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the hidden source is the watchful heart

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By the end of the sixteenth year, grief is no longer Lan Wangji’s enemy. It is his old friend. He welcomes it inside when it is cold, lets it curl in his chest between his ribs, where his heart beats its painful beat. It is a soft ache, a permanent sadness, a richly banked fire; it is his slow-burning anger at the world that has failed and killed Wei Wuxian; it is loneliness itself, as soft as snow. He wears mourning as best he knows, unable to acknowledge his pain in any other way. He is a widower of the soul, bound in white robes. He lectures, in the morning, to the generations of young Lan disciples that follow his own. He plays Inquiry at night, until the notes themselves are pain itself, until he can trace the echoes of his blood in each chord. Wei Ying, Wei Ying: are you here? There is no answer. There is never any answer.

He raises his son, and gives him a name of longing.

For sixteen years, he mourns.

Then the man he loved (loves, loves and lost, has never ceased loving and never will) comes back to life, and Lan Wangji enters a life of miracles.

 


 

‘Wei Ying,’ he says, and Wei Wuxian stills imperceptibly, the last notes of his song—their song—swiftly softening, then vanishing altogether.

He turns. Incredulity is visible in his eyes—a strange sight, disbelief, in a man so absolute in both his pleasures and his pains—for a moment; then even that melts away. It melts into a smile of such pure and unabashed joy it steals the very breath from Lan Wangji’s lungs.

Alive, alive. Alive and free in the world, as Wei Wuxian deserves to be. He deserves the world. He deserves to walk in the world.

But they have been a year apart, a long and aching year since they parted here on the mountain, and Lan Wangji has been … lonely. A year has set time-marks in his mind: a month, two months, six months since they have last seen each other; a week, two weeks, six weeks since Wei Wuxian’s last letter, full of exclamations and protestations and little anecdotes about the places he’s seen, the places he’s been. A year of being Chief Cultivator, of judging great complaints and resolving small quarrels, of being—well—mostly—bored. He has long thought he would relish the duty; there has certainly been a time, when Wei Wuxian was dead (dead, dead, dead), when the charge and the office of the Chief Cultivator would have occupied every nook of his life in a more pleasant way. But Wei Wuxian is alive, alive now, alive here, and a world without him in it is no longer a world Lan Wangji wishes to live in.

‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei Wuxian breathes, still markedly, absurdly unbelieving. Then he moves, swiftly as a bird, and he is in Lan Wangji’s arms.

Physical contact is … complicated. Touch is complicated. But Wei Wuxian is the exception that proves the rule true, and Lan Wangji’s fingers are already lost in Wei Wuxian’s hair, pressing his face against his shoulder; Wei Wuxian takes shameless advantage of this, and nuzzles against his throat. Lan Wangji can feel him grin.

‘Ah, Lan Zhan,’ he sighs. ‘What are you doing here? How did you even know I was here? Did you?’

‘I didn’t,’ Lan Wangji admits. Something this morning had called him to the mountain, something in the cold, winter-bright air. He asks: ‘Why are you in Gusu?’

‘What!’ says Wei Wuxian, half muffled in his robes, rubbing his face against his shoulder indignantly. ‘Why wouldn’t I be in Gusu? Can’t I come to visit, Hanguang-Jun?’

Come to visit. Come stay. Take me away when you leave.

‘Mn,’ says Lan Wangji. His hand is on Wei Wuxian’s head, threading his fingers carefully through his hair. ‘Always welcome.’

Wei Wuxian pulls back. He looks a little punch-drunk, a little awed; his eyes are warm with happiness. His hands land on Lan Wangji’s arms, and hold him there. Then he frowns. ‘You look … sad. Lan Zhan. Are you alright?’

Is he? He does not know. All that he knew was obliterated by the sight of Wei Wuxian. But yes, he must be. Otherwise his heart wouldn’t be beating so in his chest. He wonders if it shows—if Wei Wuxian can hear the pounding, from where he stands. ‘Mn,’ he says again. And then: ‘Are you?’—because Wei Wuxian, despite his happiness, looks almost impossibly tired. There are lines at the corners of his eyes, soft skin crinkling. His mouth is thin and white.

‘Me? Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you worry too much—I’m fine,’ said Wei Wuxian, airily. ‘Just had a lot to do, that’s all.’

The last letter he has had of Wei Wuxian is six weeks old; he was then in Lanling, ridding a concerned family from the woes of a cursed heirloom, and harassing young Sect Leader Jin into letting him stay and drink his Lanling alcohol, which is inferior to Gusu alcohol. But he has not talked then of visiting Gusu. He has not talked of having anything much of import to do.

‘Just, you know,’ says Wei Wuxian, ‘curses, night hunts, monsters, fierce corpses … ’ He shrugs. ‘Wish I’d had you by my side, Lan Zhan.’

So do I. Lan Wangji swallows back the words. You could have asked. If Wei Wuxian had asked, no matter who would become Chief Cultivator in his stead, Lan Wangji would have gone away with him.

It is a sober reflection—that selfishness. Where Wei Wuxian is concerned, Lan Wangji is intolerant of anyone else. Like him, he is absolute in his resolutions. There are few people in the world he truly cares about—his uncle, his brother, Sizhui, Wei Ying. Wei Ying is the sun, eclipsing his responsibilities, his burdens, his obligations.

He comes to wonder, now, if by setting him free at last he has failed to see what Wei Wuxian was doing himself: setting him free—oh—of himself? How long has Wei Wuxian been in Gusu, so near at hand, but refusing (that stubbornness of his!) to come distract Hanguang-Jun in his duties? It is a hideous thought, at odds with everything Wei Wuxian is and should be, and he shakes it away.

‘Wei Ying,’ he says. ‘Come back with me.’ Not forever. Only long enough to remember you there. ‘For the colder months. You don’t need to stay away.’ It’s only practical, after all: if Wei Wuxian is in Gusu, why should he not rest in the Cloud Recesses, until he is ready to leave again?

Something complicated passes through Wei Wuxian’s face. But he nods, and he says, ‘You’re too good to me, Lan Zhan.’

‘Wei Ying deserves it,’ says Lan Wangji softly, and now Wei Wuxian’s eyes gentle. He shakes his head, shrugs. Says:

‘My Lan Zhan. Of course I’ll come back with you.’

 


 

It is late by the time they reach the Cloud Recesses. Though Wei Wuxian professes (another aberration) not to be hungry—‘it’s fine, Lan Zhan, really, I had a big lunch’—Lan Wangji steals them by the kitchens anyway, where they stock up on hot buns and bowls of congee: bland, palatable food that makes Wei Wuxian grouse and grouch about GusuLan Sect’s boring sense of taste. Then Lan Wangji takes him around the back, past the Library Pavillon and to the Jingshi, where it is dark and cool and very soft indeed. They light a few lamps and stoke the stove, and then there is nothing between them at all, only the length of the table. Wei Wuxian eats willingly enough: with obvious disapproval at the lack of spice, but he eats. He talks much in the same way he used to. His swift, meaningful glances up at Lan Wangji are new, though, and Lan Wangji cannot try to fathom what they might mean, or he would take Wei Wuxian to bed immediately and possibly never resurface.

But by the end of their makeshift meal Wei Wuxian is looking sleepy and a little drowsy, so Lan Wangji directs him to the bath and begins to heat the water. When it is hot enough, he says, ‘Wei Ying.’

‘I know, I know,’ says Wei Wuxian, and his hands go to his belts. Lan Wangji leaves him to it, the tips of his ears burning pink.

He sits at the table again, meaning to take a look at some essays he ought to grade—the task of teaching, even now, soothes and warms him, when the strictures of the cultivation world overtire him. When Wei Wuxian lights a lamp behind the privacy screen, he looks up.

A mistake. Wei Wuxian’s body is backlit by the lamp, and Lan Wangji is not, it turns out, a pure or virtuous man, or in fact made of jade. He cannot look away.

Wei Wuxian removes his charcoal robes with a deep sigh of contentment that goes straight to Lan Wangji’s … chest—until he is down to his shirt and his trousers; and then he takes those off, too. The lines of his body, silhouetted in the semi-light, are long and lean and well-built. Lan Wangji has never known why Wei Wuxian returned to himself as himself, in his own body, instead of Mo Xuanyu’s. But he is uncomfortably aware of how deeply, how powerfully he reacts to that body, that strength, that sheer, almost-feral physicality of his. He has wanted Wei Ying longer than half his life; he has wanted him since he was a boy figuring out his own desires and needs. Wei Wuxian has taught him desire, and has never known it.

‘Lan Zhan!’ Wei Wuxian says cheerfully, lifting one foot and then the other and stepping into the tub. ‘Say, Lan Zhan, are the stories true? Is Hanguang-Jun an intractable Chief Cultivator? Did you really tell Sect Leader Huang to—‘ He finishes the sentence with a word Lan Wangji is absolutely convinced no one from the Lan Sect has ever thought of, much less of saying aloud.

‘I did not,’ he says, looking away at last, as though Wei Wuxian could catch him watching. ‘I did, however, tell him that if he wasted my time any longer I would simply stand up and leave whenever he opened his mouth. Which I did,’ he adds, in fairness.

Wei Wuxian howls with laughter. He splashes in the bath, one foot overhanging the side. Lan Wangji can see the breadth of his shoulders, the heavy fall of his up-bound hair. ‘I forgot how mean you are. Well, no, I didn’t, because I could never forget anything about you, Lan Zhan, but I forgot how mean you get to people other than me … you shouldn’t do it too often, I’ll get jealous … ’

Lan Wangji’s ears burn. His fingers are tight around the brush. He sets it aside carefully. ‘Mn,’ he says. ‘Won’t be mean to anyone but Wei Ying.’

There is a smile in Wei Wuxian’s voice. ‘Unless they really, really deserve it.’

‘Unless they deserve it,’ he concedes.

 


 

There is no question of their sleeping arrangements, no question of bringing another bed into the Jingshi. Despite all that remains unsaid between them, this at least requires no explanation. The bed is broad, and easily fits two. Wei Wuxian, attired in a clean pair of pants and one of Lan Wangji’s shirts, plops down on the mattress with a happy sound, leans back on his elbows, and watches Lan Wangji undress. His eyes dark, his lips half-parted.

Lan Wangji undresses.

It is a lengthy process, as he wears several sets of robes, layered and belted and tied. By the time he is down to his inner shirt and trousers, Wei Wuxian is perhaps breathing a little faster.

‘Your hair,’ he murmurs, rolling over and reaching out. ‘Let me?’

‘Mn.’

He removes Lan Wangji’s hairpiece with the utmost care, setting it aside on the bedside table; his hands move, gently, gently, to undo Lan Wangji’s top-knot. Lan Wangji’s hair falls softly over his shoulder. Wei Wuxian pushes it back with his fingers, messing it up a little.

‘Your hair down,’ he says, a small smile dimpling his cheek. ‘I like it.’

Lan Wangji hums, pushing his head into Wei Wuxian’s palm. Wei Wuxian swallows, and his hand curls over the nape of his neck, strokes down his throat to the curve of his shoulder. ‘Forehead ribbon,’ he whispers.

They are seated on the edge of the bed, turned into one another.

‘Remove it for me,’ says Lan Wangji.

Wei Wuxian bits his lip, but he obeys, so tenderly, so sweetly, that Lan Wangji’s heart is overfull with love for him. The ribbon slips and pools in Wei Wuxian’s hand; he swallows, and sets it on the table, folding its edges in. He is so careful. ‘Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan … ’

‘Mn.’ He leans his head against Wei Wuxian’s and thinks of nothing but this. Nothing exists but this. He breathes. It is so quiet. There is something gentle about quietness when it is shared.

‘It’s late,’ says Wei Wuxian, reluctantly, ‘for you.’ His lips brush Lan Wangji’s cheek.

‘It is.’ It is hours past curfew.

‘Alright, lie down,’ Wei Wuxian decides, pushing at him with the tips of his fingers. Lan Wangji obeys, and lies on his back, hands folded, watching with hooded eyes as Wei Wuxian takes off the red ribbon that ties up his hair, crowds him under the covers, and props himself up on one elbow. ‘I won’t sleep yet, though. Is that alright?’

‘Don’t mind,’ Lan Wangji says, sleepily.

Wei Wuxian’s grin is blinding. He nuzzles against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, puts a hand on his chest. His palm is warm where Lan Wangji breathes in and out. ‘Go to sleep, er-gege.’

 


 

It snows. The world is a blur of white. Lan Wangji dresses slowly in the thin, early morning light, slipping on and fastening each layer of clothing with particular care. Last, he puts on his forehead ribbon, wishing Wei Wuxian were awake to do it for him. Strange, to go from utmost privacy to utmost intimacy, like so. He and Wei Wuxian have always passed over the line between the two, but the line now appears to have vanished altogether. All that he has is Wei Wuxian’s, all that he is is Wei Wuxian’s, and the opposite, he knows, is likewise true.

Asleep, dreaming, Wei Wuxian looks more peaceful than he does awake. All his vaunted energy leaves him, and he rests, face relaxed, mouth slack, on his side, curled up towards the spot where Lan Wangji has lain some minutes before. His hand is held out a little on the pillow, palm up and tender.

Lan Wangji has obligations, people to supervise, meetings to keep. At this hour of the morning, he likes to meditate in the cold springs, looking for clarity and strength of thought. He ought to be there already: if he is late to his morning duties some juniors may be sent out of their way to check in on him, and he dislikes the thought of it. Routine is soothing. Sustaining. He finds an anchor in it when the world spins around him.

But Wei Ying is in his bed now, agreeable, comfortable, sleeping, and Lan Wangji finds a profound sadness rises inside of him, pulling and pulling at his heart until he thinks that he could choke on it.

The events surrounding Jin Quangyao’s dark deeds and unhappy schemes were so swift, so quick to action—Yi City, Koi Tower, the Burial Mounds—that Lan Wangji was forced to move accordingly; swept up in Wei Wuxian’s prodigious rebirth, he had not time to think of anything but their next play. The year following has been markedly empty of Wei Wuxian’s presence, apart from a few letters sent cheerfully, and Lan Wangji’s duties as Chief Cultivator have alternately occupied and bored him, resulting in a profound loneliness.

He is used to loneliness. It has been his dearest and most precious friend. It has guarded him against the great darkness inside him that might swallow him whole, if he let it.

Now that that loneliness has faded, the force of sixteen years mourning Wei Wuxian descends upon Lan Wangji.

It is a miraculous fact that Wei Wuxian has died and then returned to life. It is his body, alive and warm and physically strong, that requires food and rest and joy, as any other body does; it is that quick-fire mind, that dizzying intellect, that so powerfully connects Lan Wangji to him; it is his bewildering presence, his affection, his lack of respect for anyone’s privacy, even his intemperate sweetness, unmistakably his own, despite death and despite grief. For sixteen years Lan Wangji has thought of him with a mix of immense pain and wounded love. That love has sustained him, has kept him alive. He has bestowed it on his brother, on the junior disciples he taught, and on Sizhui, in every way he knows to give love, which are not very many, but nonetheless are his own. But that is nothing compared with what Lan Wangji feels now: a deep, all-encompassing affection, catching him between the ribs, that threatens to make him sob with pleasure. He bows his head, closing his eyes. Wei Wuxian snores a little, unknowing of the pain and the joy Lan Wangji feels in his presence.

After a time, he straightens, brings the quilt to rest atop Wei Wuxian more securely, and rises. If he was given love anew, it is his responsibility to handle it preciously. It is his duty to see that he lives well by it; that he explores every nook and cranny of that love; and that, if ever Wei Wuxian wishes to go, he lets him go.

 


 

Lan Sizhui finds him at the tail end of a meeting about agricultural reform with the Nie Sect. It is a very long, very dull meeting, and Lan Wangji finds himself irritated at the wasted time. He has left a part of himself in the Jingshi with Wei Wuxian. He longs to return there.

Sizhui smiles politely at the Nie Sect envoys as they file out. Then he comes in. ‘Hanguang-Jun.’

‘Sizhui.’

‘I see Senior Wei has returned.’ Sizhui’s smile grows fonder. He loves Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji knows, in a way that even he cannot fathom: it is the love of a very young child towards their parent. Though Sizhui has grown past Lan Wangji’s instruction, he will always remain, in some dark places of the mind, the grubby little boy who held onto Wei Wuxian’s robes and called him Poor Gege, who nestled in his arms as though nothing could harm him there.

Lan Wangji does not resent Wei Wuxian that particular intimacy. He has had sixteen years to see Sizhui become the polite, brave, well-mannered young man he is now. Any father would be proud. This father is. Proud beyond measure.

‘He has.’ Lan Wangji folds his sleeves as he rises. ‘Has he sent you to rescue me?’

‘Yes, though I don’t think I needed to.’ Sizhui gives him a sly, knowing glance, but he says simply: ‘You are very patient with the envoys, Hanguang-Jun.’

He isn’t. He is, in fact, hopelessly distracted, incurably preoccupied. Impatient.

As they walk past the study halls, two figures in white, he longs to see Wei Wuxian again. The space of a few hours have left him hungry for his laughing presence, his recklessness, his wicked teasing. It is an extraordinary thing: he has spent a year apart from Wei Wuxian, and a many, many long years previously, with profound yet manageable pain—and the mere thought of being away from him now, when he is so close, so near, is just about unbearable. He wants to touch him, to kiss him, to have him. He wants to sit by his side at night, in the Jingshi, and play music with him. He wants Wei Wuxian to sleep with him. He wants Wei Wuxian to drink his Emperor’s Smile and tease him for not doing so. He wants …

Sizhui must see his indecision, but says only: ‘Senior Wei has been telling us of his adventures in the world,’ and Lan Wangji is thankful for the distraction. He inclines his head to listen. So they while away the short journey to where Wei Wuxian is now, which is at the Western Gate, entertaining a gaggle of juniors with madcap tales.

He looks—better. He was wilder last night, a little on edge; there was something hiding in his eyes that Lan Wangji could never quite make out. Now he speaks with great gestures and cavernous sounds, as though describing an encounter with a xuanwu. Perhaps he is.

Perhaps not. Surely he wouldn’t.

But he is. He catches sight of Lan Wangji, widens his eyes dramatically at him, and throws at the juniors, ‘Ask Hanguang-Jun! I would surely have died in that cave if not for him, you know!’

The juniors whirl around, to a man. Sizhui hides his laughter behind his sleeve.

‘Hanguang-Jun,’ they echo dutifully. Hanguang-Jun, Wei Wuxian mouths at him behind their backs.

The juniors appear to be starstruck. All of them, of course, have heard of the Yiling Patriarch, of his dark and evil deeds, of his death and reincarnation, and of his peculiar bond with Lan Wangji. Faced with the thunderstorm that is Wei Ying, it is no surprise that they should be deeply uncertain of what he will do next—transform into carrion, invent a new monster, or rain torment upon the Cloud Recesses. But Lan Wangji steps closer and finds a white rabbit nestled in Wei Wuxian’s arms.

Wei Wuxian catches his gaze. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to eat him.’ He pets the bunny with two fingers, scratching at its long ears. ‘Yet!’ he adds, and laughs to see it wriggle. ‘So cute, Lan Zhan. Just like you, see?’

‘Mn,’ says Lan Wangji, past his burning embarrassment. Sizhui makes a choked sound.

Wei Wuxian brightens up at the sight of him. ‘Scoot,’ he says to the juniors, who fly off immediately like a cloud of doves. ‘A-Yuan! Did you fetch Hanguang-Jun to me? Was he very angry?’

‘Not angry,’ says Lan Wangji, taking the rabbit out of Wei Wuxian’s hands. ‘Relieved.’

‘You shouldn’t say that, Lan Zhan,’ says Wei Wuxian, severely. ‘Not if you don’t want me to come and bother you whenever I please.’

Lan Wangji wouldn’t mind. He can’t imagine anything he’d like more than to have Wei Wuxian leaning heavily against him as he offers wisdom to the cultivation world. Wei Wuxian would mock everyone Lan Wangji cannot afford to mock, make outrageous suggestions in the face of outrageous problems, and take passionately to the causes of small cultivators claiming small injustices. He would say everything Lan Wangji does not dare say, and more eloquently, and with more justice, than Lan Wangji could.

‘Food?’ Wei Wuxian asks, hopefully, making mournful eyes at the rabbit. Lan Wangji shields it a little protectively.

‘Hanguang-Jun has been to the kitchens this morning,’ says Sizhui. ‘He was very insistent that the cooks should make something extra spicy for Senior Wei.’

Was he,’ says Wei Wuxian.

Lan Wangji slides a finger down and around one of the rabbit’s soft ears, glances up at them both, and feels mad and sorry with love. Sizhui, Wei Ying, two sides of his heart. It is an inconvenient emotion, overwhelming and overflowing, far past and beyond anything the Sect rules deem admissible; but he is not willing to surrender it to the dark.

 


 

‘A-Yuan looks proper and grown,’ says Wei Wuxian that night, after another two meetings turn the afternoon into a long, endless drag into the evening. He has shown up in the main hall at nightfall, smiling benevolently on the various sect delegates laying out their cases to Lan Wangji, and terrified them all into leaving them both alone. Lan Wangji should probably not find that as arousing as he does.

Wei Wuxian does not look terrifying now. He looks pleased, a little sad, a little drunk, very lazy. ‘I got him to tell me all about his adventures with Wen Ning. I wish I’d seen them … ’ He stretches, yawning. ‘Wish I’d been here to see him grow up. Wish I’d been with you … ’

‘I wish that too,’ says Lan Wangji softly.

Wei Wuxian smiles at him. Lan Wangji smiles back, helpless not to.

‘Don’t do that,’ Wei Wuxian says.

‘Do—?’

‘Smile like that,’ says Wei Wuxian, in a very how dare you!!!! sort of fashion. ‘How am I supposed to think when I know you can smile like that!’

‘Don’t think,’ Lan Wangji advises.

Wei Wuxian returns to it, though. He leans against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and says, ‘You raised him so well, Lan Zhan.’

‘It had very little to do with me,’ said Lan Wangji, not looking up from the scroll he is perusing.

‘No, you’ve just given him affection, education, pride, kindness, and politeness,’ says Wei Wuxian. ‘All those very non-Lan things.’

‘He had them from the start.’

‘I can’t imagine what he’d have become if he’d stayed with me. A little rapscallion, I don’t doubt.’ Wei Wuxian loses himself in the fantasy for a bit. ‘If the Wen survivors had formed their own sect … and nobody had come to kill us … and we’d left the Burial Mounds, because really. … would you have let him in, Lan Zhan, when he turned seventeen? You hated me when I was seventeen. Your uncle would have had a heart attack. Another Wei!’

‘Uncle likes Sizhui.’

‘He likes him now.’

‘And I did not hate you.’

Wei Wuxian peers at him, his eyes very bright under the fall of his lashes. ‘Oh?’ he says, half-teasing and half-sincere.

‘You were extraordinary,’ Lan Wangji says, not looking up. ‘And I was not.’ He was proud, arrogant, solitary, unbending, unwilling to give anything of himself. He could not approach Wei Wuxian the way other boys did, in friendly badgering. The depth of his feelings for Wei Wuxian was … terrifying. Love itself was terrifying. Small love then, love that had not yet stood the test of time, of suffering, of horrible loss. For that love, the sweep of Wei Wuxian’s eyelashes against his cheek had been enough. The brilliance of his smile, untouched as yet by so much tragedy, had been enough. Lan Zhan spent untold classes listening for Wei Wuxian’s voice—and untold nights unslept, exhorting himself to calm and to reason.

‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei Wuxian says, a strange expression on his face; but whatever he meant to say falls short, and instead he says: ‘Let me comb your hair.’

Lan Wangji blinks at him. Then he inclines his head.

By the time Wei Wuxian has delicately deconstructed his hairpiece and untied every small braid and ponytail that secures Lan Wangji’s hair, and has drawn the ivory comb through it, long and slow, Lan Wangji has become used to the alarming intimacy of the moment. A sensation of heaviness has come to his body, from the head down; he feels calm, tranquil, half-asleep. Wei Wuxian is very gentle. When Lan Wangji’s hair is smooth and disentangled, Wei Wuxian braids it in a long, heavy plait, securing it low against his back with a ribbon.

‘There,’ he says, almost a whisper. ‘All done. You’re perfect.’ His voice catches on the word. ‘Perfect. My Lan Zhan.’

‘Wei Ying?’

Wei Wuxian sighs then, and leans his head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. His body is tense, trembling. ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at me. If you do I’ll tell you, and I don’t … I don’t want to.’

Lan Wangji flinches. But he lays his hand on top of Wei Wuxian’s, over his shoulder. ‘Then don’t tell me.’

Wei Wuxian makes a soft sound of surprise.

‘You should tell me when you are ready, and not before.’

Surprise becomes understanding, which becomes gratitude. Wei Ying rubs his cheek against Lan Wangji’s back, curls his hand against his own, and says, ‘Come to bed, Lan Zhan.’

 


 

They sleep.

 


 

Somehow, the days pass. It becomes colder and colder, the world lurching into winter. The snow is ceaseless, and the Cloud Recesses are encloaked in white.

Wei Wuxian snuggles himself into a tight ball when Lan Wangji leaves their bed, frowning at nothing in particular, and Lan Wangji finds it difficult to tear himself away. He settles for stroking his hair, brushing ink-black strands from Wei Wuxian’s face, before he turns to the duties and the necessities of the day.

His brother, when Lan Wangji visits him, gives him a subtly knowing look.

‘So Wei-gongzi has come to visit.’

‘Mn. He has,’ says Lan Wangji, pouring tea with great attention. His brother favours a slow brew, and a dark, earthy tea. ‘For the winter.’

‘Traveling in the colder months is more difficult, indeed,’ says Lan Xichen. ‘And I am sure he must be pleased to see you.’

Lan Wangji nods, gently pushing a cup towards his brother. Lan Xichen has been in seclusion for the length of the year, and is only now beginning to edge his way out of it. He is still, nonetheless, impossibly sad, struck into silent and desperate pain by Jin Guangyao’s betrayal. It is not the same tragedy as Lan Wangji has known; even in the moments when he feared Wei Wuxian lost to the madness of the Stygian Tiger Seal, Lan Wangji trusted, deeply, in his intention to do right by the Wen survivors, and believed that there must still be a way out of the dark. After Wei Wuxian’s death, when he barely lived for the pain of each taken breath, when the skin of his back was torn and bleeding from the cautioning whip, still he knew that what he had done was righteous and good—however few, even in his own clan, would agree. His faith in Wei Wuxian, despite the fear and terror it sometimes arouses in him, has never failed.

Lan Xichen’s grief is of another kind altogether. He is not merely grieving Jin Guangyao’s life, but the very existence of the man he thought his friend to be. His mourning must be done in silence.

But he is still kind. Lan Wangji, whose emotions run deep underneath the smooth façade of his indifference, admires and respects his brother’s steadiness, his smiling understanding of the world.

‘Brother,’ he says, but does not find the words.

Lan Xichen gives him time. Then, gently, he says, ‘Wangji?’

Lan Wangji looks down at his hands. Then, very slowly and very carefully, he says: ‘I do not know that … I am the right man to be Chief Cultivator.’

‘Oh,’ is all Lan Xichen says.

‘I am too selfish. I wish for—‘ He pauses. Lan Xichen knows—he must know—what Lan Wangji truly wishes for. ‘I accepted the position with the only thought that someone must. Wei Ying wished to be free, and could not be tied down. I could not force my presence and friendship upon him, when he would not ask it.’

‘And so,’ says Lan Xichen, ‘you have let him go, and imprisoned yourself.’

Lan Wangji closes his eyes. This comes dreadfully close to what he has thought himself. ‘It would be self-centeredness to ask for more. One must ensure the well-being of others before one’s own.’

‘Yes.’ Lan Xichen sips his tea. ‘And no. To be selfish is not to be unrighteous. You are allowed to desire more for yourself than duty and obligation. If you are now miserable … ’

‘Not miserable.’

‘Unhappy,’ his brother amends kindly. ‘If you are unhappy, you must take pains to remedy it. It is a difficult task, and a lifelong one. Do you believe Wei-gongzi would not be amenable to your company, if you wished to go with him?’

The truth is, Lan Wangji does not believe so. He does not doubt Wei Wuxian’s love, nor his faithfulness. Being Wei Wuxian’s soulmate is a natural and uncomplicated state of being; it comes to him as simply as breathing, as gently as falling asleep. Having found the right path at last, no matter how twisted and dark it may become, he cannot stray. He would not know how.

But the expression of that love is complex, and Lan Wangji, lacking as he is in experience, does not know whether his desires are matched by Wei Wuxian’s. Physicality is difficult. Touch, simple touch, is more so. Though Wei Wuxian sleeps in his bed, so that Lan Wangji sometimes wakes with the weight of his arm thrown across his chest and Wei Wuxian’s head nestled against his shoulder, it does not follow that he ... wishes to kiss Lan Wangji as Lan Wangji wishes to kiss him. It does not follow that he wants Lan Wangji as Lan Wangji wants him—physically, sexually, powerfully—or that he wants Lan Wangji’s hand in his hands and Lan Wangji’s mouth on his own and their bodies moving together.

Lan Wangji wants, though.

It is, perhaps, not the best avenue of thought when he is sitting across from his brother.

Lan Xichen refrains from commenting. ‘Perhaps you ought to ask him,’ he says, ‘whether he would be open to having a … companion. Who is not a donkey,’ he adds, delicately. ‘And, Wangji—‘

Lan Wangji waits.

‘You should ask yourself whether duty is worth sadness.’

 


 

‘Brother sends his respects,’ he tells Wei Ying.

‘Zewu-Jun is all kindness,’ says Wei Wuxian, and hits him with a secret snowball.

This devolves into out-and-out combat, in the midst of which Wei Wuxian recruits a whole team of juniors to build a snow fort and set about attacking each other. Laughter explodes upward and outward. Lan Wangji, hanging back, wonders that no Lan disciple has ever skirted the rules enough to have a snowball fight. He must make certain his uncle will never, ever hear of this.

Then Wei Wuxian tackles him from the back, and they both fall into the snow, one atop the other, legs tangling. Wei Wuxian is laughing, breathless and wild, and pressing his fingers into Lan Wangji’s shoulders; his fur-lined cloak fans out over them like a blanket.

‘Hanguang-Jun,’ he teases, his face inches (inches!) from Lan Wangji’s. ‘At last, I have you at the mercy of the Yiling Patriarch! Whatever shall I do with you, hmm?’

There is snow in his eyelashes.

Wei Ying. Lan Wangji is taken with unmeasurable tenderness. It feels, all at once, immensely important that Wei Wuxian should know precisely what he does to Lan Wangji’s poor, battered heart.

He reaches out his hand and pushes Wei Wuxian’s ponytail out of his face. ‘Whatever Wei Ying wishes.’

Wei Wuxian sits down, right on top of him, straddling him, his legs on either side of Lan Wangji’s hips. He tilts his head; the amusement fades from his features, and in its place comes something altogether darker and more serious.

‘Lan Zhan,’ he murmurs. His fingertips brush his cheek; Lan Wangji turns his head into the touch. ‘You really shouldn’t say such things. You’ll give me ideas.’

What ideas, Lan Wangji wants to know, but before he can say anything about having ideas of his own—a snowball—curving from the right and below—hits them both in the face.

Lan Jingyi stares at them both in stark horror.

Wei Wuxian laughs, pushes himself off, and pursues the miscreant, threatening fire and hail upon him. Jingyi, not being a fool, flees.

Lan Wangji, the great Hanguang-Jun, the second Jade of Lan, His Excellency the highly-respected Chief Cultivator, lies on his back in the snow and thinks very cold thoughts for ten achingly long minutes.

 


 

He is awakened, some nights later, by the feeling of Wei Wuxian sitting up in bed. It is only a stirring at first; then a long, sorrowful sigh; then the long line of his body pushing away, moving away, taking its warmth with it; the covers fall a little, carrying cold air in. Lan Wangji opens his eyes.

It’s earlier than five in the morning, and wintertime, so it is still dark, but he can easily make out Wei Wuxian’s silhouette, framed against the window. His legs are curled up underneath him. His shoulders are rounded, his chin resting on his fist.

Lan Wangji touches his back. ‘Wei Ying.’

Wei Wuxian’s head turns, very slightly. ‘Lan Zhan,’ he rejoins, flatly. ‘Sorry. Did I wake you?’

‘No,’ Lan Wangji lies. It is so near five as to make little difference. ‘Can’t sleep.’

‘Mm. Yeah. Me either,’ says Wei Wuxian, and something in his voice says he has seen through Lan Wangji’s lie, and does not care. After a long, difficult moment of decision-making, Lan Wangji pushes himself up to sit also, and sets his cheek against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.

It’s such a small touch, it scarcely seems consequent. In Lan Wangji’s heart, it feels like a thunderclap.

Wei Wuxian takes a breath, but cannot speak.

Lan Wangji will not push him. But he bears in mind his brother’s words, about remaining in the dark, and refusing to ask. ‘Wei Ying,’ he repeats, and takes Wei Wuxian’s hand in his own. ‘Do not be afraid to speak.’

A huff of laughter. ‘Ah, Lan Zhan … ’ Wei Wuxian squeezes his fingers; his thumb draws figures in Lan Wangji’s palm. ‘It doesn’t matter. Not really, anyway.’

‘If it matters to Wei Ying, it matters.’

Wei Wuxian lifts a shoulder. ‘I’m used to it—people thinking ... It’s been a long time.’

‘But?’

‘But.’ He shudders. ‘Lan Zhan, these were kids. Ten of them, dead in a village. No reason why, no curse, no malevolent spirit … one of the villagers recognized me, so I couldn’t—I couldn’t. Pretend. And, well. The Yiling Patriarch must have a dark intent. Right.’

Lan Wangji’s grip tightens on him. He slides his arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist.

‘The worst part is,’ Wei Wuxian adds, ‘I couldn’t prove I hadn’t done it. I wasn’t anywhere near the town when the first child died, of course, but that was my word against all of theirs. Why would I come there at all? I did try to help. I tried to find out if there’d been rogue cultivators roaming around, or ancient curses … there was nothing. I couldn’t find anything. So I left.’

His shoulders are pressed against Lan Wangji’s chest, tense and shivering. After a moment, Lan Wangji’s fingers stray in Wei Wuxian’s hair, drifting through the soft tresses. It’s an intimate, instinctive show of tenderness, the likes of which Lan Wangji was not, until this moment, aware that he was capable of. Wei Wuxian does not seem to mind. He is staring out the window, his face unreadable.

It is in these moments, when Wei Wuxian is distant and unapproachable, that Lan Wangji feels the dread of losing him again. Not, this time, to a bewilderingly dangerous necromantic practice, nor even to the hatred of the Sects, but to who Wei Wuxian is—that wild spirit who feels everything so deeply, as attracted to the light as he is to the dark. No, it is no wonder that the villagers were afraid of him. The reputation of the Yiling Patriarch has suffered for sixteen years from the worst sort of slanderous gossip; it is too much to hope that a year should clear it.

When he says so, gently, a laugh shudders its way out of Wei Wuxian. He clutches Lan Wangji’s wrist.

‘Time will prove Wei Ying right,’ Lan Wangji says.

‘Right.’ Wei Wuxian nods, nestles back against Lan Wangji. ‘Right. If nothing else, you and I know the truth, right? And that’s what matters.’

Lan Wangji takes a breath, then presses a very soft kiss against the shell of Wei Wuxian’s ear. ‘Would it have helped if I had been with you?’ he asks. I wish I had been with you, is what he means.

‘Who knows? Ah, poor Lan Zhan. Being my soulmate is a tough deal. You deserve better than a messed-up necromancer with too much baggage.’

Another kiss, against his jaw. Wei Wuxian tilts his head invitingly, baring his neck. ‘Don’t want anyone but Wei Ying.’

‘Flatterer,’ says Wei Wuxian, but his voice is breathy and soft. ‘Ah … ’

‘We should go again. Together.’

‘Not sure that’s a good idea, Lan Zhan,’ says Wei Wuxian, a trace of wistfulness in his words, and then he turns in his arms, and he is smiling, now, faintly. ‘Kiss me?’

Lan Wangji’s breathing stills, for a fraction of a second. Wei Wuxian looks at him from underneath his lashes. It is almost teasing, that look; only Lan Wangji does not think he is teasing. Underneath the bravado, Wei Ying is deathly serious.

Lan Wangji takes one last second to live in a world where he has not kissed Wei Wuxian; then he slips his hands around the back of Wei Wuxian’s head, and presses his lips to his. Wei Wuxian meets him halfway—his mouth soft and a little open—and: yes, they are kissing, without hesitation or doubt. No, it is not indecision, this gentleness, this relief: they are only discovering each other anew, the way strangers do. But they are not strangers. And Wei Wuxian being Wei Wuxian he does not let the foreignness of the situation slow him down; in a moment his teeth part frankly around Lan Wangji’s lower lip, and his tongue touches his, slick and hot; his fingers are in Lan Wangji’s hair, curving over his shoulder, dragging him down to rest fully against him. Lan Wangji hears his own moan before he has aware that he has made a sound. They kiss, nipping and sucking, and press close, and touch each other breathlessly.

‘Huh,’ Wei Wuxian murmurs, once Lan Wangji has kissed him quite silly. He leans their foreheads together, so close, so close that Lan Wangji can feel the brush of his eyelashes against his. And then says: ‘Trust you to be good at this.’

‘Wei Ying,’ says Lan Wangji. His ribcage feels as though it might cave in.

Wei Wuxian laughs against his mouth. His fingers are tight in Lan Wangji’s hair. When Lan Wangji kisses him again he answers enthusiastically, pressingly, demandingly. It makes perfect sense that Wei Wuxian should be a challenging lover. Everything he does, he does so absolutely it makes Lan Wangji’s heart ache.

In time, Lan Wangji will come to recognise the small details that make kissing Wei Wuxian distinctive: his short, even breaths; the teasing nip of his teeth around his lower lip; the bold sweep of his tongue; the slick, almost obscene sounds of their mouths sliding together. So, too, his grasping hands, tightening in a fist in his hair, stroking his neck, caressing his shoulders; and so the soft ah-ah-aaah sounds he can’t stop himself from making, every time Lan Wangji’s mouth parts from his. His eyes are big and dark, his mouth reddened with kisses. For now everything is new.

‘Who’ve you been kissing, mmm … ’

‘No one,’ says Lan Wangji. ‘No one but Wei Ying.’

Something proprietary flares in Wei Wuxian’s eyes. ‘Lan Zhan!’ He ends up just staring into his eyes for a solid minute.

‘Wei Ying,’ says Lan Wangji obligingly.

‘Sorry,’ says Wei Wuxian, pawing at his shoulder aimlessly, ’you broke my brain a little bit. Ahhh. I’m tired.’

Lan Wangji kisses his pouting lower lip. ‘You should sleep. I will get up.’

‘Yeah, maybe … but I don’t wanna let you go … ’

‘I will come back,’ Lan Wangji says, and means it as tenderly as any promise. ‘I will come back for you.’

 


 

Kissing, so begun, is too good to stop. Lan Wangji kisses Wei Wuxian when he finds him among the rabbits, pushes him against a tree and covers his body with his own. Wei Wuxian kisses him when he comes bearing tea to relieve the Chief Cultivator from the burden of his reports—one hand light on his shoulder, and Wei Wuxian’s smiling lips pressing a soft kiss against his cheek, his jaw, the corner of his mouth. Lan Wangji kisses him in the mornings, before he leaves to attend the duties of the day, brushing Wei Wuxian’s hair from his brow. Wei Wuxian kisses him in full sight of a class of juniors, ignoring the startled and appalled whispers among the newest and prudest generation of Lan disciples, knotting his fingers in Lan Wangji’s collar. They go to bed early. They kiss, in bed, bodies flush against each other.

Kissing Wei Wuxian is nothing short of extraordinary. Illuminating. Breathtaking. It is the softness of his lips against Lan Wangji’s—his pleased sigh when Lan Wangji pulls away—Wei Wuxian’s hand tangling in his hair, and his bare feet brushing against Lan Wangji’s ankles; it is the push and pull of mouths sliding sloppily together, tongues stroking, teeth biting. Wei Wuxian kisses him slow and kisses him soft and kisses him lovely and good. Neither one of them truly knows what they are doing. They find out. They discover. They have time.

 


 

In bed, some night later, Wei Wuxian strokes one hand down appreciatively down Lan Wangji’s arm, follows it with a kiss, and says, ‘Would you have wanted this, Lan Zhan, even then?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yes? Ah? You never said … ’

‘Couldn’t.’ Lan Wangji struggles. It is one thing to touch Wei Wuxian; it is another to be touched as he would suffer no other person to touch him. ‘Wanted … wanted you. But I couldn’t say it. Not even to … ’ Me, he wishes to say, and instead closes his eyes, briefly, touched with the insanity of his own embarrassment.

‘Wanted me, eh,’ says Wei Wuxian, with a lewd look; and then he laughs and sprawls all over Lan Wangji, throwing one leg over his hips. He nuzzles into Lan Wangji’s throat, murmuring soft words of adoration.

Lan Wangji is … overwhelmed. Wei Wuxian is overwhelming. This is not a new situation.

What is new is the sensation rising in his ribcage, the trembling want that overcomes him whenever he kisses Wei Wuxian—whenever he touches him; or brushes their noses together; or slips his hand in his. His desire for him sinks into his blood, sings into his bones. He slides his hand into Wei Wuxian’s robes now, laying it simply over his skin.

‘I liked you so much,’ Wei Wuxian sighs. ‘Hanguang-Jun was so handsome. So brave. So, so brave—my Lan Zhan.’

‘I wish I had protected you,’ Lan Wangji forces himself to say, meaning, with every fraction of himself: I wish I had been by your side. I should have stayed with you in Yiling. I should have fought with you in Nightless City. I should have been brave. I wasn’t.

‘You did,’ Wei Wuxian says. His breath is soft against Lan Wangji’s neck, and he smells a little of wine and a little of soap. ‘You did,’ he insists. ‘I was just dumb. I should have kissed you when we were seventeen.’

‘I don’t believe that would have helped,’ Lan Wangji admits.

‘You would have been so mad,’ Wei Wuxian says cheerfully.

‘I loved you,’ Lan Wangji says. ‘And you died.’

Then he is crying. Tears, clear and simple, run down his cheeks; when Wei Wuxian notices he exclaims, and takes Lan Wangji’s face in his hands and kisses them away. The tears do not stop. A sob hitches his breath, and his fingers curl in Wei Wuxian’s clothes, clutching him closer.

‘Ah, Lan Zhan—don’t cry for me—I’m not worth it,’ says Wei Wuxian, dismayed. But he brings him carefully closer, so that Lan Zhan can lean his heavy head against his shoulder and cry quietly there. His lips brush his nose, his cheek, his mouth. His fingers are light on his jaw, cradling him against him tenderly. ‘My soulmate, my lover—oh, I wish … ’ He trails off, picks up another trail of thought. ‘Even back then? Lan Zhan, did you love me all the way back then?’

‘Always loved Wei Ying,’ Lan Wangji says against his neck. When we were seventeen. When we were young, and I was mad with wanting you. I did not know how to speak that desire. I was terrified that you might find out.

‘I wish I’d known,’ says Wei Wuxian, disappointed, ‘I would have kissed you in the underwater cave, if I’d known, Lan Zhan,’ and all at once Lan Wangji is done with regrets. There have been too many of them. Too many times he has mourned Wei Ying; too many times he has nursed his anguish and heartache until they threatened to overwhelm him. He has not been happy for a very, very long time.

‘Wei Ying,’ he whispers.

‘I’m here, I’m here.’

‘Wei Ying. Don’t let go.’

‘I won’t,’ says Wei Wuxian, with bewildering kindness. ‘Lan Zhan, why would I?’

‘When you leave,’ says Lan Wangji, closing his eyes, ‘I wish to go with you.’

A moment, a breath. Wei Wuxian’s voice is full of hope, when next he speaks. He does not ask about Lan Wangji’s duties, about the cultivation world, about the future of GusuLan Sect. He only says: ‘Come with me. Please, please, come with me.’

 


 

It stands to reason that affection, shared once, cannot be easily contained. It can only expand. Wei Wuxian was never shy of it, and he is not shy of it now: he touches Lan Wangji arrogantly, in public, knowing perfectly well that Lan Wangji will never dream of pushing him away. It amazes Lan Wangji that he is not ashamed of these moments. Instead he longs for them. When his uncle directs a glare at Wei Wuxian for taking Lan Wangji’s hand in the dining hall, Lan Wangji presses a kiss to the backs of Wei Wuxian’s knuckles. When disciples stare and refrain bravely from murmuring amongst themselves, he pushes back Wei Wuxian’s hair from his face and kisses his cheek and murmurs a soft word in his ear. When Wei Wuxian visits him in the Chief Cultivator Hall and sprawls across his lap, whining with boredom, Lan Wangji bends his head and kisses him firmly, insistently, until they are both breathless and primed for far more than kissing.

Desire, in a spiral, rushes out of him. It echoes back and forth between the two of them, and he reads, in Wei Wuxian’s dark looks, in his lingering caresses, the same want he feels uncoiling in his own chest. Intimacy itself is no longer enough.

It comes to a head one long evening, when, coming out of the bath, he finds Wei Wuxian leaning against the privacy screen, arms crossed, watching.

Lan Wangji is not ashamed of his body, nor has he ever been. He knows he is well-formed. He has taken care, throughout his life, to respect and protect his body, and to train it, for cultivation purposes, to meet the worst of exertions without failing him. He is also aware that he has been, for a very long time, regarded as a handsome marriage prospect. These things, in abstract, mean little to him.

None of them have prepared him for the darkness in Wei Wuxian’s eyes now. Wei Wuxian cannot hide his strongest emotions, and does not attempt to, in any case. He wants him now. His fingers are digging into his arms. He gives Lan Wangji a long, long once-over, lingering in some … spaces … and Lan Wangji swallows, looks back, doesn’t move.

‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei Wuxian says, biting his lip.

‘Wei Ying.’

‘Um.’ A crooked smile. ‘Come here?’

He is nearly dry. The robe slips to the floor, unwanted. Wei Wuxian holds out a hand, and when Lan Wangji is close enough he sets it lightly upon his chest, where the brand covers his heart. His touch trails fire far more pleasurable. Lan Wangji’s fingertips brush his face, his lips.

‘You look so …’

‘So?’ Lan Wangji is curious. Wei Wuxian’s hands are on his chest, tracing the lines of his pectorals, down the trail of his abdomen, over the curve of his shoulders.

‘So good. You look so good.’

‘Will you do something about it?’ Lan Wangji asks quietly, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

‘Perhaps. Come to bed?’

‘Then you—too,’ says Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian understands, and grins, and undoes his belts. He takes off his clothes without care and without nicety. His robes slip on the floor, where they will remain, Lan Wangji hopes—hopes—the rest of the night.

Naked, Wei Wuxian is a wonder. His body, supple and lean, is golden in the lamplight. Between his legs his penis is half-hard, half-full against his thigh.

When he sets his hands on Lan Wangji’s waist and tilts his head for a kiss, it is simplicity itself to obey him. Wei Wuxian presses their bodies flush—a shock, in and of itself—as their mouths meld together, slide together. He teases him, a flash of tongue, a touch of teeth; and his hands are wandering the planes of Lan Wangji’s back, stroking up and down, and then lower down, lower still, until he is palming Lan Wangji’s ass with obvious appreciation. Chest to chest, mouth to mouth—this would be enough to finish it. But Lan Wangji is getting hard himself, and Wei Wuxian, discovering this, exclaims in delight.

‘You’re holding out on me, er-gege,’ he murmurs against his mouth, and Lan Wangji has to kiss him again, lest he blush harder than the sun. ‘Want you,’ Wei Ying adds, and then: ‘Want you in me, Lan Zhan—‘

‘Oh,’ Lan Wangji breathes.

‘Yeah?’ Wei Wuxian’s grin is blinding, appreciative. He takes the two steps back to the bed and drags Lan Wangji down with him.

They kiss, long and endless, caressing, touching, stroking, reveling in the feeling of hot, bare skin, in the permission implied in the moment. Lan Wangji explores his lover, presses his mouth against every inch of skin he can get to: Wei Wuxian whines and sighs in the most agreeable way, and, when Lan Wangji would pull away, throws both his arms and one leg around him and refuses to let go.

‘Wei Ying,’ Lan Wangji murmurs.

‘Again.’ Wei Wuxian pushes his face against his neck, and follows it with a nuzzling kiss. ‘Don’t go, do it again—please.’

A shudder of pleasure goes through him: he had not expected politeness to be what gets him off. But it is, and Wei Wuxian—being, as he daily likes to remind all Lan juniors in earshot, a genius—sees through him directly. This time his smile is wicked and knowing.

‘Please, Lan Zhan,’ he purrs. ‘Won’t you take pity on me? Won’t you give me what I want?’

Anything, Lan Wangji thinks wildly. He says, ‘Mn,’ and draws himself away, the better to bend between Wei Wuxian’s legs. His cock is hard now, bumping against his belly. Lan Wangji curls his hand around him, lightly, lightly, and Wei Wuxian swallows a curse and bucks up his hips, saying, ‘Oh, oh—yes, do that, oh please,’ so that Lan Wangji has to touch his mouth with his own. He kisses him long and hard. He strokes him from root to tip, once then twice, and then, more naturally, with a sweet twist on the way up, as he would, when he dares, touch himself. Wei Wuxian shudders and pants and moans.

‘Wait, wait, stop,’ he says, finally, utterly, completely out of breath. ‘Wait, Lan Zhan, I.’

Lan Wangji, so intent in his duty, looks up at him. ‘Is it not—‘

‘Oh, it is,’ says Wei Wuxian fervently, ‘trust me—I just really want you to fuck me.’

The words sing in Lan Wangji’s veins. He nods, once, and pulls himself away. There is oil in the side-table; Wei Wuxian cackles in pleasure when Lan Wangji offers it, and plucks it from his fingers with a flourish.

Preparing him is … a distraction. The sight of Wei Wuxian flat on his back, legs spread, panting for it, panting for breath, is unbelievably arousing. When Lan Wangji gets his fingers in him, he begins to make little noises, soft little whines, and his hips jerk in aborted motions, pushing back against him. Inside it is hot and tight and cinched; Lan Wangji does not know whether he will fit. Wei Wuxian’s cheek is red against the mattress. He bites his lower lip.

‘Here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes!’ Wei Wuxian, as expected, is as loud as could be. He vocalises every small pleasure and every small pain. He paws at Lan Wangji’s shoulders blindly, his mouth half-open, clenching down around Lan Wangji’s fingers. ‘Oh, Lan Zhan—please, please—won’t you—?’

Lan Wangji bends his head and lightly kisses his lips. Wei Wuxian whines again, opening his mouth, trying for more, craning his neck.

‘Please,’ he says again, and his eyes are blown out with pleasure, glassed-over.

Lan Wangji gathers him up against his chest; kisses his ear. It occurs to him that he is the recipient of a very great honour. He must take care.

When he pushes back one thigh against Wei Wuxian’s chest, Wei Wuxian makes a needy little noise and moves with him, his eyes low-lidded and dark and approving. When Lan Wangji lines himself up—holds himself, for half a second, very tightly indeed, so that he does not come before they have begun—he murmurs praiseful words and rubs his hands up and down Lan Wangji’s arms, encouragingly. When Lan Wangji pushes inside (slowly, slowly), Wei Wuxian throws one arm around his neck and holds him tight and close, opening up to him so, so sweetly.

‘Oh,’ says Lan Wangji, bottoming out after what feels at once too long and by far not long enough, and then again, ‘oh,’ and holds himself very still. He can feel Wei Wuxian throbbing around him; he can feel every breath Wei Wuxian takes; he can feel his heartbeat under his hands, under his mouth

‘Oh, yeah,’ Wei Wuxian says, with a shaking laugh, and his hands are tight on Lan Wangji’s shoulders. He squirms a little, pushing his face into Lan Wangji’s. ‘Ah, ah … ’

As Lan Wangji braces himself on the mattress on either side of Wei Wuxian’s head, and pushes out of him, gingerly, shallowly, and then pushes back in again, Wei Wuxian makes a sound like a guh-uhnh and tightens up all over. His legs cinch around Lan Wangji’s waist, though not enough to mean to stop him; he paws at Lan Wangji’s back, at his hair, his shoulders, until Lan Wangji gets himself under control enough to capture both of his wrists and push them gently up and back above his head. Wei Wuxian, for once in his life, does not attempt to resist him; his hands remain where they are, wrists crossed, as Lan Wangji’s thrusts become more regular, more even, and deeper.

But he isn’t silent. What is, at first, whispered encouragement and praise, becomes in time breathy little gasps, moans, and iterations on Lan Wangji’s name; until Lan Wangji, gripping his hips so tightly that Wei Wuxian will surely have bruises, fucks him harder and faster, and Wei Wuxian descends into incoherence.

The noise they make is almost obscene. Lan Wangji does not find it in himself to be ashamed.

He fucks Wei Wuxian for long, long minutes, keeping the speed and depth of his thrusts hard and even. Wei Wuxian seems to beg continually for more, more, and Lan Wangji is slowly losing his grip on his sanity. Small sounds are escaping him, too, wordless evocations of bliss. Wei Wuxian’s cock is rubbing between their bellies, hard and leaking.

Wei Wuxian is red-cheeked and out of breath when he breaks position and drags both hands in Lan Wangji’s hair, clutching down at him until Lan Wangji kisses him, wet and good. His tongue slides slickly against Lan Wangji; his hips are jerking up a bit against him; with every push and pull of Lan Wangji’s cock inside him he is making little fucked-up, fucked-out noises, softly keening against his mouth. Lan Wangji presses his lips against his jaw, his cheek, his ear, and Wei Wuxian is saying—

‘Harder, harder—fuck me h-hard, er-gege—‘

‘Mark your words,’ Lan Wangji says—pants, really—and grips his hips and pounds into him so roughly the bed shifts alarmingly underneath them. Wei Wuxian gasps and paws greedily at his own cock, and the sight of it: his chest red and marked and slick with sweat, the motion of his abs as he thrusts back up against him, and the sight of his cockhead appearing and disappearing between his fingers as he jerks himself off—would be enough to make Lan Wangji come on the spot, were not pride and the famed Lan self-control forbidding him from finding his own pleasure until his lover does.

It does not take Wei Wuxian long to unravel completely, though; within half a minute he moans a delicious, full moan—‘Nngh—ahhhhh’—and then his body seizes around Lan Wangji, his legs clenching tightly around his hips, and slick come spills over his hand and his belly and his chest. He trembles. He gasps for breath.

Lan Wangji fucks into him one, two more times, and comes deep inside him, burying himself in him, feeling every shiver of pleasure down to his very bones.

When he semi-returns to himself, he lays across Wei Wuxian’s chest, sprawled and exhausted and happier than, he thinks, he deserves. Wei Wuxian is chuckling in his ear, kissing his cheek, murmuring, ‘Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—you’re too good to me, do you know that? I can’t believe you did that, I can’t believe—‘ and other nonsense. Lan Wangji shivers, takes control of himself, and meets his mouth with his own.

After some time they separate, and Wei Wuxian has to visit the bathroom, and there are issues of stickiness and intimate matters to be taken care of; but Lan Wangji, it turns out, is wishful for affection after sex, and Wei Wuxian welcomes him with open arms. They fall back into bed. They cuddle.

 


 

‘It amazes me,’ Wei Wuxian murmurs, late at night, ‘how much you love me.’

‘Mmmm,’ says Lan Wangji. They are forehead to forehead, chest to chest, touching lazily.

‘I don’t deserve it,’ Wei Wuxian says frankly, and then adds, ‘ah, ah, don’t answer that.’

‘You do,’ Lan Wangji says anyway.

‘I really don’t,’ Wei Wuxian says. ‘But you should kiss me until I believe it.’

 


 

Lan Wangji learns, thereafter, to delegate. He assigns some of his duties to senior Lan members, transfers most report-reading to a few trusted associates, and informs the major cultivation Sects that he will, come spring, resign from his post as Chief Cultivator. He cannot, he says, proceed in good conscience or righteous obligation, bearing the knowledge that he cannot fulfill his responsibilities as he ought. Other matters, of equal if not greater importance, now claim his attention and his care. He has accepted his charge in the belief that the cultivation world, thrown into mayhem by the actions of Jin Guangyao, required a steady hand to guide it; he can no longer offer steadiness or selflessness; he regrets, but must withdraw.

He offers no suggestion as to whom might follow in his stead. He trusts in their good conscience and understanding to come to an accord within six months.

‘Ha!’ crows Wei Wuxian, perched upon his desk, legs a-swinging. ‘They’ll lose the better part of the year arguing about it, and then, when none of them can agree on anything (they won’t, Lan Zhan, you can’t tell me they will), they’ll think of Zewu-Jun, and come bother him about it.’

In truth, the Sect Leaders express disappointment, and, in some cases, outrage; but none of them seem overly surprised. Sect Leader Jiang adds in a postscript that he expects to see Wei Wuxian in Junmeng before summer: they have (he says) a score to settle. Wei Wuxian shrugs, but looks secretly pleased, and a little daunted. Lan Wangji presses a kiss to the backs of his fingers, and the haunted look leaves Wei Wuxian’s eyes; within a moment he is in Lan Wangji’s lap, kissing him firmly and insistently.

‘Wei Ying,’ Lan Wangji says, some time later, when they are both very breathless and very sated and very, very happy.

‘Lan Zhan.’

‘I have been thinking of selfishness.’

‘Okay,’ says Wei Wuxian, clearly at a loss, but preparing to listen. He pillows his chin upon his hand, his hand upon Lan Wangji’s chest.

‘I believed I was being selfless, when I suggested that we should part ways. I thought that you deserved a life free of the rigorous world that harmed you. Free of … me.’

Wei Wuxian frowns up at him, and, when he figures out that he is serious, says, ‘Lan Zhan. You are very beautiful and very clever, but you are also very stupid. What made you think I wanted to part from you?’

‘Wei Ying deserved to choose.’

‘Well, I chose,’ says Wei Wuxian, definitely. ‘I chose this. I chose you. Lan Zhan, my lover, my soulmate, I chose you many years ago. A lifetime ago. Could you doubt it, really?’

‘I did not know,’ Lan Wangji says, his voice very soft.

‘I,’ says Wei Wuxian, ‘am going to steal you away, and there is nothing any Sect can do to stop me.’

‘They would not dare,’ Lan Wangji says, and he must be smiling: Wei Wuxian makes a noise of delight and exasperation and love, and says: ‘I love you, I love you, I love you. You’re not allowed to doubt it ever again.’

I would not dare,’ says Lan Wangji.

 


 

Spring comes.

They go.