wuxian is so beautiful like this, drenched and well-kissed, ignoring the rain as he ignores beatings and warnings and the prospect of being hated by the entire cultivation world. He gives one last sigh and deflates a little, like a lantern blown onto a sharp branch and punctured.
"You really won't reject me."
"This--" Wei Wuxian waves his hand between the two of them "--doesn't solve anything."
Lan Wangji's umbrella, up-ended where it was discarded in the mud, fills gently with rain as Wei Wuxian rides away and takes the Wen with him.
It is nearly two months later when Lan Wangji finds himself in the eating room of an inn, overhearing a conversation about himself. This seems to happen with greater frequency than the laws of probability would dictate. But then, he's been in several inns over the past few weeks, and in most of them the talk was of nothing more than local gossip and other events of general interest.
The Yiling Patriarch is of immense general interest. Lan Wangji is collecting stories about his exploits, both good and villainous. Nobody seems able to agree on whether or not he has been officially disowned by the Yunmeng Jiang. The sect leader refuses to denounce him publicly, one person said.
But his wife, Madam Yu! She hates him, does he not?
Ah, she also refuses to say yes or no, if she is asked directly.
This particular set of peasants, however, are only interested in discussing Wei Wuxian in the context of his scandalous ongoing betrothal to the great Hanguang-jun of the Gusu Lan, whom none of them have been fortunate enough to set eyes upon, but whom everyone knows is one of the pearls of the cultivation world.
"I think it's romantic," one man says. "They were betrothed as children."
"Stupid, not romantic. To stay betrothed to someone like that!"
"It shows Hanguang-jun has great integrity! Great loyalty!"
"Pah! Loyalty to evil is nothing to be admired!"
This speaker is shouted down by two others; the group has been drinking for a while and are in a sentimental mood. Both sides are in agreement that it is a terrible waste for a skilled and noble cultivator like Hanguang-jun to be throwing himself away by remaining betrothed, as a matter of principle, to someone whom he can never actually marry.
Lan Wangji pours himself another cup of tea. A terrible waste.
After Wei Wuxian took the Wen away, Lan Xichen let Lan Wangji spend a whole five days in Cloud Recesses, barely speaking a word or doing anything but meditate and avoid playing a certain song on the guqin. Then his brother mentioned offhand that they had been asked for assistance in the matter of a haunted grove in the middle of a village, where cries and songs could be heard at certain phases of the moon.
Lan Wangji has been travelling ever since.
The conversation at the next table has exhausted the entertainment value in arguing over whether Lan Wangji is inhumanly moral or if the Yiling Patriarch has bewitched him with some kind of wicked love spell. As if this topic was merely the warmup exercise, they have moved on to what is clearly the main event: the freshest and most exciting news to reach the town.
"You're wrong," one of them says, "Jin-zongzhu is not dead."
Lan Wangji's cup pauses halfway to his mouth.
"But I heard--"
"No, he was banished. From his own palace!" The speaker raises his voice, confident that he has the group's attention. "That great female cultivator who married the Jiang sect leader, Madam Yu, is visiting again at Carp Tower because her daughter is to marry the Lanling Jin heir. I heard that Jin-zongzhu tried to have his way with one of her personal handmaidens, and the girl stabbed him right through the hand."
Pleased uproar follows this pronouncement. Someone suggests that it may not have been the hand that was stabbed, but a different body part. They are hurriedly shushed so that the gossip-bearer can continue.
"Jin-zongzhu tried to order the girl whipped to death for the insult, but Madam Yu spoke up and asked her to tell the story of what the sect leader had done, and she did, in front of the whole sect. And then Madam Jin stood up and said she would protect anyone who stepped forward with a similar story, and two young female cultivators of the Jin did! And then half of the palace attendants! And the next morning he was gone from Carp Tower."
"Come on, you're leaving out all the good details! I heard that Madam Yu threatened to castrate him with Zidian!"
"I heard those terrifying handmaidens of hers whipped him out of the building at midnight!"
The tea is cooling in Lan Wangji's hand. He finally takes a sip, and manages not to cough.
However much money is spent on the wedding of Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli in the end, it is clearly a large sum. Everything is elaborate, even by Lanling standards; everything is the best. There's a sense of wanting to put on a good face to make up for recent embarrassment.
Jiang-zongzhu and Madam Yu greet Lan Wangji with impeccable courtesy, as does the newly titled Jin-zongzhu and his mother. Lan Wangji bows to them all and does not ask a single question about the circumstances of the previous sect leader's departure.
The wedding itself, despite the trappings, is lovely. Neither Jiang Yanli nor Jin Zixuan have ever been demonstrative, but Lan Wangji watches the way their eyes lighten and their mouths lift as they clasp hands and gaze at one another. Happiness curls in the air around them like incense.
"Wangji," his brother says. He leans sideways a little and bumps his elbow against Lan Wangji's as they sit through the closing notes of the ceremony.
Lan Wangji looks sideways. Lan Xichen raises his eyebrows, a silent inquiry into his wellbeing.
"Mm," says Lan Wangji. His face must have been doing something. What? He has no idea. Luckily, nobody else in the world knows him as well as his brother does. Nobody else is able to decipher his expressions.
Well. Nobody except--
Oh. That's what his face is doing.
He passes a hand over it, until it stops.
The newly married Jiang Yanli asks for a private word with him before he leaves Lanling. Lan Wangji congratulates her formally and waits, wondering if perhaps she has some small piece of news to gift him with, some more-than-usually accurate rumour about the Yiling Patriarch. Or if she too is going to gently suggest that there would be no shame in breaking the betrothal; that the Yunmeng Jiang would not be insulted if he did.
Instead she says, "Lan-gongzi, a-Xian is miserable without seeing you for so long. He did not say it, but I know him."
Lan Wangji takes a moment to recover from that. "You've seen him?"
"We went to visit him in Yiling. Myself and a-Cheng. I wanted to show him my wedding clothes."
"Is he well?"
Jiang Yanli nods. Her bright, affectionate eyes search him. He doesn't know what she sees. She takes some time to decide on what she says next.
"When a-Xian first came to live with us, as a child, he always took too much food at meals. He would hide it in his clothes, or under his bed. It took him many months to realise that there would always be more food, that it would not suddenly disappear one day, and that our father was not going to cast him back onto the streets. On the day he realised that, he began to trust us with his heart. Only then." She directs a small smile at Lan Wangji. "I won't say that this is easy for you, because I don't think it is. You have the right to deny yourself. But your friendship matters a great deal to him, and I am asking you not to let him push you away forever. I wouldn't let him do it to me or to a-Cheng."
Is that what he's doing? After all the effort he went to, to stay on the right side of Wei Wuxian's self-constructed wall?
Lan Wangji manages a nod.
"He misses you," says Wei Wuxian's sister. "He would like to see you."
It hits like the blunt edge of a sword. A treacherous, selfish, un-Lan part of Lan Wangji has been waiting to hear something like this. He's miserable, he regrets his choice, if you asked him again to come with you--if you tied him up and carried him away--he would thank you for it in the end.
This is delusion. He knows Wei Wuxian better than that. Wei Wuxian does not regret his choices. He doesn't make choices that lend themselves to it, because he always, infuriatingly, chooses the most upright path according to his own morals. It is ridiculous that he refers to Lan Wangji as the more rigid between the two of them, and when Lan Wangji sees him again, he will tell him so.
He misses you. He would like to see you.
It sounds like she is saying, you miss him.
It sounds like permission.
He makes the journey to Yiling with Jiang Wanyin, who is waiting outside the door when Lan Wangji leaves early the next morning. He has a bag slung over his shoulder and a look on his face that says yes, he too was the recipient of a pointed talk with Jiang Yanli, and no, he's not interested in discussing it.
That suits Lan Wangji.
It's easy to find someone in Yiling town who will point them towards the Burial Mounds. She then tries to sell them talismans which will protect them if they intend to go up against the fearsome Yiling Patriarch.
"Be alert!" she says. "He uses tricks and talismans to make himself invisible, and to muffle the sound of his footsteps. Otherwise he would not be able to sneak up on anyone. He is seven feet tall, and very fearsome and ugly!"
"How ugly?" asks Jiang Wanyin, looking more cheerful. "Can you go into detail?"
They encounter the fearsome Yiling Patriarch on the forest road, making a normal amount of noise, walking toward them with Wen Qing by his side. Her sword and his flute are carried slightly forward, wary and ready. Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji must have tripped an array of perimeter wards somewhere along the way, and these two have come to see what the danger is.
Wei Wuxian is the first to relax as he looks from one of the new arrivals to the other, a smile igniting his face. He looks thinner, his hair messier, but his energy is the same.
"Lan Zhan!" he calls. "Jiang Cheng!"
He jogs forward and leaps to a halt close by, balanced atop a rock that erupts from the dirt of the path. He sways there, still beaming, as Wen Qing makes her more dignified way down towards them. Lan Wangji looks up at his betrothed, who looks back. The air is edged with sour smoke and the shadows are cool and unwelcoming, but Lan Wangji feels himself relax as though he's settled into a warm pool. Wei Wuxian doesn't look away. Lan Wangji sees no need to do so either.
Wen Qing clears her throat as she walks up. She takes hold of Wei Wuxian's sleeve and tugs him down off his rock with a single efficient jerk.
"Wen-guniang," says Jiang Wanyin, bowing over his sword, and Lan Wangji follows suit.
"Jiang-gongzi," she murmurs. "And of course, the tragically noble and faithful Hanguang-jun."
"Hey, hey." Wei Wuxian prods her in the arm, a gesture that Lan Wangji has seen him employ with Jiang Wanyin since the age of ten. "I told you not to repeat town gossip."
"Is he not noble and faithful?" She turns a composed face onto Wei Wuxian. "My mistake."
Lan Wangji can't remember any prior evidence of Wen Qing possessing a sense of humour. He smiles to himself as Wei Wuxian launches into an immediate rendition of how Lan Wangji is in fact far too noble and faithful for his own good, which carries them the rest of the way up the rough steps to the encampment at the Burial Mounds.
"I told you what this would do to your reputation, Lan Zhan!" he scolds, as they emerge from the forest. "People are still talking about it. I heard that you shut yourself up in seclusion and took a vow of silence, out of sorrow for my wickedness."
"I heard that you cast an evil love spell on me," Lan Wangji returns calmly.
Wei Wuxian grins. "Who's to say I didn't?"
Lan Wangji opens his mouth to say something that is too honest, too telling, but is luckily interrupted by a small child, running with jerky but determined speed, who launches himself at Wei Wuxian's legs and promptly sits in a puddle. The child hugs Wei Wuxian's shin through the layers of black robes and smiles up at him as though expecting a treat for a trick well performed.
"Hey, a-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says. "You know you are not supposed to run around in your festival clothes! The maidservants will have to beat out the dirt and dress you in your second-best silk robes, now! Who raised you, to have such behaviour?"
The child thus addressed, wearing a rough outfit which shows signs of painstaking repair and old stains, giggles appreciatively. Wei Wuxian bends down, hauls him into his arms with no sign of self-consciousness or regard for mud, and balances him handily on one hip.
"Xian-gege," says a-Yuan, "I helped popo with weeds," and plants a muddy palm onto Wei Wuxian's cheek and mouth.
Wei Wuxian tuts and wipes the child's hands on his own clothes, and darts an expression at Lan Wangji that is half embarrassed and half alight with mischief.
"He's about to try and convince you this is his kid," says Jiang Wanyin, long-suffering. "Don't fall for it."
"Lan Zhan is far better at counting months than you are, Jiang Cheng. I'm sure he would not believe me and then splutter about it for nearly two whole minutes."
"You--you surprised me," Jiang Wanyin snaps. He shoots a look at Wen Qing, who is already walking towards a group of women waving for her attention, and his cheeks turn pink.
Wei Wuxian shows off the vegetable fields as if he planted them all with his own two hands, and then gives them a tour of the forbidding cave-palace he now calls home. His talk keeps dipping into tangents about the research he's been doing into how best to help Wen Ning--Lan Wangji can think of several books in his own library that might help, and makes a mental note to make copies when he is back at home--and the talisman techniques he's been developing.
Even Jiang Wanyin eventually shakes off his crankiness and asks questions, and insists on trying out some of the techniques his brother shows him. Lan Wangji looks over a messy range of objects on a piece of stone serving as a bench, many of them carved or painted with characters, and his heart seizes painfully.
The person being terribly wasted here is not Lan Wangji, but Wei Wuxian. It is ridiculous that he should be doing this brilliant and creative work, out of nothing more than boredom and a desire to help his friends, and nobody outside of a secluded farming community will ever see the results.
After a while Wen Qing reappears and announces that she's going into town to buy some ingredients for medicines, unceremoniously plants a large empty basket in Jiang Wanyin's hands, and walks away again.
"I'll," says Jiang Wanyin, "uh," and hurries after her.
Lan Wangji gathers his robes and takes a seat on the topmost of three shallow steps. He is burning to ask about the Tiger Amulet, and what steps Wei Wuxian is taking--amongst all his brilliance on behalf of others--to protect himself. But he doesn't want to fight. He has come all this way; they have not seen one another for months. He can see, as if painted before him, the argument that would result if he pushed this topic, and how Wei Wuxian would use it as an excuse to build his wall even higher.
Don't let him push you away.
Either he trusts Wei Wuxian's word or he doesn't.
Lan Wangji swallows down his anxiety and says, "She's...very strong. Wen Qing."
"Mm." Wei Wuxian looks fondly at the doorway. Sunlight like weak tea spills in from where Wen Qing disappeared, and from a hole high above them. Along with the many candles, it's just enough to illuminate the depressingly rough furnishings of the cave. "She's not like shijie. She won't let me get away with anything."
Lan Wangji thinks about Wei Wuxian's idea of a good marriage: shared chores, shared adventure, someone to talk to. He wonders if he should feel jealous, that Wen Qing has such a close approximation of this with Wei Wuxian, and then wonders what it means that he can't summon any such jealousy. He looks at the talismans hanging entwined in vines and flapping from strings around the red-glowing pool. Caves and water, he thinks. Strange, the patterns we find ourselves retreading.
He finds himself saying, "My mother lived in a separate house to my father."
Wei Wuxian is spinning his flute in one hand. He comes and sits next to Lan Wangji and stretches his legs out in front of him in a sprawl so familiarly casual that Lan Wangji's heart aches.
"Lan Zhan," he says, warm. "Will you tell me about them?"
And so Lan Wangji does. Here in this eerie and depressing place he tells Wei Wuxian about his mother's history, and his father's actions.
"And you thought that was how everyone did it? Hardly ever seeing one another, and never leaving the house? Is that what you wanted for us?" Wei Wuxian laughs a flame of a laugh, too bright and too quick to be painful.
"No!" says Lan Wangji. No. Wei Wuxian belongs under open skies, even these ash-shadowed ones.
"Poor little Lan Zhan. Didn't you want to see your parents more often?"
"I did not know it was strange," says Lan Wangi. Then he makes himself dig deeper, and answers the question. "Yes. I did."
Slowly, as if leaving space for him to refuse, Wei Wuxian leans his head down to rest on Lan Wangji's shoulder. He smells like herbs and smoke; Lan Wangji takes a deep lungful of it, and indulges himself. He picks up Wei Wuxian's hand and turns it this way and that, noting the half-healed scrapes and the dirt deep in the creases before he links the fingers through his own.
Wei Wuxian hums happily. "Hand-holding before marriage, Lan Zhan! How shameless."
Lan Wangji remembers the Cloud Recesses library pavilion. It seems at least three decades ago now. Wei Wuxian delivering paper-kisses by proxy, and teasing him about how much could be done in between the lines of the marital principles.
Wei Wuxian must be remembering the same conversation, because he lifts his head from Lan Wangji's shoulder and lifts their hands to kiss his fingers where they are joined. Then he looks at him over their knuckles, a dark coquette of a look.
Lan Wangji says, "I've changed my mind. You should be shut up in a house."
"Where nobody can get at me but you?"
In a fluid motion, Wei Wuxian shifts half into his lap and kisses Lan Wangji's suddenly-stopped breath from between his lips. Their first kiss was a welcoming, a question being answered: this one feels like a continuation. A sentence dropped and picked up again. Wei Wuxian drags Lan Wangji's lower lip between his teeth, and makes a needy sound in his throat, and he is all elbows and heat and rough fingertips on Lan Wangji's cheek. As if he, too, has been holding his breath for months.
"Lan Zhan," he breathes.
What Lan Wangji didn't say on the forest path was this: Wei Wuxian doesn't need evil love spells. Lan Wangji has been entrapped, enraptured, for years. He slides an arm around Wei Wuxian's waist, holding him in place, demanding and claiming a kiss that's deeper and more serious and which goes on, goes on--
"Xian-gege!" chirps a-Yuan.
They jerk apart. Lan Wangji avoids looking at the child, who is barely a few yards away. He touches his mouth, and then looks at his own hands. His ears are hot.
"It's nothing he hasn't seen before," says Wei Wuxian cheerfully.
Before Lan Wangji can demand to know who else Wei Wuxian has been kissing, an older woman approaches and scoops up the child with a disapproving sound.
"There you are, a-Yuan! I'm so sorry, Wei-gongzi! I will take him away now. I will make sure you are not disturbed."
She hustles the boy away. Seeing him in the woman's arms, Lan Wangji realises that a-Yuan is the child who was staring at them from horseback, what seems like half a lifetime ago now. He also realises exactly why they are being left alone, and why Wen Qing dragged Jiang Wanyin into town.
Wei Wuxian bursts out laughing at whatever expression is on his face. "Lan Zhan, you are ridiculous. But it is entirely your own fault, you know."
Lan Wangji has re-lived those kisses in the rain in searing detail, over and over. If he had been watching them happen, he supposes he too might assume that Lan Wangji was here in Yiling for the next course of this particular meal.
"We can--" Wei Wuxian sounds hesitant. "I mean, if you did want--I--we do have plenty of candles around here, after all."
Some of the Lan principles around the physical act of love are: wash the self, before and after. Fresh sheets, before and after. There are a certain number of candles that should be lit, and a list of the allowable sorts of incense, and which of them is most appropriate for a wedding night.
Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian, who has dirt streaking his jaw and wisps of hair falling all around his face, and who is offering him a thin mat in a dimly-lit palace full of the echoes of evil. Lan Wangji has never wanted anything, anything, more than he wants to lay Wei Wuxian down and unbind his own hair and to take what he is being offered.
But he is Lan, and there are still things he believes in. Things that he does not want to cheapen or compromise. Wei Wuxian might believe himself worth no more than this place, and pleasure briefly snatched in the midst of gloom and hardship, but Lan Wangji will show him otherwise.
There's a strangled note in his voice, despite his best efforts, when he says, "We are still not truly married, Wei Ying."
Lan Wangji just looks at him, imploring, forcing himself not to reach out. He can't. If he moves he will combust.
Wei Wuxian breaks into the most gorgeous of his smiles: the one that has no bitterness to it and no flippancy and nothing to stand between the observer and the light of his character, which burns away undimmed by all that has happened.
"My betrothed is still so cruel," he says, but his fingertips are very light at Lan Wangji's jaw and the kiss he drops on Lan Wangji's temple is light too. His voice wraps around the word betrothed like wool padding around fine porcelain."You really won't get yourself out of this, will you?"
"You will keep your reputation tied to mine."
Lan Wangji recognises this from the last time they parted. The echo, the call and response. It is comforting. It is like standing in a lecture hall and pledging oneself to rules and values.
"Well, then," says Wei Wuxian, and nods as if something has been decided. "We'll have to see what we can do about that."
Jiang Wanyin goes back to Lotus Pier with a notebook full of talisman sketches in his bag. Instead of going directly home to Gusu, Lan Wangji returns to Carp Tower. The atmosphere there is more tolerable than it used to be, which he puts down to Jiang Yanli's calming influence. Or perhaps it's that nobody realised how much a place will warp itself around the character of its leader until Jin Guangshan left, as though he was a layer of campfire haze laid over the city, endured unthinking until the wind changed and everyone remembered the scent of fresh air.
I don't care what people say about me, Wei Wuxian said in the Burial Mounds, before they parted. But I do care about what they say about you, Lan Zhan.
Lan Wangji goes to find Jiang Yanli. She greets him warmly, as if they are good friends, and he wonders if--in fact--they are. He respects her character and finds her company pleasant, and has absolute faith that she wants the best for Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji hasn't had many friends of his own. There was his brother, and then there was--Wei Wuxian. Taking tea in Jiang Yanli's soothing chambers and listening to her thoughtful commentary is different to anything else in Lan Wangji's life.
Shijie will be the best person to help, Wei Wuxian said with confidence. You are honourable, Lan Zhan, your word will carry weight. But you and Jiang Cheng, you are not that great at....
Persuasion? said Lan Wangji. A good cultivator is aware of their limitations.
When Lan Wangji outlines the situation, Jiang Yanli sends a servant immediately to fetch Jin Guangyao, which turns out to be the smartest thing anyone could have done. He listens carefully to what they want, paces four times up and down the room, and then turns to face Lan Wangji.
"If I give advice. If I tell him what to do. Will he actually listen?"
"He will if Lan-gongzi asks," says Jiang Yanli at once.
Jin Guangyao's eyebrows rise. "And will you ask?"
Lan Wangji has never paid much attention to Jin Guangyao, except to recognise that Lan Xichen has become very fond of him and speaks highly of his insight and wit. To him, the young man has never been more than a pair of careful eyes above a practiced smile, and a knack for patience in the face of rudeness that even the Lan might admire.
"If I agree with the advice," says Lan Wangji.
Jin Guangyao gives a bow that says, of course. "The Gusu Lan are the heaviest boulder to shift when it comes to accepting deviation from tradition, and therefore the most important," he says. "We are fortunate that you are the champion of this campaign, Hanguang-jun. And your brother will assist also?"
"Come to Cloud Recesses. Ask him yourself," says Lan Wangji. Perhaps he's not good at people, but he knows Lan Xichen. He glances at Jiang Yanli and says, "I am sure he would like to see you."
Well. It worked on him.
The campaign is this:
Actually, have you seen some of these techniques invented by Wei Wuxian?
That Yiling Patriarch? Hasn't he been practising demonic cultivation, and killing people with fierce corpses?
Oh, you can't believe everything you hear. Peasants are so gullible when it comes to gossip.
(Cultivators, on the other hand, can be susceptible to class snobbery.)
Wei Wuxian has not killed anyone. Wei Wuxian has been adding to the body of cultivator knowledge--here, look at this talisman, isn't it ingenious? Couldn't you use something like this on your next night hunt?
Nie Huaisang, when he gets wind of it, insists on being allowed to help. He writes a frankly embarrassing poem about Wei Wuxian's genius and virtues and then, even more embarrassingly, pays someone to set it to music. Lan Wangji makes one of his visits to the Burial Mounds and is greeted by Wei Wuxian playing the damn thing on his flute with an air of absolute glee.
"We did try to stop him," Lan Wangji says.
"This is the happiest I've ever been in my life," says Wei Wuxian, wiping away what is absolutely a fake tear. "No, I take it back, I could be happier. That was a hint, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji pulls him close by his robes and kisses him, just once. "Show me what you're working on now," he commands. "Zewu-jun will take it to the conference next month, and argue in your favour."
On his way back to Gusu, Lan Wangji hears the song being sung by tipsy groups of peasants in nearly all of the inns he stays at.
Boulders shift slowly, but with time and careful leverage...they do shift. A full year later, when the invitations are sent out for the infant Jin Rulan's one-month celebration, public opinion about the Yiling Patriarch has wrenched itself firmly around. When Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli invite Wei Wuxian to come and meet his nephew, it's a cause for lively speculation and excitement.
Lan Wangji and his brother arrive at Carp Tower during a time when the tiny future leader of the Lanling Jin has just awoken from a nap, and is being handed around his relatives while the placid mood lasts. Lan Wangji does not have much experience of babies. At least a-Yuan could walk on his own feet, and have a conversation, and listen obediently when told to be quiet during meals. Jin Rulan seems like a normal specimen as far as these things go: chubby, and prone to grabbing.
Jiang Yanli smooths down the child's trailing clothes where they have tangled, and holds him out for Jin Guangyao to take. "Jin Ling. This is your uncle Yao, and he is very clever. You should always mind him and go to him for advice."
The baby seems far more interested in the embroidered edging of Jin Guangyao's robes than in his potential role as bestower of wisdom.
"Really, it's not as if he has any claim--" mutters Jin Zixun, but he stops short when Jiang Yanli turns to pin him with her unruffled gaze.
"Zixun," Jin Zixuan says sharply. "You will be civil. Guangyao is my brother and he has an honoured place in this sect."
Jin Zixun gives a huff, but bows his head, acquiescing.
Jin Guangyao has changed in subtle ways, this last year. The smile he directs at his infant nephew is small and crooked with fondness; it does not look like something shaped and polished by a craftsman.
Wei Wuxian arrives later that night, at the very start of a banquet, making one of his bold, conversation-stopping entrances in a set of robes that Lan Wangji has not seen before. His usual black and red shows flashes of Jiang purple at the sleeves and on one of the under-robes, and they look gorgeously, expensively made. Lan Wangji sees the combined hands of Jiang Yanli and Jin Guangyao in this; Wei Wuxian himself has neither the patience nor the money to make this sort of display happen.
He brings with him Wen Qing and Wen Ning, and he carries his flute and not his sword. There is still a point at which he stops doing what he's told. Lan Wangji's annoyance dies on his tongue when Wei Wuxian, finished with his bows to the hosts, searches the room for Lan Wangji and waves delightedly at him.
"Hey, Lan Zhan!" He turns back to his hosts. "That one is betrothed to me, you know."
"Indeed, I had heard so," says Jin Zixuan dryly.
"I should greet him, before he pines away into nothing."
For ten terrifying seconds Lan Wangji is convinced he is about to be seized and kissed in front of half the noble cultivators in the land, but Wei Wuxian simply turns in his direction and lifts his beautiful sleeves, breaks into the most suggestive smile Lan Wanji has ever seen, and then bows with as much respect as though Lan Wangji had attained godhood yesterday.
"Lan Zhan," he says. "You look well."
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji. "So do you."
"Surprising. I am exhausted," he says plaintively. "Do you know how many people turn up at the Burial Mounds now, asking to learn from me? Rogue cultivators. Sons and daughters of merchant families, who want to know some useful talismans and spells. The perimeter wards are being triggered from dawn to sundown."
"Make them dig radishes," says Lan Wangji.
"Mostly I hand them off on Wen-guniang," says Wei Wuxian, which sounds like an obvious lie; "They all fear and adore her," which doesn't.
A tiny smile plays on Wen Qing's mouth. She holds herself with studied fearlessness, here in this room full of people who not so long ago tried to wipe out herself, her brother and her sect.
Wei Wuxian takes his sleeves and his deep bow and bestows them upon the four points of the world, every wall of the banquet hall one after another. Conversation has settled to a murmur, watching him. People are leaning sideways where they sit, or trying to lift themselves onto a knee, to get a better look.
He ends facing his adopted parents. He says, soberly, "If I have caused inconvenience or shame to you, by acting rashly, I apologise."
Jiang-zongzhu nods slowly. His hand is in his wife's. She gives an empress's nod, acknowledging, and says nothing. Lan Wangji can see the necessity of this, but hates it--Wei Wuxian does not owe anyone in the room an apology.
"I'm sure we are all content to put the past behind us, and look to a peaceful future," says Jin Zixuan.
The voice comes from halfway down the hall, boisterous and demanding enough to draw everyone's attention. The leader of the Ouyang sect is standing, cup in hand; he drains it and then holds the empty cup out until an attendant hurries to take it from him.
"Will the Yiling Patriarch prove it?" Ouyang-zongzhu continues, pointing his finger at where Wei Wuxian stands like a black reed among a profusion of flowers. "Will he let these remnants of the Qishan Wen, whom he parades in front of us tonight, face justice for what they did?"
"And what did these two do, exactly?" asks Wei Wuxian.
Wen Ning and Wen Qing exchange an opaque look. Neither of them move, though Wen Ning's hand shifts on the sword he carries. It is Suibian, Lan Wangji sees now.
Ouyang-zongzhu snorts as if the question was absurd instead of reasonable. He steps around his table and comes into the centre of the hall, within a few yards of where Wei Wuxian and the Wens stand. "Wei Wuxian. I ask again--will you hand them over to us now, in the name of peace?"
Wei Wuxian's face sets like black stone. His smile is small and deliberate. "No."
"Ouyang-zongzhu--" Jin Zixuan begins, but is interrupted.
"You see?" Ouyang-zongzhu appeals to the hall at large. "No matter what we hear, this Wei Wuxian is not a man of honour. He still has no respect for us and our traditions. Perhaps his inventions are useful, but he should not be giving them to average people. Knowledge belongs to cultivators. Can he even still call himself one?"
Wei Wuxian's flinch is not small enough to hide. Lan Wangji finds himself standing before he can tell his legs to do so.
"He still will not show even the minimum of respect by carrying a sword," says Ouyang-zongzhu. More confident now, scorn suffuses his voice. He lifts his chin. "I insist on challenge by duel."
Jiang Yanli turns to her husband, who stands now with his own sword in his hands, but he does not say anything. This is a delicate situation. It is hard to tell, in the hall full of murmuring people, where the balance of sympathy lies. And denying a sect leader's right of challenge, in public, is not going to be good politics.
"As the honourable sect leader has pointed out," says Wei Wuxian, light and dry, "I carry no sword. Sorry to disappoint."
"Nonsense. I'm sure someone will lend you one. Perhaps this fierce corpse you have serving as your bodyguard? Or what about your betrothed, whose honour you tarnish with every minute you stand here making a mockery of us?"
That was a poorly judged strike. Frowns dot the faces in the hall. Lan Wangji would very much like to tell this man that he can guard his honour with no one's assistance, but he doesn't choose to give him even the dignity of a reply.
Wei Wuxian, as usual, has no such ability to hold his peace. The stone of his face loosens to something molten, subtle and very dangerous. His hand tightens on his flute. When he looks at Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji gives a tiny shake of his head.
The silence is tight. Then Wei Wuxian gives a sudden, showy yawn, tapping the backs of his knuckles against his mouth. "I have travelled all this way. I'm tired. I'm not in the mood to fight. Why don't you offer me a drink, instead?"
"You insist on this insolence!" Ouyang-zongzhu snaps. "All it would take is for you to pick up a sword and show you haven't forgotten that you are one of us. Why won't you?"
"Mm. I don't feel like it."
"Wei Wuxian, says Jiang Wanyin. He is standing as well by now. "It's--not such a big ask. If it would satisfy everyone…"
Wei Wuxian spins to glare at his brother. "I said I won't!" The shell of his humour has cracked. Lan Wangji feels deeply uneasy.
"Won't?" says Ouyang-zongzhu. Courtesy is cracking as well. It's an outright taunt now. "Or can't?"
"Wei Wuxian." Madam Yu stands. Silence falls, half surprise and half respect. She shakes off her husband's hand with an irritable flick, and comes to stand in front of Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji waits for her to echo her son's request, to demand that Wei Wuxian prove himself. It will be a tipping point. Wei Wuxian will throw his walls up again and leave, and never come back, not even for Lan Wangji's sake.
"Wei Wuxian," she says again. "Give me your hand."
New murmurs. The atmosphere in the room is like a soap bubble expanding and about to break. Wei Wuxian looks over his shoulder at Wen Qing, who stares at a point above his head.
"Wangji," says Lan Xichen in an undertone. "What is going on?"
Lan Wangji indicates his ignorance with a shake of the head. He remains standing. Whatever it is, he will be ready.
Wei Wuxian glances at him: soft, and unreadable. Then Wei Wuxian's shoulders relax, a surrender, and he holds out his hand wrist-upmost. Madam Yu puts her fingers to his pulse.
It is a long, long minute before she snatches her hand back. She looks horrified. Before Wei Wuxian can move, she takes hold of him again, this time by the elbow. She uses that grip to nudge him sideways so she can stare at Wen Qing for a moment, and then gives Wei Wuxian a firm shake. It is the most maternal gesture Lan Wangji has ever seen her make.
"The golden core transfer? You really--I had heard that it--I did not think it had ever been done successfully."
"Well," says Wei Wuxian. His smile jitters on his lips. "There is a first time for everything, isn't there?"
"And you...you did this." She gathers herself up, impressively. "For Jiang Cheng."
Only then does the horror which has been growing in the soil of Lan Wangji's attention manage to break surface. The golden core transfer. He can't breathe. Memory roils within him. Wei Wuxian writing that he would find a way to help Jiang Wanyin. Wei Wuxian with secrets behind his smile and that flute spinning, spinning in his hand.
"Wen-guniang did it," says Wei Wuxian, raising his voice over the eager shouts of the room. He seems desperate to be anywhere else. "She did what has never been done before. And it led to herself and her brother being captured, Wen Ning being killed." Panic lashes in his voice. "And was I supposed to let you kill them all over again, for their pains?"
As if there were any chance of the room being distracted, at this point, from what has just been revealed.
"You--" Jiang Wanyin looks stabbed. His hand is a fist pressed against his ribs. "Wei Wuxian, you--"
Lan Wangji, too, feels stabbed through all over, with thorns of admiration and pain. He wants to take Wei Wuxian away from this noise, wants to close him in his arms and hold him there for a full month, let this enormous truth begin to settle from where it's filling the space between them like dust.
Ouyang-zongzhu, all but forgotten, should seize the opportunity to take his seat and pretend he never said anything. He would do so if he were wise. Instead he lifts a hand, shaking, and points it at Wei Wuxian.
"Even if that's...well, see!" he blusters. "The proof from his own mouth! I knew he was hiding something, and you let him here among respectable people--you opened the door to this wolf--" And he steps forward as though he will take hold of Wei Wuxian and drag him out of the hall himself.
Lan Wangji moves. He is between Ouyang-zongzhu and Wei Wuxian before his heart can beat twice, Bichen raised but still in its sheath, a warning.
Ouyang-zongzhu stops, his words stumbling on his tongue. He looks around himself for any sign of support. "It's not--he admits he has no real cultivation, only these tricks, like a commoner!"
Lan Wangji keeps staring at the man until he stops talking, then turns his back on him. Such a person does not deserve any of Lan Wangji's attention at the moment.
"Wei Ying," he says.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he looks at Lan Wangji with a hint of shame--and even worse than that, fear. Actual fear. It's a look Lan Wangji recognises because for a long time it lived in a mirror in his own heart. I am bare to you. You could hurt me. This is the hungry child who hides behind the wall.
He says, "I'm sorry, Lan Zhan."
"Do not say you're sorry," says Lan Wangji.
And he does what he has only done once in his life, in the training exercise that every disciple loathes: he locks down his own spiritual energy. He moves at once into one of the spells that Wei Wuxian demonstrated for him in the Burial Mounds, a powerful one against malicious energy, and hurls the completed thing high. The red characters fly to stick and glow in a corner of the hall. There is no danger here beyond human ignorance and pettiness, so it fades quickly.
Lan Wangji says, "Would anyone like to tell me that there is anything less than respectable in this?"
Wei Wuxian stares at him. Not even the faintest Lan Zhan falls from his lips.
Jiang Wanyin's eyes are blurred with tears and his face is grim. He mutters something to himself, then moves his hand through the motion to lock his own energy as if to get it done before he thinks better of it.
Wei Wuxian's eyes, already wide, go impossibly wider.
"I won't," says Jiang Wanyin. "And anyone who wants to disagree can argue with all of the Yunmeng Jiang."
"That's right," says Jiang-zongzhu.
Jin Zixuan shifts on his feet and glances down at the poised, tear-stained face of his wife. "I will not say that either," he says. "And I will not have it said by anyone under my roof."
Jiang Yanli nods. Madam Yu crosses her arms, her right wrist resting lightly over the other. Lan Wangji can feel the room remembering the rumours around Jin Guangshan's departure, and realising that a dissenter might find themselves arguing with Zidian as well.
Wei Wuxian lifts a hand to his own face, then lets it drop before it makes contact. He moves suddenly and is inside Lan Wangji's space, facing him; his eyes are full of tears, none of them spilled over yet, and Lan Wangji could fall to his knees in gratitude for what this means. That Wei Wuxian has seen him as the safe place to bring the emotions he is reluctant to show the world.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmurs. He rests his palm on Lan Wangji's chest, over the place where Lan Wangji's golden core is locked. But will recover. To willingly give that away for someone without ever telling them; to live cheerfully with that emptiness, to know that it will never glow again…
Wei Wuxian lifts a handful of his purple-trimmed sleeve and swipes at Lan Wangji's cheeks, one and then the other. He gives a hiccup of a laugh and leans his forehead against Lan Wangji's.
"Lan Zhan," he says. "I can't have it said that I made the best man in the world cry. What will that do to my spotless reputation?"
Eventually, through the miracle that is Carp Tower hospitality, the dinner banquet continues. Lan Wangji is prepared to settle back behind his table, but Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes at Wen Qing and says, "We are going to talk," and then drags the Wen siblings into a corner of the room with such a meaningful stride that nobody tries to follow.
Well, Lan Wangji follows. He is not prepared, at the moment, to let Wei Wuxian out of his sight.
"How did this happen?" Wei Wuxian hisses, into Wen Qing's unconcerned face. "You promised me you wouldn't tell anyone…Wen Ning?"
Wen Ning looks nervous, but shakes his head. "I told nobody, Wei-gongzi!"
Wen Qing says, "It was an unfortunate--"
"Stop it," Wei Wuxian says, sharp. "Don't try that on me. Wen Qing. How did it happen?"
"Hey, you could be a little more grateful," comes a female voice.
It takes a moment for Lan Wangji to recognise the girl Mianmian, dressed as she is in flowing festival robes, with her hair elaborately braided and her sword in her hand. Beside her is Jin Guangyao, his hands clasped within his sleeves. He gives Lan Wangji a polite nod when their eyes meet.
"She just saved your reputation," Mianmian says to Wei Wuxian. "For good."
Mianmian exchanges a look with Jin Guangyao, who takes a neat step forward.
"Ouyang-zongzhu has been stubborn," Jin Guangyao says. "He has been spreading rumours about you to counter our campaign, and trying to poison the well of your reputation further. It is not only about you, Wei-gongzi," he adds, with fingers upraised, forestalling Wei Wuxian's interruption. "The power balance between the sects has been volatile, since the Qishan Wen...disrupted it. He has his own reasons to try and undermine the Yunmeng Jiang, and since they have refused to denounce you, you are a weak flank for them."
Mianmian says, "We knew he would seize any excuse to make trouble for you. Wen-guniang said that we should force the situation into the open. So I have pretended to be sympathetic, and suggested to him that a duel would either unmask you as a coward or force you to show the extent of your evil tricks."
"Wen-guniang said it would work," says Jin Guangyao. "We decided to trust that she had your best interests at heart. She did not tell us what she had done. What you…" Jin Guangyao swallows, the smooth words for once deserting him. A man without great cultivation skill himself, he still looks sick at the thought of it.
So. A confrontation, where a lit fuse could be sliced off mercilessly before it had a chance to do damage. Madam Yu is very sharp, very knowledgeable about medicine in her own way. Wen Qing out of anyone would know how to place pieces in front of her and let her join them into the full picture.
The Gusu Lan are the heaviest boulder to shift, Jin Guangyao said, but Lan Wangji has just watched them publicly win over a boulder notorious for her ambivalence towards her adopted ward. All of this has been about knowing where to place the levers.
It is not Lan Wangji's style, but he can respect it.
"What if it hadn't worked?" Wei Wuxian demands of Wen Qing.
"It did. These are your family and your friends, Wei-gongzi. See what they just did for you." She shrugs. "And now they know what you did for them."
Wei Wuxian sighs. He sneaks a look over at where Jiang Wanyin sits. His face clears, slowly.
"Now stop making a fuss over a rainstorm that's already passed, and go and meet your nephew," Wen Qing adds. "That's what you're here for, right?"
So they go back to the head table, where Wei Wuxian properly embraces his sister, and jigs his nephew in his arms. Jin Rulan lets out a solemn burp, along with a dribble of milk. Wei Wuxian actually goes to wipe it away with his lovely sleeve before Jiang Yanli scolds him and takes the child back, and Wei Wuxian laughs, a full-body laugh that seems to shake off the last of the tension from this evening's events. Heads turn to watch him, and stay. It is indeed very hard to look away.
Once again, Lan Wangji is not sure what his own face is doing, but something in it causes Wei Wuxian's attention to stick. Wei Wuxian's smile remains, but gains an edge of something else. He swallows. Lan Wangji watches his throat move.
"Shijie," Wei Wuxian says. "All our friends and all the major sects are already here. It wouldn't take that long to put together a wedding, would--ow!"
Madam Yu has slapped his arm. "Wei Wuxian! You terrible boy! I am very grateful that you kept your word and helped Jiang Cheng, yes. But you will not upstage the one-month celebration of my first grandchild."
Lan Wangji is reciting principles in his head, breathing deeply, in order not to pick Wei Wuxian up bodily and leap with him to the nearest private horizontal surface and--
"A-Xian," says Jiang Yanli, "I am sure Lan Wangji wishes to wait, so that proper preparations can be made for a full Gusu Lan wedding, to honour the alliance between the sects properly."
"...yes," says Lan Wangji.
"You are still quite young," says his uncle. "Now that Wei Wuxian has been formally recognised by the Yunmeng Jiang and the rest of the cultivation world again, the alliance is just as strong with a betrothal as with a marriage. There is no need to rush it."
Lan Wangji says, "If the two states are equal in strength, then it cannot matter which one exists between us."
His uncle begins to nod, then hesitates; he, after all, is the one who taught Lan Wangji about logical argument and how to encircle someone with words. "Wangji--"
"It cannot matter if we marry tomorrow."
He wants to say: I believed in him when you did not. I deserve him.
He wants to say: if we wait much longer I will end up breaking several principles of the Lan at once, loudly, and possibly in public.
Instead he bows his head and looks at the floor until his uncle exhales, defeated, and says, "Grant us more than a single day to prepare, at least."
A Gusu Lan wedding requires the participants to remain in meditative seclusion right up until the moment of the ceremony, which frankly makes it one of the most relaxing days of Lan Wangji's life. Elsewhere, his brother is greeting guests and overseeing the preparations and playing the courteous host. Lan Wangji gets to sit calmly and impeccably upright in the Jingshi and contemplate the marital principles.
Wei Wuxian lounges with his head in Lan Wangji's lap. Whenever he moves too much, endangering the creaseless expanse of his ceremonial robes, Lan Wangji taps an admonishing finger on his forehead and he settles with a small, unrepentant grin. He has always looked beautiful in red. Today, he looks nearly burnished with health and excitement, and if Lan Wangji's thumb sometimes slips and lingers over his cheekbone, neither of them comment on it.
More usually, each person would be doing their meditation alone. But this morning Wei Wuxian slid the door of the Jingshi silently open, slipped inside, and successfully argued against this tradition while Lan Wangji was distracted fighting off an attack of palpitations at the sheer sight of him, red-clad and ornamented and perfect.
"It says seclusion, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian pointed out. "Not isolation."
Lan Wangji didn't have the heart to argue. The contemplation of noble values in the presence of the partner is the highest form of intimacy, after all.
And besides: a small part of him is still convinced that if he lets Wei Wuxian out of his sight for too long, Wei Wuxian will disappear. Much better to have the reassuring warmth of him in Lan Wangji's lap, inescapable and inarguable.
They walk together to the front of the ceremonial hall. Lan Wangji's heart has begun to beat absurdly fast again, for no reason that he can fathom. Wei Wuxian is right there, by his side. They pass the blue-and-purple clump of the Yunmeng Jiang, where Jiang Wanyin is looking extremely grand and is throwing extremely obvious longing glances across the hall in the direction of Wen Qing.
Wei Wuxian's breath hitches in a silent laugh. He's seen it too.
Kneeling side by side, they bow three times. Lan Wangji removes his forehead ribbon and wraps it around both their wrists while they make promises to one another. Then Wei Wuxian ties it back onto him, which is part of the ceremony, and kisses him, which is not.
It is very brief, very chaste, a tease of a kiss. A sigh comes from behind them; it sounds like Jiang Yanli, though Lan Wangji is not going to look around to check. He would find it hard to look around if someone came bursting through the doors of the hall proclaiming that they were under attack by the fierce rotting corpse of Wen Chao.
He is looking at his husband Wei Wuxian, whose smile is a clear night and all the stars within it.
The proper amount of candles are burning in the Jingshi when Lan Wangji enters. He has washed himself in the main bathhouse, having been laughingly banished from his own residence by Wei Wuxian, and has wrapped himself again in under-robes. His hair is incongruously formal, still held up in its usual ornaments.
Wash the self, before and after.
Every drag of cloth and splash of water across his skin has wound him tighter. He has been thinking all day of tearing those crimson robes off Wei Wuxian; perhaps it is for the best that their wedding clothes be removed in private, sedately, for the sake of the fabric if nothing else.
Candlelight fills the Jingshi with gentle shadows. The incense that catches his nose is one of those that is considered appropriate for a wedding night, a basin of water sits with cloths draped over its edge, and Lan Wangji would wager silver on the fact that the bed has been made with fresh sheets.
The principles have been followed to a perfect and exact degree. It is what Lan Wangji has imagined for himself ever since he was a child frowning thoughtfully down at the Book of Marital Principles. Only better, because he never imagined that he would feel as he does now.
He is smiling even before Wei Wuxian--humming a song that Lan Wangji knows as well as his own name--steps into view. He, too, is perfect. He wears only his undershirt and trousers beneath a single house-robe, and his hair is down. He looks loose and relaxed and blazing with happiness, and he walks to greet Lan Wangji as though this sort of domesticity is a well-trodden path. As though Lan Wangji has every right to step through a door at the end of the day and find Wei Wuxian there, waiting for him.
No kiss, yet. No embrace. Wei Wuxian pauses within easy reach and they look at one another. A bird calls in the night outside. Then the sound of laughter, very faint. After that the world is quiet. Nothing is expected of them, and they have one another. Lan Wangji could die right now and be happy, except for the hot-blooded part of him that is still simmering away like a pot forgotten on the fire.
"Lan Zhan. I have a wedding gift for you."
Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows. His own gift, on behalf of his sect, was the deeds to a large estate of good Gusu farmland to the east of Caiyi, and the promise of help building any new structures the Wen might need. And a pointed conversation with Wei Wuxian about the benefits of raising a child in a place which contains more sunshine and fewer noxious energies.
Wei Wuxian's posture straightens. "Address your partner with courtesy at all times," he says, and from there continues into a recitation of the Lan principles of marriage that even Lan Qiren would be proud to witness. He is word-perfect. His voice never falters.
By the time he reaches Partners should give and accept support with equal grace, Lan Wangji's endurance reaches an end.
"Wei Ying. Stop talking."
"Lan Zhan! I still have over a hundred to go, and I haven't even gotten to the fun ones yet! See, you have made me lose my place. I'll have to start again--"
Lan Wangji kisses him silent. They stand like that for a time, trading kisses back and forth like stories, each one longer and more serious than the last. Lan Wangji felt violent when he grabbed at Wei Wuxian to begin with, but having him like this--willing, eager, perfectly content to be pressed up against Lan Wangji's body--has restored a few drops of patience. They only break apart when Wei Wuxian laughs and takes Lan Wangji's hand and pulls him in the direction of the bed.
More kisses, as they undress. Wei Wuxian looks at the angle of Lan Wangji's bare shoulder as though he has been handed a pearl fresh from the ocean, and presses his lips to it, and sensation dances down all the way to Lan Wangji's fingertips. Wei Wuxian has not spent years nightly removing the silver ornaments from Lan Wangji's hair--though they are gold, today--and so he doesn't know the deft angles that allow them to slide painlessly clear. The look on his face when Lan Wangji's hair tangles around the metal is hilarious. Something to be etched on the heart. He tugs harder and Lan Wangji endures it, adores it, and merely lets his own expression tilt long-suffering.
"You Lan," says Wei Wuxian. "All discipline and self-denial until it comes to pretty things in your hair."
"There is no virtue in a life without beauty," says Lan Wangji, and means it.
Visibly, Wei Wuxian skims through the principles which he knows by heart, and doesn't find that one. Lan Wangji's intricate hair ornament is still in his hands and he looks down at it for a moment, rubbing it with his thumb as if this is a moment he's anticipated and wants to remember. Then he sets it aside.
And finally there are no clothes between them, nothing at all. Wei Wuxian lies back on the bed with so much heat in his eyes that Lan Wangji has to take two deep breaths before he can bring himself to touch again. For years he has been rendered useless by Wei Wuxian in small pieces. A wrist. A collarbone. The nape of his neck. Trying to take in his entire body, all that flushed and waiting skin, is somewhat like drowning.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. His own eyes are busy, greedy. "Come here."
Lan Wangji will need to do this in stages. He sits on the edge of the bed. He trails his fingernails up Wei Wuxian's arm, wrist to shoulder, and watches him shiver. Then across his throat. Wei Wuxian's lips are parted, a dark crack of need, and his eyes are impossible shadows. He tries to move and Lan Wangji flattens his palm on Wei Wuxian's shoulder, holding him down on the bed; the shadows deepen immediately, a smile breaking open on Wei Wuxian's face.
"Wei Ying. Thank you, for this," his gesture encompassing the robes and the candles and incense. "I know you think the principles have little meaning--"
"They have meaning to you."
Plain and effortless. This is the gift. And in a way it's what Lan Wangji has been trying to tell him, to give him, his betrothed and beloved. The core of the principles is respect for one's partner. Lan Wangji wanted to give Wei Wuxian that declaration of worth, and the formal rituals that have running underneath them just this: you are the most important thing in my life. Here I am. Here are my promises.
"And of course," says Wei Wuxian, "this was a political marriage. The alliance must be sealed with proper ceremony…" He's laughing again, making little motions as if to wriggle away, but with no real force behind them.
Lan Wangji gazes down at him and says nothing else. Slowly, Wei Wuxian's laughter settles, and he seems nervous to let it go, as if it were something along the lines of Nie Hauisang's fan. Without it he is unshielded.
It's only when Wei Wuxian is quiet and still that Lan Wangji kisses his forehead and says, "I would have married you if you came with no sect name at all. If it meant my reputation was nothing and the whole world hated me." This last part has been a stone on the back of his tongue for a long time. It's easier to say than he expected: "I should have gone with you to Yiling in the first place."
"No! Lan Zhan. You showed me that there was a selfishness to what I was doing. I only fought to have my reputation and my life back because of you. Because you fought for me, and that was...shaming. And now you shame me again! How can I be worse at saying what I feel than the famously aloof, famously silent Hanguang-jun?"
Lan Wangji has never felt less aloof in his life, with Wei Wuxian's fingers removing the ribbon from his forehead just as they tied it in place during the ceremony. The sight of it draped over Wei Wuxian's hand is intoxicating, nearly unbearable in its intimacy.
"I would marry you for nothing, Lan Zhan. I would give up much more than a golden core to have you. I do not deserve the steadfastness of your honourable heart. And," livelier, "I always told Jiang Cheng it would be me who would marry the most beautiful person, and I have! In fact, do you know, I have fulfilled his entire list. Beautiful, a strong cultivator, a model of propriety, who has read all the principles of marriage--"
But here his voice cuts off, because Lan Wangji has taken him in hand. Lan Wangji moves his fingers gently, exploring, enjoying both the smooth heat and the way Wei Wuxian's cock gives little jerks as it hardens within his grip. Like a rabbit kicking in its sleep. He is not going to say that aloud, though perhaps if he did Wei Wuxian would do nothing more than laugh and--and tilt back his head, as he is doing now: his eyes fluttered shut, his perfect lower lip caught between his teeth.
This is a convenient way to deal with a tendency to nervous flippancy. Lan Wangji will have to employ it often.
A needy sound escapes Wei Wuxian as Lan Wangji releases him, which he does only to find a better position on the bed; to press a kiss over his sternum, then move further down his body.
"The marital principles are important. But I have learned not to underestimate the less traditional texts," says Lan Wangji. "Some of them are very instructive."
Still, none of them have prepared him entirely for how it feels to take Wei Wuxian's cock into his mouth, but that doesn't matter. This is like sword practice when they were young: the joy is the discovery, in trying your best to break through the other's defences. Tenderness crashes through Lan Wangji as well as desire, and he sucks gently and finds a less awkward angle, and Wei Wuxian groans and then curses like no son of a noble cultivation sect should know how to do.
Nobody else has this part of Wei Wuxian. Nobody else gets to do this, taste this, see and hear this. Only him.
Wei Wuxian gets his hands into Lan Wangji's hair, brushing it back from his face as if to frame the view. His stomach rises and falls urgently above where Lan Wangji's spare hand is splayed on his hip. Lan Wangji pulls all the way off and licks his lips, exploring the sensation, giving a rest to the new ache in his jaw.
"Wait! Wait." Wei Wuxian scrambles to sit up, when Lan Wangji makes to start again; he has a taste for this skill now, and is determined to master it. "Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji waits. Sitting up himself, shifting his position, brings to his attention the fact that his own cock is painfully hard.
It takes Wei Wuxian some time to gather his words. In that time Lan Wangji leans in and kisses him, because there are no longer any reasons why he shouldn't do this when the desire to do so seizes him. They are married and they are alone. Lan Wangji could do nothing, for hours, but work Wei Wuxian's mouth open with his tongue and learn every catch of his breath, every sharp edge of his teeth. He could fall into it like deep water.
He pulls away and says, careful, "You didn't like it?"
"Of course I liked it! You--Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian laughs shakily, drops a kiss on Lan Wangji's temple, and then actually climbs off the bed, which is completely unacceptable and Lan Wangji will chase him down and drag him back just as soon as he remembers how to move his legs.
Wei Wuxian brings back a small stoppered oil-pot, which he drops into Lan Wangji's hand. He collapses onto the bed in a pile of pale limbs. His cock is still wet and flushed.
Wei Wuxian says, "I was about to go off, that's all, and that wasn't how I wanted it to happen. I got married today, and now my husband is going to have his way with me. I have been waiting for this, I have dreamed about it, I have been so good, and I am going to come with you inside me."
There are so many possible responses to this that Lan Wangji's throat is paralysed with them.
He knows that Wei Wuxian loves him, and desires him, but for some reason it has never occurred to him that Wei Wuxian could have been waiting for this with the same impatience, or afire with the same acute yearning for it. It's another of Lan Wangji's small selfishnesses. He imagines his own desire to be so huge that it cannot be matched. And he is--he is just himself, too cold and too unsmiling, and grown up tied to the rules of Gusu Lan like a vine along a frame. He is not a person to kindle fires under other skins.
But Wei Wuxian looks at him, flushed and desperate, with an expression that tells him otherwise.
"Yiling-laozhu," Lan Wangji says. He allows his voice to rasp low. "You think you have been good?"
Wei Wuxian blinks and then gives him the grin of the boy who stood up in the lecture hall and argued with the teacher every day for a month. "Have I not?" he says. "Is Hanguang-jun going to punish me?"
Lan Wangji shakes his head. "You never learn from it."
"Mm, but it's your duty to try, isn't it?" Wei Wuxian settles back onto the pillow. Crooks up one knee and lets it fall to the side. "Perhaps you haven't come up with the right punishment yet. I'm sure if Hanguang-jun is creative he can make me ask forgiveness on my knees, make me beg for the chance to prove myself--"
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says desperately, screwing his eyes shut. He shouts at his own nerves. He is Lan. He has mastery over his body. He does.
Not for the first time he thinks that whomever wrote the principles of the Gusu Lan could not possibly have foreseen Wei Wuxian.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Wuxian doesn't touch him, and so Lan Wangji is able to open his eyes again. "I think you should fuck me now."
For something that they have anticipated for so long, it takes almost no time at all in the end. Lan Wangji is young and frustrated and in love. The feeling of Wei Wuxian tight and hot around him, when he presses inside, is overwhelming. And then there are unexpected things: the soft skin in the crook of Wei Wuxian's knee. The visible unfolding of new sensations in the way he bites and releases his lips. The sounds he makes, so unashamedly loud that Lan Wangji's face is probably the colour of their wedding robes. And the way his cock pulses and then spills at the first touch of Lan Wangji's fingers, when Lan Wangji reaches between them, and his whole body tightens even further--
It's too much. Lan Wangji follows him over the edge, pleasure roaring up out of nowhere like an underwater current.
When he has his breath back, he is a little annoyed at himself. Next time he will do better. He considers apologising, realises Wei Wuxian will laugh at him--and so laughs at himself, instead, letting his mouth curve helplessly where it's buried in Wei Wuxian's hair.
Wei Wuxian must feel it, because he shifts at once to look Lan Wangji in the face. He's wearing his own brilliant smile. Lan Wangji kisses it. There's less hunger between them now, but Lan Wangji loves how unhurried this feels, kissing for its own sake. He loves the way Wei Wuxian's chin lifts to chase more kisses, and the way Wei Wuxian's hand gently skims Lan Wangji's shoulder where--ah--his nails dug in, moments earlier, urging Lan Wangji deeper into himself.
Washing afterwards is a wise instruction. Everything is sticky.
Lan Wangji fetches wet cloth from the basin, and they both shiver at the cool touch of it on bodies that feel raw and sensitive, as though this layer of skin has been freshly born this last hour. Lan Wangji's shivers continue until he has Wei Wuxian in his arms again, their legs tangled, his hand settled firmly in the incredible dip of Wei Wuxian's waist. He swallows past a lump in his throat. Everything he might say seems extraneous.
"Aren't you supposed to go and meditate now, or something," mumbles Wei Wuxian, into his neck.
"Mm," says Lan Wangji.
"No point me doing it. No golden core. No spiritual energy to refine." He sounds disgustingly smug about it.
Lan Wangji should meditate for an hour to consolidate the gains he has just made. He should mention that the principles advise only sleeping in the same bed on the first night of the marriage, except that he is sure of two things.
One, Wei Wuxian knows this already.
And two, Lan Wangji has no intention of ever sleeping anywhere but here, with his husband's arm draped across his chest and his husband's head tucked beneath his chin.
"Perhaps next time," he says.