“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, only partially aware of what he’s about to set in motion. “I'm going to need a big favor.”
Lan Wangji looks back with such heart-stopping sincerity that it's a wonder Wei Wuxian's knees don't buckle then and there. And if he leans a little more heavily into Lan Wangji's arms, well, who can blame him.
“Anything,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian hums happily and indulges himself a moment longer, tucking his head into the curve of Lan Wangji's neck. It's a beautiful late spring night, the Jingshi is warm and orange in the candlelight, and in about five seconds, Wei Wuxian is going to kill the mood dead where it stands. He wants to enjoy this while it lasts.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says.
And there it goes. Lan Wangji stiffens. The temperature drops. The syrupy-slow movement of Lan Wangji's fingers at his waist still. Wei Wuxian misses it already.
“What about him,” Lan Wangji asks.
“Hah…” Wei Wuxian’s grin goes tight on his face. “I see now I shouldn’t have led with that.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says.
“Aiya, alright, I’ll explain.” Wei Wuxian’s hands flutter soothingly at Lan Wangji’s collars. “I saw Zewu-jun today.”
Lan Wangji inclines his head in a silent invitation to continue. Even at the mention of his brother, his face doesn’t thaw an inch.
“First of all, he asked me to apologize – he forgot about this until now,” Wei Wuxian barrels on. “But just before, well, everything, he made plans to hold a discussion conference jointly with Yunmeng Jiang next year?”
He trails off, his voice lilting into a question. The uncharacteristic uncertainty does soften Lan Wangji a little. But not enough that he moves to speak. Or even moves at all.
Lan Zhan ah, Wei Wuxian thinks, you’re really going to make me say it? Lan Wangji, for his part, watches impassively. He is definitely going to make Wei Wuxian say it.
“Zewu-jun thinks it would be a good idea to move ahead with planning,” Wei Wuxian says. Where’d that nice breeze from earlier go? He’s sweating, all of a sudden. “Push for normalcy and all that. But with his seclusion—he’d like you to take over for a while. And then he was thinking. Well. That we could have a banquet, after. Celebrate joining our families… in a manner of speaking.”
Lan Wangji blinks. This is how Wei Wuxian knows that the discussion has officially gotten serious. “Wei Ying,” he says again. This one has the lightest hint of pleading.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian says in a rush. “But it’s not going to be that bad. One meeting and one meal, that’s it.”
“Not that bad,” Lan Wangji echoes. “Which is why Xiongzhang sent you to ask, rather than asking himself.”
Wei Wuxian had to admit, that was a surprisingly cunning move from Zewu-jun. Though as Lan Xichen had explained it, it was really a matter of simplicity. If I’m not presuming too much, Wei-gongzi, he’d said, I gather you’d like to see this happen as much as I do. And Wangji will be more amenable to the request coming from you. I hope you’ll forgive the imposition.
One, he was right. Two, he was much kinder than he needed to be, really. Lan Xichen could have called him into the Hanshi, said you owe me several times over, and Wei Wuxian would have been the first to say that was fair enough.
Lan Wangji, as usual, follows his brother’s reasoning easily. “You want to see him,” he says. Not a question.
Wei Wuxian squirms. Squirming is an unfamiliar sensation on him. It should be forbidden to squirm for unsexy reasons. “Well, yeah,” he says. “Yunmeng’s an important ally! A joint conference is a great way to strengthen—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again. As you are well aware, I care about sect politics even less than you do, he does not say, but it comes through clearly.
“Okay, fine.” He lets his head thump against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, suddenly unsure that he can look at him and explain himself at the same time. He trusts Lan Wangji with everything, but. This kind of honesty is unsteady ground. “We’ve never hosted Jiang Cheng before.”
“He was at our wedding,” Lan Wangji says.
“That’s different,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Wangji breathes, shifting Wei Wuxian’s head. “He has been to Cloud Recesses several times,” he says.
“That’s different.” Wei Wuxian presses his face deeper into Lan Wangji’s shoulder. He can’t bring himself to care how childish it sounds when it muffles his voice. “Do you really not want to?”
Lan Wangji stills long enough that Wei Wuxian dares to tilt his head up and look. His mouth is an unhappy curve. But that was predictable. He’s never had a pleasant conversation with Jiang Cheng that Wei Wuxian can remember. Maybe when they were all fifteen, if that.
But with the furor of their elopement, their eventual Proper Lan Marriage, and the assorted dust and debris of the cultivation world dying down, only now has Wei Wuxian started to think about what that means.
Whatever Lan Wangji sees in Wei Wuxian’s face makes him wrap a steady arm back around his waist. He exhales, long and slow. And then he finally says, “I do not want him to treat you poorly. Not here.”
There’s a faint crease of frustration on Lan Wangji’s face. The one, Wei Wuxian is learning, that starts to form when his words have fallen short of what he wanted to say. But Wei Wuxian thinks he can parse what he means. That were he treated poorly here – in Gusu, in Cloud Recesses, in the Jingshi, whatever Lan Wangji means when he says here – it would be worse, somehow, than if he were treated poorly anywhere else.
Wei Wuxian’s not sure he understands it. His skin is as thick here as it is anywhere else. But if it matters to Lan Wangji, then he can make it matter to him, too.
“Then if he says anything uncouth, I expect Hanguang-jun to defend my honor.”
The arm around his waist tightens.
“Wei Ying,” he says, “I’m serious.”
“I am, too.” Wei Wuxian wriggles into Lan Wangji’s lap until Lan Wangji’s breaths are soft against his forehead, lets the rhythm steady him as he fumbles with his half-formed thoughts. That this is as good an excuse as any he’s had. Or that any brand of treatment from Jiang Cheng is better than nothing. He already tried ‘nothing.’ This is still more bearable.
Instead, he lowers his voice, and says, “Let’s just try.”
Lan Wangji’s free hand comes up to cup his cheek. His sleeve ghosts across Wei Wuxian’s neck, the brush of fabric delicate as his fingers. Just as lightly, he leans in, his lips just barely pressing against the edge of Wei Wuxian’s jaw.
“Then we will try,” he says.
(“I do have conditions,” Lan Wangji says later that night.
“Ooh.” Wei Wuxian snuggles up closer. “Are we negotiating?”
“Not negotiating.” Lan Wangji’s palm spreads, warm and snug, against his lower back. “You’ll like it too, I hope.”
Wei Wuxian perks up. “Oh?”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji raises his chin to kiss him soundly on the forehead. “You will be representing Gusu Lan at this meeting.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. That’s probably not the thing that he’s supposed to like, but he keeps his expression neutral just in case.
“So,” Lan Wangji says, “you should look the part.”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian repeats. And then again, with understanding, “Okay. Yes. I do like that.”)
A week later, Wei Wuxian wears Gusu Lan robes for the first time.
Lan Wangji gently tugs on the final waist tie. “Too tight?”
“Nothing you tie is too tight for me, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Wuxian says. It's far too tight, but honestly, any looser and he'd be worried that the top three layers would slip right off if he moved too fast.
He pinches the outermost layer between his thumb and index finger, the sun filtering through the fine lace. “I'm going to snag this on everything,” he warns.
“It’s yours,” Lan Wangji says. “If it’s torn, I will get you another.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth – the then you can tear this off me later is right there for the taking – but then he closes it again. The skirts hit perfectly at his ankle, the sleeves right at his pulse. His shoulders are snug, but not tight. These robes were tailored to him, waiting neatly folded under his husband’s. He finds, abruptly, that he doesn’t want to joke about ruining them.
“Now, your hair.” Lan Wangji’s hands press on his shoulders as if to adjust his position. “Hold still.”
“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian says, “I couldn’t bend at the waist right now if I tried. Don‘t give me that look,” he adds, not even needing to turn around and see. “Snug is better. Too much slack and it felt like the whole operation would fall apart if I breathed.”
Lan Wangji is silent for a moment, his nails brushing the nape of Wei Wuxian’s neck as he sweeps up his hair into a knot. “Will you be comfortable?”
Wei Wuxian almost laughs. That could refer to several things. But since he means the robes: “Yes,” Wei Wuxian says. “Very comfortable.”
Lan Wangji makes nimble work of Wei Wuxian’s hair, securing the white jade hairstick deftly into place. He moves away for a moment, then steps back into Wei Wuxian’s space, handing a mirror over his shoulder. “Is this good?”
Wei Wuxian tilts the mirror up and down. His hand, to his own surprise, actually quivers a little. It’s not the first time he’s been dressed in another sect’s colors. He wore Yunmeng colors to train sometimes, growing up. He wore disciples’ robes studying in Gusu. Just last month he wore a hilariously oversized Lanling Jin robe when he was stranded at Koi Tower in an autumn rainstorm and Jin Ling bawled him out for ‘trying to freeze to death.’ But it was always just him, wearing someone else’s clothes.
These, though – whatever else he can say about them, these are his.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji’s hand brushes his arm, barely a touch.
“Nothing! It’s nothing.” Wei Wuxian catches his breath, rises to the balls of his feet, and kisses Lan Wangi’s forehead ribbon. “I expect twice as much fanfare when we take these off later.”
Lan Wangji hums his agreement, the tips of his ears flushing.
Wei Wuxian smooths down Lan Wangji’s own immaculate robes. “Lan Zhan…” He’s not sure how to put this, exactly. Even as he’s talking, he’s still thinking through it. “Jiang Cheng… he’s not always honest about what he’s feeling.” Then halfheartedly, he adds, “Don’t look at me like that.”
“I wasn’t looking at you like anything,” Lan Wangji says innocently.
Wei Wuxian wants to tuck his face into Lan Wangji’s neck, bury himself there until the weird flutter of nerves settles, but he supposes he should preserve Lan Wangji’s hard work with his hair, for once. “I know, I know, I’m one to talk. But Jiang Cheng—when he’s upset, he argues about what’s easiest to argue about, until next thing you know you’re yelling about everything except what he’s actually mad about. Just. I don’t know. Try not to let him drag you in?”
Lan Wangji watches him, unreadable, and Wei Wuxian tries not to bounce on the balls of his feet. It’s a lot to ask. He knows it is. Lan Wangji is typically extremely good at staying above the waves. Until Wei Wuxian’s involved, that is.
And Jiang Cheng is very talented at getting Wei Wuxian involved.
In the end, Lan Wangji strokes his hair back from his face and says, “We should go down.” Which is not a no, and also not a yes.
So Wei Wuxian follows him to the gates, and marinates in the sudden but unshakable certainty that this was a terrible idea.
"Good morning, Senior—" Jingyi jogs up next to him, gets a look at his face, and whistles. "Wow, you look terrible."
"Shut it," Wei Wuxian says weakly. "I look magnificent."
"Jingyi," Sizhui chides, falling into step alongside him. But when he gets a look at Wei Wuxian, he winces, too. "Oh. He's right, Senior Wei. You look very nice!" he adds quickly. "Just a little, ah. Gray."
"Maybe white isn't my color after all," Wei Wuxian says with a wave of his hand. Damn. If Sizhui and Jingyi can tell that he's nervous, he needs to fix his face before Jiang Cheng gets here. "Wait - you two know you don't need to be here, right? We're going to be talking about table shapes for the next four hours. Not the best use of a senior disciple's time.”
Sizhui and Jingyi give each other a Look, which is usually the first sign that Wei Wuxian has missed something big. Sizhui shifts his weight, an uncharacteristically un-Lan move. "Oh," Sizhui says again. "I suppose we just— assumed."
"I mean, if you don't need us—" Jingyi starts.
"No," Sizhui says quickly, "I think that would be unwise."
Wei Wuxian watches their volley with narrowed eyes. "Boys," he says. "Explain?"
"Sorry, Senior Wei," Sizhui says. "It's— well. When Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Jiang meet, we try to be there to— help facilitate."
"Sizhui facilitates," Jingyi pipes up. "I watch."
"Ohh," Wei Wuxian says. He does remember something like that on Dafan Mountain, yes. Granted, he was a little distracted at the time. "Facilitate how? I know your Hanguang-jun doesn't talk much, but—"
"Well it's not about talking, exactly," Sizhui says.
"Although it also is," Jingyi says, "because when Sect Leader Jiang addresses Hanguang-jun, he just kind of pretends he can no longer hear.”
"It's more..." Sizhui's being so careful not to gossip, it looks almost painful. Wei Wuxian takes pity and finishes for him.
"... keeping them from each other's throats," he says.
"Oh, so you did know," Jingyi says.
"I gathered," Wei Wuxian says miserably. His robes feel even tighter around his waist. “It’s that bad?”
“You’ve seen them together before,” Jingyi says.
“In particularly heated circumstances!” Wei Wuxian counters. “I thought now that things were calmer, they could—I don’t know, talk things out. If they argue, at least they’re getting it out in the open, right?”
“No,” Sizhui says. It is easily the least polite that Wei Wuxian has ever heard Sizhui.
“Gods, no,” Jingyi says, horrified. “Where did you get that idea?”
“You don’t know Jiang Cheng like I do!” Wei Wuxian says. “Sometimes you have to fight before you can have a conversation.”
“Hasn’t he stabbed you before?” Jingyi says.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says primly, “and then we had a conversation.”
“With all due respect, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says slowly, “you… may be underestimating the depth of Hanguang-jun’s feelings. If he were to get things out in the open…”
“… we’d be there for another thirteen years,” Jingyi finishes.
Wei Wuxian’s head hurts. His whole spine hurts. Why did he push for this again? "So it’s really been like this the whole time,” he says weakly.
Jingyi stares. Sizhui also stares, but because he's a good boy, he stares sympathetically. "Senior Wei," he says, so very gently. "Do you actually not know, or are you just hoping I'll say something else?"
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, then closes it. He deserved that.
Jingyi draws himself to his full height as he walks. "If I were Hanguang-jun, I wouldn't stand for what he did to you, either."
"He didn't actually kill me, Jingyi," Wei Wuxian says.
"Wow." Jingyi blinks. "So the bar is really low."
"What we mean is, Senior Wei," Sizhui says, loud enough to drown Jingyi out, "the best tactic may be to keep things from getting – particularly personal. But we can help with that! We're used to this. And we’ll be here the entire time!”
"Yeah!" Jingyi says. "You don't need to be nervous!"
"Good thing no one's nervous," Wei Wuxian says. It's a bold statement for someone who's already sweated through three out of four layers. But it's not nerves so much as a vague, indescribable sort of nausea that steadily grows every time he thinks too hard about Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng at each other's throats for thirteen years. Over him.
That's probably different from nerves, he thinks.
"Anyway," Jingyi says, "I thought your relationship was getting better."
"It is, I think," Wei Wuxian says. The last time they met, Jiang Cheng implied that he wanted to figure things out sometime before Wei Wuxian died again. He didn't really specify a time frame, but the sentiment was promising.
"Then there you go!" Jingyi says. "Nothing to worry about."
They catch up with Lan Wangji at the gate, watching the path. The sentries mumble a dutiful “Good morning, Wei-gongzi” – they’ve been trained well, by this point – and Wei Wuxian grins and bobs his head in a nod as he slides past to his husband.
Distantly, he recognizes Sandu’s familiar thrum, a powerful shiver through the atmosphere. He can always feel it a minute or two before it comes into sight.
“We’ll try,” Lan Wangji says again, softly. So there’s no guarantee, Wei Wuxian hears.
A few minutes later, Jiang Cheng dismounts in front of the gate.
“Sandu Shengshou,” greet the sentries, saluting.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui and Jingyi chime in turn, their own bows perfectly synchronized.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji greets last, his voice soft and dispassionate. Which just leaves Wei Wuxian.
Sect Leader Jiang isn’t right, exactly – true, but not right. Sandu Shengshou, absolutely not. But Wei Wuxian looks at the delicate sheen of his robes, the glittering lotus headpiece, and thinks, he’s not exactly here as Jiang Cheng, either. So he sidesteps the choice entirely, and says, “You’re early! Couldn’t wait to see us?”
Jiang Cheng turns, mouth already open - The sooner we start, the sooner I can leave, Wei Wuxian mentally fills in for him. But then his stare lands on Wei Wuxian. It goes flatter, harder. And then it shifts away.
“I see that I’m outnumbered,” Jiang Cheng says coolly.
Lan Wangji inclines his head upward. “It is a greeting party,” he says. “Not a siege.”
Somehow, Wei Wuxian does not make a sound.
Jingyi does, when Wei Wuxian grabs his biceps fingernails-first.
By the time everyone turns, Wei Wuxian has released Jingyi’s arm and is smoothing the fabric back into place. “Anyway!” he chirps. “Sizhui! Do you want to show the guest to his room, or—”
“No need.” Jiang Cheng sweeps past, his headpiece glinting in the sun. “Let’s get started. I’m sure Hanguang-jun has more pressing issues to see to.”
Wei Wuxian laughs, offers a needless wave to his retreating back. And when he’s a sufficient ways up the path, he snags Lan Wangji’s sleeve before he can move to stalk up the path.
“What happened to trying?” he hisses.
Lan Wangji blinks like a cat. “I told you I would try,” he says, very reasonably. “And you told me that if he was uncouth, I should respond accordingly.”
And then he follows Jiang Cheng up the path, his robes a billowing train behind him.
“… that wasn’t terrible,” Jingyi says. At Sizhui’s look, he corrects, “That seemed normal.”
“Senior Wei?” Sizhui says. “Are you alright?”
Up the path, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji keep their distance, but keep pace with each other. Wei Wuxian watches the set of Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. Rigid, almost painfully so. Not his usual easy annoyance. Real anger, simmering and ready to splatter.
“I think,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, “last time didn’t go as well as I thought.”
“Think harder,” Jingyi urges him in an undertone. “Did you do something to annoy him?”
“I was ill,” Wei Wuxian hisses back as they make their slow way back up the mountain, hanging a ways back from Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng’s impromptu power-walking competition. “We were in the same room for about five hours and I was unconscious for four and a half of them.”
“To be fair,” Jingyi says, “you could probably annoy him in your sleep.”
Jingyi does not move fast enough to dodge Wei Wuxian’s swat to the back of his head.
“Could you have forgotten, Senior Wei?” Sizhui says.
Wei Wuxian fixes him with a baleful look. “How bad do you think my memory is, exactly?”
“Okay okay okay,” Jingyi says. “If you can’t remember—” he allows Wei Wuxian just enough time for a noise of protest “—then it doesn’t matter. Just—keep them in a good mood! Change the subject if it’s getting too heavy!”
Wei Wuxian nods, dizzy, as he climbs the steps to the receiving room. He hasn’t put Jiang Cheng in a good mood one single time since their lives went to hell.
“Okay,” he says weakly. “I just have to keep him from being uncouth, right?”
“Hey,” Jingyi says. “Let’s not get unrealistic, here.”
“Just do what you can, Senior Wei!” Sizhui whispers. “We’ll be right here!”
“Yeah!” Jingyi says. “And just remember: it’s going to be a disaster either way, so it’s not like there’s much you can do about it!”
Jingyi gives him a light push to the middle of his back, ushering him the rest of the way into the receiving room. He and Sizhui step in behind him, perfectly in tandem, and shut the doors behind them.
Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath through his teeth, and settles on a cushion to the side.
Jiang Cheng remains standing. “I didn’t realize he’d be joining us,” he says.
Wei Wuxian could point out that he’d be a great event planner – if he knows how to inspire an angry mob, surely he knows how to draw a crowd. But he is Wei Wuxian, Hanguang-jun’s Cultivation Partner today, so he simply says, “I could leave?”
“I asked for Wei Ying’s assistance,” Lan Wangji says. “If he cares to stay, I value his input.”
Jiang Cheng's attention shifts, just slightly, in Wei Wuxian's direction. It's dizzyingly reminiscent of the face he used to make at banquets or meetings when he knew he couldn't look directly at Wei Wuxian without laughing. Madam Yu got so sick of it that she'd have Wei Wuxian moved to the farthest end of the table possible, but it never mattered. They'd lock eyes, they'd both remember the same joke from that morning, and then at least one of them would break.
But Jiang Cheng's mouth is a tight pale line. He faces forward. Wei Wuxian studies the wall. And neither of them look.
Lan Wangji, however, is watching, his gaze heavy in Wei Wuxian’s peripheral vision. So Wei Wuxian sits up a little straighter, pours the nervous energy into a smile, and sets the rest aside for later.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice," Lan Wangji says. His eyes are slow to move away from Wei Wuxian.
"I thought it best to sort this out in person," Jiang Cheng says. Wei Wuxian knows that tone, unfortunately. That tone is a roll of thunder.
"What's the rush?" Wei Wuxian says. His voice is half an octave too high, but there's nothing he can do about that now. "Are you sure we can't show you around before we get into it? You haven't been here since the wedding, right? You should really see the garden. It's been amazing what we've been able to do with peppers at this—"
"I was not aware of anything to sort out," Lan Wangji says. His tone is still flat and even as glass. But the fact that he interrupted at all says everything.
There's a pause. Wei Wuxian tugs at a loose thread on his cushion.
"The conference is still a year away," Jiang Cheng says. "I have no desire to tax Hanguang-jun's busy schedule further. I made preliminary preparations with Zewu-jun last spring. We'll finish when he leaves seclusion."
“Xiongzhang has requested I assist you,” Lan Wangji says. “And I will not impose a deadline on his seclusion. He has given me the notes from your discussion. I will proceed in his stead.”
Jiang Cheng is clearly stuck on one particular word, though. “Deadline,” he echoes. “It’s next year. You think he’ll still be—”
“That is his decision,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian doesn’t cringe, but barely. If Jiang Cheng has any hope of this going well, he needs to get off this topic, and fast.
For the first time since that moment at the gates, Jiang Cheng does look at Wei Wuxian. It’s the briefest glimpse, the briefest flicker of something uncertain. He’s concerned. If he could just come out and say he was concerned, maybe this conversation would go somewhere.
But he looks away. And the moment folds and vanishes.
"Fine," Jiang Cheng says. "But it's pointlessly early. We have until next autumn. Why plan everything so far in advance when it's just going to change?"
Lan Wangji regards him for a moment. At first, Wei Wuxian thinks Jiang Cheng is about to get a lesson in the virtues of forward-planning – which he would not like, but would at least be a conversation. But at length, Lan Wangji says, "Autumn?"
Ah, yeah. Granted, at the time Wei Wuxian was more concerned about the logistics of getting his husband and his former shidi into a room together, but he doesn't recall Lan Xichen saying anything about a date.
Jiang Cheng, however, only doubles down. "Yes," he says. "I told Zewu-jun mid-autumn, specifically."
"Xiongzhang informed me that a date would need to be set," Lan Wangji says, fully unmoved. Wei Wuxian swallows hard.
"We had an understanding," Jiang Cheng says.
"Then he was not aware of it," Lan Wangji says. "He gave me a thorough report of your last conversation."
If he listens hard enough, Wei Wuxian thinks he can hear Jiang Cheng's teeth grind. "Then he must have forgotten," Jiang Cheng says.
Behind him, Sizhui and Jingyi inhale. Wei Wuxian understands, abruptly, why Lan Wangji's rabbits freeze in the face of a potential predator.
The room holds its breath as Lan Wangji sips his tea. He sips his tea for so long, the room is collectively woozy by the time he speaks. "Mid-autumn is not ideal for Gusu Lan."
There’s another little gasp. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if it’s Jingyi or Sizhui. Or how either of them have any more room in their lungs at this point. “Not ideal how?” Jiang Cheng says.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, sensing Jiang Cheng coiling to strike, “we could figure something out, right?”
Lan Wangji shoots him the kind of quick, impossibly sexy glare Wei Wuxian hasn’t seen since they were teenagers in the Library Pavilion. For a good fifteen seconds, Wei Wuxian unconsciously tips back his chin, bares his throat, and forgets that Jiang Cheng is right there.
But unfortunately for Wei Wuxian, reality always comes crashing back.
“It’s not ideal,” Lan Wangji repeats. “I request we explore alternatives.”
Jiang Cheng’s jaw works so furiously it jumps under his skin. Wei Wuxian discovers it is, in fact, possible to hold even more still than he already was.
Then Jiang Cheng reaches into the pile of documents Lan Wangji had laid out, and unfurls the calendar with such force that it shakes the table.
“Then please,” he grits out. “Show me what the esteemed Hanguang-jun would prefer.”
Wei Wuxian chose to be optimistic, at first. He didn’t think that was totally unfounded. Zidian and Bichen were both safely stowed, which meant that this was already going worlds better than their last discussion.
The optimism didn’t last long. They’re not about to descend into physical violence. And the good news pretty much stops there.
“A spring conference is impossible,” Lan Wangji says. “It would interfere with the guest disciples’ academic schedule. I believe you remember it from your time here.”
“Then take them with you,” Jiang Cheng says.
Lan Wangji, for his part, is unmoved. “Summer is best.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t look away. But his tone of voice shifts. “Wei Wuxian,” he says, “I see your husband is unfamiliar with Yunmeng’s summer festivals. It’s a shame you haven’t brought him yet. Think of all the fun he wouldn’t have.”
Wei Wuxian’s own irritation spikes, but Lan Wangji gets there first. “I am aware of Yunmeng’s festivals. I was unaware that they preclude all other activities.”
“So Gusu Lan can express a preference, but Yunmeng Jiang can’t?” Jiang Cheng shoots back.
“Wow!” Wei Wuxian laughs. It only cracks a little “Okay! You know what we all need? Snacks! Jingyi?”
“… we don’t have snacks, Senior Wei,” Jingyi says.
“Anything.” Wei Wuxian smiles. It’s so stiff he thinks he feels his jaw creak. “Whatever we have. Get us some of those—bitter grass things.”
There’s a pause. “Those are medicinal herbs, Senior Wei,” Sizhui offers.
“Can’t hurt, can it?” Wei Wuxian chirps through his clenched teeth.
Jingyi blinks. But he does bounce to his feet and leave the receiving room, so he doesn’t completely disagree.
They don’t decide on a date. They don’t decide on anything. They do go back and forth long enough that Wei Wuxian becomes reasonably sure that mid-autumn is, in fact, the best choice.
(And there is no way he’s going to be the first to say that.)
Nearly an hour has passed by the time Sizhui clears his throat. “Excuse me, Hanguang-jun, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says. “This disciple suggests we move on for the time being and revisit dates later. Perhaps I can compare our calendars tonight and find something suitable.”
Lan Wangji pauses. But at length, he says, “Yes. Thank you, Sizhui.”
Jiang Cheng’s expression is still pinched. But at least he, too, seems to understand that if they don’t move on to something else, they’re all going to die of starvation right there in that receiving room. “If you like,” he says.
Wei Wuxian pops the last medicinal herb into his mouth. If nothing else, it gives him something to do with his face.
When he straightens, Jiang Cheng is looking at him again, his face not quite readable this time. “I didn’t realize you were such a fan of Gusu cuisine now,” he says.
“It grows on you,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. “Good for the immune system.”
Jiang Cheng looks, if possible, even more sour at that. So it probably sounded as ridiculous as it felt.
“Let us move on, then,” Lan Wangji says. “I’ve drafted a seating chart for the opening banquet.”
Even from a few feet away, Wei Wuxian feels Sizhui snap up straight. “Hanguang-jun,” he says, “maybe we should—”
The tension in Sizhui’s voice has Wei Wuxian inching closer before it really occurs to him that a full-scale war could be fought through seating assignments alone. But Lan Wangji lays the paper across the table, and after a quick scan, Wei Wuxian flashes a thumbs-up to Sizhui behind his back. The chart has Jiang Cheng sitting between Sect Leaders Chen and Liu. Neither of whom would be Wei Wuxian’s first choice of dining companions. But Sect Leader Chen is mild-mannered enough, and Jiang Cheng’s always gotten along well with Sect Leader Liu.
Lan Zhan ah! Wei Wuxian swallows a smile. You really are trying!
If he’d looked a little closer at Jiang Cheng, though, Wei Wuxian might have realized sooner that they weren’t in the clear.
“Hmph,” Jiang Cheng says. “I forget that Hanguang-jun is above idle gossip.”
There’s a beat of silence. Lan Wangji’s impassive stare shifts up from the chart.
Jiang Cheng laughs once. “Sect Leaders Jia and Shao,” he says, with a jerk of his head, “can’t be on the same side of a room without collateral damage. You have them next to each other. How do you expect that to work?”
Wei Wuxian didn’t know it was possible for Lan Wangji to sit any straighter. “Jiang Ch—” He cuts himself off. He still doesn’t know what to call Jiang Cheng in this setting. So again, he bypasses the issue. “That’s not a problem, isn’t it? We’ll just switch Sect Leader Shao with Nie-xiong, here.”
“That places him next to Yu-er-gongzi,” Lan Wangji says.
“So?” Wei Wuxian blinks up at Lan Wangji. “Ohh. Do they still have that thing?”
“If by ‘thing’ you mean a decades-long blood feud,” Jiang Cheng says.
“So Sect Leader Shao is fighting with both the Yu and Jia sects?” Wei Wuxian says, “If you have more than one blood feud, you might want to consider that you’re the problem, here.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji murmurs.
“Alright, alright. This is me, being serious.” Wei Wuxian tugs the seating chart onto his lap and pulls the ink closer. “Give me a minute.”
He needs about five minutes, in the end. It’s more difficult than it looks – this must have taken Lan Wangji hours to put together, considering how little he cares about who’s fighting with whom. (Wei Wuxian will have to show him just how impressed he is. But that, unfortunately, will have to come later.)
Finally, he places the chart back on the table. “There!”
Jingyi shuffles forward to look. “Wow, Senior Wei,” he says, “this is pretty good.”
“Of course it is,” he chirps, “it’s Hanguang-jun’s hard work with a few little modifications! You’ll see I put Sect Leader Shao next to me – yes, I will take that hit for all of us – and Yu-er-gongzi next to Nie-xiong, here. Sect Leader Liu is next to Jin Ling... sorry, Jin Ling, but that’s a good alliance for you to have…”
And finally, he points to Jiang Cheng’s new seat. “And I moved you here, between Zewu-jun and Nie-xiong! That’ll be a good table. I wish we were at that table, Lan Zhan.”
Slowly, Lan Wangji smiles. It’s not a big one, not in front of Jiang Cheng, but amusement dances behind his eyes. “We would be,” he says. “But you put us with Sect Leader Shao.”
Wei Wuxian hums and tilts his head up to look at him. “I want to see how he tries to pick a fight! It’ll be fun.”
But when he turns back to Jiang Cheng, his lip is curled, like a pull in fine fabric. “No,” he says.
“… ah,” Wei Wuxian says. But he recovers quickly. He’s not going to get frustrated over five minutes of work. “What doesn’t work? I’ll change it.”
“I’m not going to be the one holding Nie Huaisang’s hair back after his third jar of wine,” Jiang Cheng bites out. Wei Wuxian has no idea how they got here, but he’s truly heated now. “Which you might know if you hadn’t washed your hands of all this years ago, Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, more surprised than stunned. Lan Wangji gets there first. “Sect Leader Jiang.” The tone would give away nothing: no anger, no frustration. Wei Wuxian hears the fury in the cadence of his voice. “Wei Ying is here as a representative of Gusu Lan. You will address him as such.”
Jiang Cheng tilts his head back, a challenge. Wei Wuxian can sense Sizhui hovering, ready to intervene. Wei Wuxian doesn’t realize he himself has started breathing faster until the belt of his robes squeezes at his diaphragm.
At length, Lan Wangji adds, “If you find his proposal unacceptable, I have an alternative.”
Jiang Cheng’s posture stays rigid. “Then by all means.”
Lan Wangji pulls the chart to him in one motion, his touch as light as his handwriting is decisive. He bends, obscuring Wei Wuxian’s view, and he makes two strikes on the page, then a few notes in his precise, flowing penmanship.
“This will be more to your liking, perhaps,” Lan Wangji says, replacing the chart on the table. And then he sits back on his knees, his face the picture of serenity. It’s the face that a stranger might look at and think, that’s the face that runs into danger. The face of the man who goes where the chaos is.
But Wei Wuxian is his husband, and therefore he knows better. So by the time Jiang Cheng looks down to see he’s been moved to sit between Sect Leaders Yao and Ouyang, Wei Wuxian is already frantically signaling for help behind his back.
“Lan Wangji—” Jiang Cheng starts.
“Sizhui.” Wei Wuxian’s voice, to his credit, only squeaks a little. “Don’t you think we should come back to this later?”
“Yes, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says weakly. “I think that would be best.”
By the time Sizhui finally insists that Jingyi take Jiang Cheng to pay his respects to Lan Qiren, they’ve been in the receiving room for three hours. They have discussed the date, the seating arrangements, the entertainment, and most recently, the invitations. They have made approximately zero decisions.
Wei Wuxian’s brain mercifully stops taking in new information around Hour Two and a Half. He lets the rise and fall of the argument lull him into a daze. He watches a spider build a web in the corner. He carries on a lengthy, silent half-prayer to his shijie. Shijie, he thinks, is this what you had to deal with when Jiang Cheng and I fought? I’m so sorry. I think my hair is falling out. It’s been less than a day.
By the time he blinks himself back to reality, Jingyi is leading Jiang Cheng toward the door and Sizhui is clearing the table and shooting concerned looks in Wei Wuxian’s direction. Lan Wangji, for his part, looks entirely unruffled.
“We will reconvene tomorrow morning, then,” he says. “I must prepare for tonight’s dinner.”
“Dinner, wonderful,” Jiang Cheng bites out. “I can’t wait to see what further grand hospitality Gusu Lan has in store for me.”
Wei Wuxian scrambles inside himself for one last stab of goodwill. Somehow, he manages it. “The menu’s expanded a bit since we were guest disciples,” he says. “And the novices have been picking fresh mushrooms all morning! Just think of all those cute, tiny hands.”
Jiang Cheng’s face drops out of its scowl. Like he’s been startled out of his annoyance, somehow. And when he speaks, it’s oddly muted. “You hate mushrooms,” he says.
“Anyway!” Jingyi all but bellows it. “We’ll be taking our leave now! Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei.”
“Thank you, Jingyi,” Lan Wangji says. His own voice has gone quiet, too.
Jingyi ushers Jiang Cheng out of the room, and Wei Wuxian turns to his husband and blinks into the heavy silence that follows. He’s lost the thread of the conversation somewhere. Lan Wangji had the upper hand until just a moment ago, but now he looks thrown.
Sizhui clears his throat. “Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei – I’ll just be – taking these to the kitchens now.” And he exits just slowly enough that it isn’t a run.
Wei Wuxian barely lasts until the door closes. “What is happening?” he hisses. “You have to stop!”
Lan Wangji gives him a long, even stare. “Why?” he finally asks.
“A-Ah?” Wei Wuxian sputters.
“Why must I stop?” Lan Wangji says. He could almost sound calm, except Wei Wuxian knows better than that. “Why must I allow him to behave like this in my home? Toward my husband?”
“Lan Zhan, I—” Wei Wuxian fumbles, starts again. “That’s just how he—”
“You never told me you disliked mushrooms,” Lan Wangji says.
“I—” Wei Wuxian says. Then stops. Then stares. “Hang on. What?”
“I have served you mushrooms several times,” Lan Wangji says. It’s not angry, exactly, but there’s a faint, distressed wrinkle in his brow. “You never said you disliked them.”
“I like the way you cook them,” Wei Wuxian says helplessly. “I like everything you cook. Lan Zhan, this isn’t—”
“I will make you something else,” Lan Wangji says, standing up. “For tonight.”
Wei Wuxian makes a desperate grab for his sleeve. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you have to remember what I told you—this is what Jiang Cheng does, he’ll get you upset about everything but the problem at hand—Lan Zhan, look at me. This is not about mushrooms. You cannot get sucked into this. Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji pauses and turns, and Wei Wuxian takes both his hands. If sheer force of will and giant doe eyes are enough to crack the shell of his husband’s stubbornness, he’s going to do it right here. “Please,” he says. “Whatever he’s upset about, I can handle it. Please just let it go.”
Lan Wangji gently frees his hands and reaches up to brush the hair out of Wei Wuxian’s face. His hands still, bracketing Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, his touch soft, the set of his mouth determined. His next words are all but whispered.
“I will make you something else,” he says again.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian yelps. But he’s already gone.
Wei Wuxian sinks onto the top step just outside the door and curls up to the best of his current ability. This is where Sizhui finds him when he returns from the kitchens.
“Senior Wei…” Wei Wuxian doesn’t raise his head, but he can feel Sizhui’s hands hovering over his shoulders. “Are you alright?”
“I’m wonderful, Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian says. “This is great. Hey, how much do you think I’d have to be bleeding for us to call off dinner tonight?”
Sizhui freezes. “Is that a possibility?”
“Not yet?” Wei Wuxian raises his head. “But give me five minutes, I can get there.”
“Hanguang-jun would be upset to hear you joke like that,” Sizhui says.
“I know, I know.” Wei Wuxian rubs his temple until the throbbing subsides a little. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine, right? At least we won’t be allowed to speak.”
Sizhui drops to the lower step so he can sit next to Wei Wuxian. His posture is textbook Gusu Lan, neat and straight. But for a moment, the gesture reminds Wei Wuxian dizzyingly of himself. “Senior Wei,” he says, then pauses. “You always tell me not to take responsibility that isn’t mine.”
Despite himself, Wei Wuxian grins. “Using my own words against me now, A-Yuan?”
At that, Sizhui relaxes, too. “I thought it was good advice,” he says, smiling.
Wei Wuxian slumps back onto his palms, his legs sprawled across the stairs. He doesn’t want to put his problems on Sizhui. Sizhui is the presumptive heir to the sect at this point – not too far in the future he’s going to spend most of his days with other people’s problems. Wei Wuxian has no interest in getting him started early.
But Sizhui is giving him that gentle, searching gaze, so reminiscent of his Granny’s. And Wei Wuxian finds himself talking.
“Jiang Cheng is angry about something I did,” he says.
“Maybe,” Sizhui says.
“Your Hanguang-jun is angry about how I’ve been treated,” Wei Wuxian says.
“Yes,” Sizhui says, “that part is true.”
Wei Wuxian quirks his mouth to the side. “I am an extremely stupid thing to fight over, Sizhui.”
Sizhui’s fingers twitch a little. “Senior Wei,” he says. The set of his mouth is suddenly solemn. “Do you really think that?”
“Ah…” Wei Wuxian wilts. A-Yuan, when did your father teach you how to play dirty? “I didn’t mean ‘stupid,’ exactly.”
Sizhui hums thoughtfully. It’s the kind of hum that says, That was exactly what you meant, but you’ve had a hard day, so I’ll let it go. “Then what is it?”
“Well…” Wei Wuxian leans so far back, he’s nearly melted across the steps now. He’s failed to put this into words with a lot more brainpower at his disposal. But for Sizhui, he’ll try. “I mean, it’s not entirely on me that they don’t get along. They never seemed to like each other much. Jiang Cheng, I suppose I get, if you grew up with the Gusu Lan sect he must seem even more abrasive by comparison—but Lan Zhan? What wasn’t to like? I should have asked him then.”
Sizhui nods. And because, again, he’s a very good boy, he doesn’t ask Wei Wuxian to get to the point.
“And then there was, you know, everything. And what happened with Jiang Cheng was… a lot,” is what he finally manages. “It’s not that he did everything right. He certainly didn’t do right by your family. But where I was concerned… I don’t blame him. I never blamed him.”
Sizhui takes that in before he speaks again. “Senior Wei,” he says, “may I use your own words against you again?”
“Oh, gods.” Wei Wuxian valiantly keeps his head up and doesn’t bury his face in his hands. “I suppose.”
Sizhui laughs. But something somber plays across his face as he shifts on the stair. “When I remembered my past,” he says, “you told me that it might change how I felt toward some of my seniors. That even if it was complicated, even if it didn’t seem fair to them, it was okay.”
“… I said that, yes,” Wei Wuxian says slowly.
“And as for Hanguang-jun’s feelings,” Sizhui says, “I wouldn’t presume to speak for him. But having watched him since I was young, I think I can guess.”
Wei Wuxian smiles, genuine this time. “Sizhui ah, I can guarantee your guesses are better thought-out than most of my decisions.”
Sizhui goes a little pink, his gaze trained on his lap. “He knows Sect Leader Jiang is important to you. And I know he’ll respect however you’d like to proceed. But isn’t the same true for him? He’s seen you endure so much, Senior Wei. And he’s seen you accept most of it. I think—I think he’s spent a long time being fair. And now he’d just like to be on your side. Even you’re not always on your own side.”
Wei Wuxian rests his chin on his shoulder for a moment and just watches him, a mix of warmth and unease simmering low in his throat. This kid, he thinks. This almost-adult, really. Who gave him the right to be this good?
“Alright,” he says, reaching out to squeeze Sizhui’s arm. “This senior has burdened you with enough of his problems today. Go get ready for dinner, Sizhui. And don’t worry about Sect Leader Jiang tonight. Tell Jingyi that, too. I’ll keep them civil.”
A crease forms between Sizhui’s brows. “Senior Wei,” he says, carefully, “sometimes that’s not always… possible.”
“Hey.” Wei Wuxian hops to his feet, windmilling his arms to stretch out. “I may not be the senior disciple of Yunmeng Jiang anymore, but I can still dabble with the impossible from time to time.”
Sizhui looks strangely less than convinced. “Will you be alright?”
Truthfully, that unsettled feeling in the pit of Wei Wuxian’s stomach is threatening to turn into out-and-out nausea. But if nothing else, he spent his childhood taking meals with Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu. Tension is just an equation, really. If you can’t defuse it altogether, you can at least keep it from boiling over.
And it’s not going to boil over. Certainly not over him.
To Sizhui, he just smiles. “Probably not,” he chirps. “But when has that ever stopped me?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t see either of them before dinner. Jingyi returns alone from bringing Jiang Cheng to greet Lan Qiren. Lan Wangji’s nowhere to be found. Presumably he’s still in the kitchen, redirecting every one of his feelings toward those poor, blameless mushrooms.
The juniors wave off Wei Wuxian’s efforts to help set up with an arrangement of knowing looks that he’s not sure he likes. So for lack of anything better to do with his half hour, Wei Wuxian returns to the Jingshi.
He keeps the Gusu Lan robes on. They’re significantly more rumpled than they were this morning, but they look more him that way, anyway. The only change he decides to make is to swap his hairstick. Lan Wangji commissioned him a set of four in Caiyi in a red jade that glints like fire in the sunlight. It’ll clash a bit with the whites and blues of his robes, but the color makes him feel like his feet are back under him.
(He briefly considers the one with the lotus flower ornament, his fingertips ghosting across the design. It would be appropriate. One piece of Gusu Lan, one piece of Yunmeng Jiang, and him, the dubious link between them.
He chooses the camellia instead.)
Wei Wuxian arrives ten minutes early to dinner. Besides the junior disciples, he is the second person there.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Qiren greets him.
“Lan-xiansheng.” Wei Wuxian tries to smile. Jingyi, just over Lan Qiren’s shoulder, grimaces. So clearly it goes great.
For a moment, a brutal, bloody battle plays out across Lan Qiren’s face in which several equally pained but unreadable emotions fight it out for dominance. His hand twitches. And then he grits out, “Well, do your best.”
He departs for the head table, and Wei Wuxian does his best not to think about how dire things must be for Lan Qiren to encourage him.
“We need a signal,” Jingyi mutters as he straightens the tables behind Wei Wuxian.
“For if they’re about to fight?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“No,” Jingyi says, “for if you’re about to go into a qi deviation.”
Wei Wuxian thinks wistfully of earlier in the day, when he still had the strength to swat the back of Jingyi’s head. “Just enjoy your dinner, Jingyi,” he says. “I’ll handle it.”
“Okay,” Jingyi says. “Great. I’m gonna go talk to the healers for no reason whatsoever.”
So Wei Wuxian waits at the table, hoping he can grab Lan Wangji just long enough to talk to him one last time. It’s not like he’s going to change how Lan Wangji feels about Jiang Cheng. But if he threatens to cry and 100% means it, that would at least get him somewhere.
He doesn’t have that kind of luck. Jiang Cheng arrives first, the line of his mouth tight, his headpiece oddly crooked.
Wei Wuxian offers him a thin smile. Jiang Cheng barely looks at all. “Where did you go?” Wei Wuxian asks.
Jiang Cheng at least shifts in his direction at that. “I thought we couldn’t talk at these.”
It’s too bad that Jiang Cheng would be unmoved if he threatened to cry. It’s really all he’s got right now. “Not when we’re eating,” he says. “We’re not eating yet.”
“…ah,” Jiang Cheng says at length. He shifts to cross his arms, as if it could hide the fact that he’s flushed down to his neck. It’s another moment before he answers. “Just needed some air. Went to the woods on the north side of the mountain.”
“North?” Wei Wuxian, nearly forgetting the kind of day he’s had, perks up. “Is our stash still there?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says. The corner of his lip undeniably twitches. “If that liquor is still there, it’s over fifteen years old.”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “I’ll try it if you do.”
Jiang Cheng huffs. It’s almost a laugh. And it gets Wei Wuxian just a little too confident.
“We could go back after this? Take one more look?” he says. “The Cold Springs are a little further than that. They actually are weirdly relaxing, once you—”
Too far. The flicker of warmth behind Jiang Cheng’s eyes shutters again. “No need,” he says. “The sooner I go to bed, the sooner we can finish this tomorrow morning.”
“… right,” Wei Wuxian laughs. “Yeah. I figured you were—in a hurry.”
He nods vaguely at Jiang Cheng’s answering grunt. And he studies the whorls on the table until Lan Wangji arrives.
“Hi,” Wei Wuxian says cautiously.
Lan Wangji greets him with a look, his face soft. It’s amazing how quickly that softness vanishes when he extends his gaze to Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian shifts to turn his back to Jiang Cheng, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You didn’t actually make me an entirely new dish, did you?”
“It is starting,” Lan Wangji says, with a prim nod to where Lan Qiren stands at the head of the table. So that’s a yes.
It is, all in all, one of the shortest and least enthusiastic greetings Wei Wuxian has ever heard Lan Qiren make. And Lan Qiren spoke at his wedding. But then, at least, Lan Qiren had agreed through gritted teeth to soldier along for his nephew’s sake. Tonight, it seems, there’s an unspoken understanding that no one is here to have fun.
Wei Wuxian looks at the empty chair at the head table and thinks longingly of the Hanshi. He can’t even begrudge Lan Xichen. After the year he’s had, it’s really more than fair for him to opt out of this.
The preteen disciples converge around them, carrying lightly steaming bowls. Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji receive a shiitake mushroom soup in a light, almost clear broth. Wei Wuxian receives his first course soup, sans-mushrooms, alongside a volcanic-red bowl of mapo tofu and a little bottle of chili oil from the kitchens.
Wei Wuxian stares at his husband. Lan Wangji stares back, the picture of innocence.
As always, Wei Wuxian is the first to admit defeat, lifting his chopsticks. It could be worse. He doesn’t want to imagine the look on Jiang Cheng’s face if Lan Wangji had served him lotus root and pork rib soup.
Wei Wuxian takes a bite, then another. Lan Wangji’s cooking is, as always, dizzyingly good. His stomach abruptly remembers that it’s spent the day living off of breakfast, adrenaline, and medicinal herbs.
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches Jiang Cheng staring balefully into the light golden broth. With a little wave to get his attention, Wei Wuxian reaches for the chili oil, and—
—finds Lan Wangji pouring it into his bowl of mapo tofu. In its entirety.
Wei Wuxian is faintly aware that his mouth is open. He can’t bring himself to look back at Jiang Cheng, but he hears his chair make a little screech, like he’s pushed it back.
Lan Wangji blinks once and turns to his soup. It is the Lan Wangji equivalent of a shrug.
And somehow, out of everything, it’s the last straw.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng hisses, “are we going to do this or not?”
Lan Wangji sets aside his spoon with a distinctive click. “Do what,” he says. His voice thrums like water.
“Don’t play dumb,” Jiang Cheng bites back. “You’ve been subtly picking at me all day.”
Lan Wangji’s still facing forward, but his eyes shift to take in Jiang Cheng. “Forgive me,” he says. “It was not my intention to be subtle.”
Wei Wuxian stares determinedly into his bowl. How does Lan Wangji get the soft tofu so perfectly cubed? He’s going to have to watch next time. “Jiang Cheng,” he says lowly, “we’re not supposed to talk.”
“So you’ll scold me but not him, is that it?” Jiang Cheng says. “I’m not part of your sect, Wei Wuxian. Since when have I cared about your rules? You never used to care about them, either.”
Wei Wuxian feels the blood creep up his neck. “Yes,” he says, voice rising of its own accord, “but that was before I—”
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Qiren says. “No talking.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth snaps shut— gratefully, for once. Never has he been so thankful for that discipline wall. If it was in front of him now, he’d kiss it. With a good-natured salute in Lan Qiren’s direction, he tucks back into his bowl.
And then Jiang Cheng keeps going.
“Lan Wangji,” he says, now loud enough for everyone to hear clearly, “are you going to let your uncle speak to him like that?”
It’s strange to say that it goes quiet, considering that no one was speaking before. But the sound of every utensil comes to a screeching halt.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says. It’s the first time he’s dared to say his name today. “Finish your soup. It’s fine.”
“Is it?” Jiang Cheng slaps his own spoon against the table. “I’m to understand that your husband just can’t abide by anyone telling you what to do. So how about his own family, hm?”
“Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian’s head spins. Where is this coming from? “That isn’t—”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji says. And Wei Wuxian’s spine snaps straight. There it is. “If you have something to say, feel free.”
“Alright, alright, stop that,” Wei Wuxian says. It comes out, beat for beat, in his shijie’s cadence. Lan Wangji stares. Jiang Cheng stares. Lan Qiren looks at Wei Wuxian like he’s trying to determine the necessity of an exorcism, which is fair.
Lan Wangji recovers first. “Go on. I’d like to hear it.”
“Of course you would,” Jiang Cheng spits. “The noble Lan-er-gongzi never flinches from the truth, does he? Hanguang-jun, the best of us all. The great hero. The great husband.”
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian says.
“Enough.” Every line of Lan Wangji’s body is rigid. “Explain yourself or leave.”
“I’m not the one who needs to explain myself!” Jiang Cheng says. “After all that talk about making him happy—after everything, to try to turn him into some perfect Gusu Lan spouse—”
The color leaves Lan Wangji’s face. And for a long, long moment, Wei Wuxian’s ears ring.
Gusu Lan is insular to a fault. There’s very little chance that Jiang Cheng actually knows what Qingheng-jun, Lan Wangji’s father, did to his wife all those years ago. There is exactly zero chance that Jiang Cheng knows how many hours, collectively, Wei Wuxian has spent wrapped around his husband, whispering. Shh, don’t look at me like that. I want to be here. How could I want to be anywhere else?
Jiang Cheng can’t possibly know that he just struck a healing wound dead-on with the point of his blade. But that is for Wei Wuxian to wrap his head around later. Right now he breathes and he tastes claws.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he barks, “is that how a sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang behaves?”
Jiang Cheng’s face goes white, then red. He recovers fast. “Why?” he says. His voice is low and mocking, barbs dipped in poison. “Are you going to scold me, da-shixiong?”
It’s hard to say who stands up first. Wei Wuxian thinks it might be him. But Jiang Cheng leaps to his feet with such force that he knocks his chair back, and Lan Wangji isn’t far behind. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to register that he’s standing in-between Jiang Cheng and his husband with zero plan and significantly less upper body strength than his first life—
—and then there’s someone wedged in front of him, his narrow back straight and firm, his voice breathless.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui says. “Step away from him, please.”
Silence. Wei Wuxian means to take him by the shoulders, to move him gently aside with some joke he hasn’t thought of yet. He finds that he can hardly twitch his fingers. Lan Wangji, at his back, is just as still.
He can’t see Sizhui’s face from where he’s standing, but he sees Jiang Cheng’s reaction to it, the anger melting into something blank. “I wasn’t—” he starts.
“I know,” Sizhui says. His voice trembles this time. “But you should move back.”
Jiang Cheng stumbles a little as he moves, like he’s been pushed. He looks unsteady as he rights the chair. “Sorry,” he says. He’s still focused on Sizhui. “I’m sorry. I’ll—”
His gaze darts to Lan Qiren. And then, completely nonsensically, he mutters “Thank you for the meal” before striding for the door.
The slam of the door breaks the spell – or part of it, at least. The rest of the room is still frozen when Sizhui whirls around.
“Senior Wei,” he says. “Senior Wei, I’m so sorry—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji looks stricken. “Sizhui, I—”
“Aiya, both of you, stop that.” Wei Wuxian’s hands are still quivering when he bats at them. But his brain, even through the fog of adrenaline, is slowly piecing the day back together. The look that Jiang Cheng gave him when he first arrived. Or maybe not him at all. Maybe what he was wearing.
He’s an idiot. Gods, he’s a fool. Jiang Cheng will have you arguing over everything except what’s actually upsetting him. For all the times he told Lan Wangji that today, he didn’t remember it for himself.
“I made everything worse.” Sizhui’s eyes go far too wide and watery for Wei Wuxian’s liking. “I—”
“Hey, listen to me.” Wei Wuxian does take him by the shoulders this time. “You did nothing wrong, understand? Thank you for sticking up for me. I’m so sorry I put you in that position.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, a little more insistently this time. “Are you alright?”
Wei Wuxian meets his eyes, this strange, stubborn husband of his. And he can’t help but think, again, that he’s an extremely stupid thing to fight over.
But if three of the people he loves most are taking him this seriously, then what else can he do?
“I’ll be right back,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’ll meet you at home. Okay?”
Wei Wuxian makes for the door. For once, Lan Qiren doesn’t tell him not to run.
It takes him long enough to find Jiang Cheng that he’s worried he’s long gone. But Wei Wuxian finds him, finally, on the roof of the Lanshi.
The sight of him, knees pulled to his chest, sends an odd, tight warmth through Wei Wuxian’s chest. He was the one doing the climbing in his first life, right up until the end. Standing here on the ground, he thinks he understands, for the third time today, how his shijie must have felt. He imagines her next to him, smiling, squinting into the moonlight. A-Xian, come down.
He’s not as patient as his shijie. But he can try.
“You know if you talk to my husband like that again I’ll kick your ass, right?” he says conversationally.
Jiang Cheng looks down at him. He looks young. Unmoored. Wei Wuxian wonders if he’s thinking of her, too.
“As if you could,” he finally says, without any heat.
“Don’t underestimate this body.” Wei Wuxian smiles. “It’s wiry but it’s fast.”
“So he hates me too, huh?” Jiang Cheng says miserably. “That boy. Sizhui.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart squeezes a little tighter. Earlier, on the stairs—he understands now that Sizhui wasn’t just talking about Lan Wangji’s feelings. He missed that, too. He’s missed so many things today.
But he knows Sizhui. So he says, “Sizhui’s a better person than all of us. He doesn’t hate you.”
“You didn’t see the look on his face,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Well, what did you expect, making a scene like that?” Wei Wuxian tilts his head. “You’re an idiot, you know that? When has anyone ever forced me to be the perfect anything?”
“What was I supposed to think?” Jiang Cheng says. “You showed up in perfectly-tailored Gusu Lan robes eating medicinal herbs and talking about the benefits of the Cold Springs.”
“You should have seen me wedding planning.” Wei Wuxian hoists himself up to the roof and scoots across to Jiang Cheng, leaving a healthy distance between them. “For a two-week period I convinced myself that Lan Zhan would want me to incorporate every Lan marriage tradition into our ceremony. He almost made me elope with him again just to save me from myself.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t laugh. Wei Wuxian fidgets against the ridge of the roof. “It’s my home. Of course I’ve come to appreciate things about it. But nothing’s changed. The food’s still too green. I still get yelled at by Old Man Lan twice weekly. My right foot still falls asleep if I try to meditate for more than fifteen minutes.”
“And the robes?” Jiang Cheng says.
“Today’s the first day I’ve worn them.” Wei Wuxian reaches up to run his fingers down one of the lapels. “And they are not an everyday outfit, believe me. I am 50% sweat at this point.”
Jiang Cheng does laugh this time, a little. It dies out quickly. “You never—” He has to stop, swallow. “You never wore Yunmeng colors to banquets, or meetings. You only ever wore them to train.”
“Well, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Can you imagine the look on Madam Yu’s face if I had?”
It’s not a joke, exactly, though he means for it to make Jiang Cheng smile. It doesn’t make him smile. It doesn’t even seem to make him angry. He just looks sad.
“You’re wrong, by the way,” Jiang Cheng says. “When you first came to live with us, you tried to be perfect then.”
“Ah?” Wei Wuxian blinks. “I don’t remember that.”
“You did,” Jiang Cheng says. “You barely spoke. Barely ate anything. Never cried. A-Jie was terrified, you know. She thought you’d just—waste away.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to say to that. Even when he opens his mouth, he still doesn’t know. “I was nine,” he says with a halfhearted grin. “A few years have passed then.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “You never mature, anyway.”
That warmth in his chest is so tight now, Wei Wuxian thinks he might choke on it. He breathes into it, instead. Lets it break up and spread through his blood, down to every finger and every toe.
“I’ll leave, if you want,” Jiang Cheng says.
“You’d better not,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. “You have a conference to plan.”
Wei Wuxian tilts himself back, lets the moonlight shine on his face, and waits. That’s the other thing about arguing with Jiang Cheng: you have to let him come to you. He always does, eventually.
“The seating chart,” he grits out, at length. “I don’t care where I am, as long as I’m next to Jin Ling. I don’t want him alone with those vipers.”
Wei Wuxian turns his head, and he smiles. “Okay, Jiang Cheng,” he says. “We can do that.”
He leaves Jiang Cheng on the roof not long after that. There’s more he’d like to say, as always. But Jiang Cheng has this glazed look in his eyes like he’s starting to get a hangover from all this emotional honesty.
And besides, he’s not the only person Wei Wuxian has to talk down tonight.
Wei Wuxian is undoing the ties on his outer layer before the doors to the Jingshi are even closed. Lan Wangji, sitting at the low table, doesn’t pretend to scold him as he strips to his innermost layer right in the entryway.
“Oh. Oh, I’m free.” Wei Wuxian, taking an unencumbered deep breath for the first time since that morning, gently sets his robes aside. “Lan Zhan, I love those robes. I love that you commissioned them for me. I love everything about them. But I have never been so happy to be indecent.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. His voice trembles.
“No, you’re right. That’s a bit much.” Wei Wuxian lets out a sigh as he drops to a kneel directly opposite his husband. “It’s in the top ten, though, for sure.”
“Wei Ying, I—” Lan Wangji starts.
“No, Lan Zhan, I’m going first.” Wei Wuxian reaches out, takes both his hands. “This is my home. You did not force me to do anything today. You have never forced me to do anything, not once. And I have not disliked mushrooms since I was seventeen. Are you hearing me?”
Gradually, Lan Wangji meets his eyes. He looks unusually—embarrassed. “Wei Ying,” he says again, “forgive me. I went too far today.”
“You did,” Wei Wuxian allows. “But what I expected of you wasn’t realistic.” At Lan Wangji’s questioning hum, Wei Wuxian smiles. “If our A-Yuan, the best person we know, still has complicated feelings about Jiang Cheng, then how am I supposed to hold it against you? How is he?”
“He is alright,” Lan Wangji says, still subdued. “Guilty. He saw how much today distressed you. The last thing he wanted was to contribute.”
“Aiya, that boy. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” Wei Wuxian leans forward to hide his face in Lan Wangji’s chest. “What a mess.”
Lan Wangji’s arm wraps securely around his waist. “Mm.”
“And to think,” Wei Wuxian said with a weak chuckle, “we could have avoided all of this had I just been less of a Model Gusu Citizen.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, sounding pained, “you are the last one who has apologies to make for today.”
“Maybe,” Wei Wuxian mumbles into his collar. “But I misread things, you know? I thought he was angry with me. I didn’t think he’d be—you know. Concerned.”
Lan Wangji reaches up then, tilts Wei Wuxian’s chin up. His eyes are deep and dark in the low light of the Jingshi. “You are important to him,” he says. “I do not always care for how he chooses to show it. But it is undeniable.”
Wei Wuxian squirms, tries to glance down, but Lan Wangji holds it there. “And I cannot say he’s wholly wrong,” he says.
Wei Wuxian freezes. “Wait, what?”
“Cloud Recesses is not always the home you deserve,” Lan Wangji says.
“Hey, come on.” Wei Wuxian reaches up to cup his face with both hands. “When you say it like that, I sound like some tragic maiden, beset by my cruel in-laws.”
Lan Wangji smiles faintly with his eyes, lays his hands over both of Wei Wuxian’s. “You do not agree with every rule.”
“I disagree with most of them,” Wei Wuxian counters. Lan Wangji huffs lightly at that. “But your sect is important to you, so they’re important to me, too. That’s not forcing myself.”
Lan Wangji studies him the way he does sometimes, like he wants to commit every micro-expression so fully to memory that he could see it with his eyes closed. “Then the same should be true for me,” he says at length.
“Hmm?” Wei Wuxian says.
“I am not patient with Jiang Wanyin,” he says. “I become—irrational.”
Wei Wuxian grins. “A little.”
“I cannot promise that my feelings toward him will change,” Lan Wangji says. “But he is your family, not mine. My feelings should come second. So, Wei Ying: tell me what you’d like me to do. I will do it.”
“W-Wait.” Unconsciously, Wei Wuxian moves to shift back. Lan Wangji’s hands press a little harder, just firm enough to hold him there but not so firm that he can’t escape. “How did this become about what I—”
“It should have been from the start,” Lan Wangji says. “What do you want, Wei Ying?”
Wei Wuxian sputters and twists in his grip, his face burning hot. “What, you want an answer now?”
Lan Wangji leans into the cradle of their hands and nips at his jawline. “Right now.”
“Y-You can’t just ask me so suddenly,” Wei Wuxian stammers as Lan Wangji mouths down his neck, down to the junction of his shoulder. “I need at least a day—two days at least—multiple factors to consider, and—paperwork, maybe, I haven’t really—ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan that tickles—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes along his collarbone, punctuating each word with a press of his lips. “What do you want.”
Wei Wuxian gasps, smiles despite himself. “You’ll have to torture it out of me.”
It’s one of the many things Wei Wuxian loves about his husband. He never needs to be told twice.
(“You go ahead to bed,” Wei Wuxian says once they’ve cleaned up. “I’m still wide awake.”
Lan Wangji hums thoughtfully. “Lay down with me a while.”
So Wei Wuxian curls into his side, one warm palm pressed flat against his back, the other carding through his hair. And before he can register that he’s tired, he drops into a half-waking dream.
The cool spring night of the Jingshi spills into summer heat. Lotus roots brush against his ankles with the ebb and flow of lake water. He’s sitting on the dock in Lotus Pier, the light wood hot to the touch under the blazing sun. Lan Wangji sits on one side, Jiang Cheng on the other. They watch the boats in the distance. And they say nothing.
It’s not perfect. It’s not particularly soothing, even in the bathwater-warmth of this mirage.
But it exists.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian mumbles. It doesn’t quite wake him up. “I know what I want.”
“Hmm?” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian presses his face into Lan Wangji’s neck and sinks fully into sleep.)
Wei Wuxian turns Sizhui and Jingyi away at the door to the receiving room the next morning. “You’ve done enough,” he says. “You’ve done more than enough, actually. Leave this to me for real this time. Oh, and I was right, by the way. We had to fight before we had a real conversation.”
“Senior Wei,” Jingyi says, “I lost years off my life yesterday.”
Wei Wuxian waves a hand as he vanishes into the receiving room. “It builds character.”
Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji are already waiting, each stiffly regarding opposite sides of the wall. A pot of tea sits on the table. A jar of Emperor’s Smile sits next to it, one bowl already poured.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.
Wei Wuxian smiles so wide it pinches the corners of his cheeks. He hops to the table to pour one bowl of tea, then one bowl of Emperor’s Smile. He serves each to their respective recipient. And he drops into a sprawl between them.
It’s quiet, for a moment. It’s the awkward kind of quiet. Wei Wuxian basks in it, nonetheless.
“A mid-autumn conference, then,” Lan Wangji says.
Jiang Cheng gives him a long, wary look. But the set of his shoulders, just a little, relaxes.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says. “That would be best.”