Wei Wuxian crosses the border of Gusu at the height of summer. The wind stirs lazy fingers through the long grass, the only sound besides his own boots and Little Apple’s hooves shuffling along the narrow path. There are few creatures stupid enough to brave the thick, humid air and the white sun overhead, and the mountains stretch empty before them. Wei Wuxian has had stab wounds less painful than the heat on the back of his neck; has felt more comfortable digging graves than feeling the suck of sweaty black fabric against his skin. He’s had many li to regret his own stupidity, or at the very least his haste.
Lan Zhan’s letter is tucked into the front of his robes, over his heart. He’d put it there this morning in an awful fit of sentiment. He can only assume he’s sweated all over the pages. When he undresses maybe he’ll find Lan Zhan’s words smeared all over his skin, which is a thought that appeals to him until he considers the loss of the letter itself, the words written on it that he doesn’t trust himself to keep - or believe, though belief was strong enough to get him this far, a fool climbing a mountain in the dead heat of summer, seeking the answer to a question he has never been brave enough to ask out loud before.
He arrives, finally, at the cliff where they’d parted barely eight months ago. It’s high enough that there’s a breeze to turn his face into, brisk enough to cool the sweat on his temples and the hollow of his throat. There’s not a tree in sight, in any direction, nowhere to hitch Little Apple to. He sets the end of the rope on the ground and pulls a spirit into a paperman to weigh it down: an undignified use of someone’s afterlife, probably.
He waits. The sun had passed its apex as they walked, and he watches the valley below change colors as he waits for the air to cool. He waits. He feels taut as a bowstring. His muscles resist the efforts of the sun to melt his tension away. He waits.
He walks to the edge of the cliff. His body remembers the sensation of falling so well that for a dizzying moment he thinks he’s actually slipped. The world spreads out under his feet, so big and broad that it seems to disappear at the edges. If he turned around, he would see the high peaks of Cloud Recesses in the distance. His hands ache, so he puts a flute in them and closes his eyes. His body remembers this, too: the even breaths he pulls low from his diaphragm, the fingering of each note as familiar as writing his own name. He plays their song as if it will call Lan Zhan home to him, as if he’ll hear it on the wind and appear, suddenly, like magic.
When he finishes, he plays their song again, and then a third time, but Lan Zhan never comes.
Wei Wuxian wakes with the sun. Little Apple is a donkey-smelling hill beside him, its legs tucked awkwardly under its fat belly, flanks shivering to discourage flies. As he stirs Little Apple lifts its head to look at him and snort, condescendingly. They’re still alone. Even when Wei Wuxian stands up and peers above the tall grass around them, he remains the only person in the world.
He pulls his knees to his chest. He takes his hair down automatically, combs his fingers through it as best as he can, and ties it up again, thinking all the while. He’d expected, if anything, for Lan Zhan to be early. Or at the very least, precisely on time.
“Are we early?” he asks Little Apple, though he already knows the answer.
He shifts forward, wrapping his hands around his thighs. The day is already stifling. The skies are empty. The morning sun feels sharp on his skin. His stomach grumbles. A bead of sweat slides down the length of his collarbone and runs a finger down his chest.
If it were anyone else, he supposes that this would be an answer. But it’s not anyone else: it’s Lan Zhan, so something must have happened.
Wei Wuxian looks down at himself ruefully. Dusty and travel-worn. Not even a jade token for passage. Well, it can’t be helped - he can only come as he is. “Come on, Little Apple,” he says, as he gets to his feet. “We have a ways to go yet.”
Cloud Recesses looms large in the distance, its valleys wreathed in morning fog. If he walks through the hottest part of the day, he can probably reach it by nightfall. “Ah, Lan Zhan, the things I do for you,” he sighs, and pushes away his worry. He’ll find out what’s happened when he gets there, and not before.
He sings as he walks, to clear the dust out of his throat. Little Apple tries to sing along. “Oh, hush,” he scolds. “At least I’m not making you carry me, am I?”
Little Apple grumbles and tries to eat the rope out of his hands.
“Maybe I should make you carry me,” he complains, and sighs again. “I don’t think we’d get there any faster, though.”
If Lan Zhan was there, Wei Wuxian would tell him, “This will be the first time in twenty years that I’ve willingly set foot in Cloud Recesses.”
He would say, “Are you glad you didn’t have to carry me in, this time?”
He would say -
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. The air feels too thick for talking anyway, so he falls back into silence, and Little Apple does as well.
They walk for more than an hour before they see a faint speck in the air, growing rapidly larger. It’s too slow and unsteady to be Lan Zhan, but it does wear white, so Wei Wuxian stops walking. He pulls his water skin out of Little Apple’s side bag, drinks deeply, and waits for it to arrive.
A few minutes later, a Lan disciple stumbles off his sword and nearly into Wei Wuxian’s arms. He’s breathing hard, as if he’d ran all the way from Cloud Recesses, and when Wei Wuxian steadies him, the boy’s shoulders are as damp with sweat as his own.
“Lan Jingyi,” Wei Wuxian says, recognizing him after a moment. His heart slams against his rib cage. “Where is Lan Zhan? What’s happened?”
Lan Jingyi flaps a hand at him, gulping air. Wei Wuxian hands him the water, and leans back against Little Apple’s side as he waits impatiently for the boy to get his breath back.
“I’m so glad I found you,” Jingyi gasps, just as Wei Wuxian is about to throttle a proper answer out of him. “Hanguang Jun was in such a state when he woke up, we didn’t know if you’d come and gone already.”
“Where is he, Jingyi,” Wei Wuxian says, as evenly as he can. “What happened?”
The answer comes out in bits and pieces. It would be a simple enough story in the hands of a less excitable narrator. Hanguang Jun was injured on a night hunt. He was saving someone in danger. No, not Sizhui or one of the juniors. Not one of the Gusu Lan seniors either. A villager in the wrong place at the wrong time, who had moved too slow. It had happened four nights ago, around the time that Wei Wuxian had spent his last night in an inn, trying to drink his nerves away. Jingyi didn’t see what happened, but Sizhui had been there, and the Ghost General too.
“But not even the Ghost General realized Hanguang Jun had been hurt,” Jingyi says, almost overpowered by his own awe. “He just stuffed his own intestines back in his body and kept fighting until the monster was dead.”
Wei Wuxian winces. When he was much younger, before he ever remembered the pain of a wound after it healed, he used to say things like that. Mostly just to annoy Jiang Cheng, but also because he’d believed it to be true. It would rank pretty low on the list of things he should apologize to Jiang Cheng for, if he ever made such a list, but it stings regardless to hear the echo. “How is he now?” he asks Jingyi.
Jingyi shrugs - not carelessly, but uncertainly. “He woke up this morning,” he says to Wei Wuxian. “But other than that, I don’t know. I flew out to find you as soon as he ordered it. He hadn’t told anyone he’d planned to meet you, so none of us knew! Sizhui was going to go, but he didn’t want to leave Hanguang Jun’s side, so I offered to do it. And now here I am! This is great. Hanguang Jun would turn me into dust if I came back home by myself. I thought I’d have to look all over Gusu for you, but now everything’s fine!”
Wei Wuxian, hands on his hips, huffs out a laugh. He leans back and wipes the sweat off his face with the back of his hand. “Everything’s fine,” he echoes, and shakes his head. “Well, let’s go.” He shakes Little Apple’s reins and starts moving towards Cloud Recesses once more.
Jingyi trails along. “Don’t you want to fly?” he asks, dismayed.
“Can’t fly with the donkey,” Wei Wuxian answers.
“No, but,” Jingyi says, “but aren’t you worried? Don’t you want to rush to Hanguang Jun’s side to nurse him back to health?”
Wei Wuxian looks over his shoulder to give the boy a hard, incredulous eye. Jingyi has the grace to look abashed. “Sorry, Senior Wei,” Jingyi says, and for a little while Wei Wuxian knows peace.
It takes them the rest of the day to reach Cloud Recesses, as Wei Wuxian had thought it might. The day sears the three of them into silence; even Little Apple is too overcome to complain. Wei Wuxian gives the rest of his water to Jingyi, who had rushed out of Cloud Recesses without any supplies at all, and they stop twice to let Little Apple nose its way through patches of earth and grass that haven’t been baked dry yet. By the time the grass gives way to bamboo, and the path starts getting steeper, he feels like he’s walking through a dream. He barely notices as the air starts to cool, or as animals and birds startle away from them, just out of sight. He holds his worries between his cupped palms, and focuses on putting one foot ahead of the other.
Lan Jingyi looks even worse off than Wei Wuxian feels, when they finally run out of stairs to climb. His white robes are wrinkled and speckled with dirt and sweat. His eyes are unfocused, and he leans forward a little bit to rub at his thighs, surely sore from the ten thousand stair journey. He straightens up when Wei Wuxian looks at him, though, and holds out a hand for Little Apple’s rope. “I’ll stable your donkey,” Jingyi says. “You’ll probably want a bath and some food, right? I’ll take care of it.”
Wei Wuxian keeps hold of the rope. “Get some food and water for yourself,” he says kindly. “I can take care of myself.”
Jingyi’s jaw juts out. “I’ll do it,” he says. “Hanguang Jun needs you. You should go to him.”
“Does he?” Wei Wuxian almost asks, but the boy’s earnestness boxes him in neatly, and puts him in his place. “All right, young master,” he says, smiling, and hands over Little Apple’s rope. “But have something to eat yourself before you see to me.”
Wei Wuxian’s footsteps trace the path to the Jingshi. It’s a set apart little building, a little down the mountain from the proper center of Cloud Recesses, set in a hollow, flat little area like a pool of water from a stream. It’s not curfew just yet, and through the trees he can hear Lans bustling up and down paths unseen. The sound of it is almost peaceful, like waves lapping against a lakeshore. The fireflies that fill Caiyi Town are thin on the ground, sticking close to the grass that clumps here and there, jostling for space amid the bamboo. The air, too, is thinner in the clouds, and cooler on the skin if not actually cool, but Wei Wuxian will take what he can get.
Someone is playing the guqin, inside the Jingshi. It’s not Lan Zhan. The quality of the notes are different - more strident, a little faster. Less neat where the fingering turns complicated. But steady, nonetheless, and imbued with a spiritual power that fills the Jingshi and spills out its doors, left open to catch the evening breeze. As Wei Wuxian mounts the Jingshi’s steps he can feel it soaking into his aching muscles, soothing his bones if not his heart. He already knows that it’s Lan Qiren playing before he steps through the door.
Lan Qiren is seated in the center room, his robes spread gently across the floor. He’s playing Lan Zhan’s own instrument, and he doesn’t falter when he sees Wei Wuxian, though his face gets stormy. He plays on, and Wei Wuxian takes the chance to set his bag down and slip around the privacy screen and into the other room, to Lan Zhan’s side.
He sits neatly on the edge of the bed. Under a thin, sky blue blanket, Lan Zhan sleeps a false sleep. His mouth is slack and pink. There’s a flush to his cheeks that might be fever, or the heat. Wei Wuxian doesn’t touch him. He traces his eyes instead over each well-loved feature, comforting himself at least by the sight of Lan Zhan’s deep, drugged breathing.
Eventually, the song ends. Quiet falls so abruptly over the Jingshi that Lan Qiren must have put his hands over the strings to stop their vibration. It’s a small rebellion, to stay where he is. To not turn and make his bows and formal greetings. He would, if the circumstances were different. He’d behaved himself during the weeks he’d spent in Cloud Recesses after Lianfang Zun’s exposure, although mostly Wei Wuxian had stayed out of the way and not troubled anyone with his presence at the endless meetings to hammer out the details of Lan Zhan’s ascension to Chief Cultivator, and mostly he’d been allowed to. Twice he’d seen Lan Qiren about-face and take a different route rather than walk past Wei Wuxian, which had made him laugh.
Lan Qiren clears his throat. Wei Wuxian listens to his robes rustle as he stands, and comes around the privacy screen. He keeps his distance. Neither of them say anything for a long moment. Wei Wuxian is tired. He’s run out of things to say to a person such as Lan Qiren. Maybe Lan Qiren feels the same about him. Maybe they’re both just tired.
“The doctor will be by in the morning,” Lan Qiren says, after a moment. “Wangji is on bed rest. He is to stay in bed. He is not allowed to lift things, or to move about unnecessarily, and he is not meant to engage in any activities.”
Wei Wuxian hides a smile in his sleeve, where he can retrieve it later. “For how long?” he asks. The tone of his voice is perfectly obedient.
Lan Qiren’s frown deepens regardless, but for once it’s aimed at his nephew. “For as long as he will bear it,” he says, which sounds like he’d already come to the end of Lan Zhan’s patience before Wei Wuxian had even arrived.
The words I'll take care of him rise to Wei Wuxian’s lips, but he doesn’t say them to Lan Qiren. He bows his head instead, and Lan Qiren ruffles his sleeves and harrumphs into his beard and takes his leave, and then Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan are alone.
Eight months. A stretch of time that feels unfathomable now. “And you’re not even awake to see it,” he chides Lan Zhan, and finally, finally indulges himself by leaning over, stretching his shoulders across Lan Zhan’s, and placing one hand against his cheek.
“This isn’t at all how I’d imagined our reunion, you know,” he tells Lan Zhan softly. “I thought I’d be flinging myself into your arms on a mountainside. But I suppose nursing you tenderly back to health might be an acceptably romantic compromise.” He slides his fingertips down, curls them around the line of Lan Zhan’s jaw. Counts the steady heartbeat just underneath the skin. Touches his thumb to the corner of his pink mouth.
And then shivers, and laughs at himself. “Bedrest!” he says. “No activities whatsoever. I bet you’re furious, aren’t you? You’re going to have to be very patient, and I know how much you hate being patient.” He smiles down at Lan Zhan, horribly fond.
Lan Jingyi and two other juniors bring him dinner and hot water for bathing. The food is terrible, fit only for Lan Zhan’s rabbits, without even the solace of chilis or any spices whatsoever. “I know even you Lans have to use ginger sometimes,” Wei Wuxian sighs, and the kids laugh like he’s told a joke. Lan Zhan sleeps through it all, probably drugged up to his eyeballs. The effects of Wei Wuxian bathing, only the thin pretense of a cloud patterned privacy screen separating the two of them, are lost on him.
By the time he’s fed and washed, it’s past the ridiculous Lan curfew. The last bit of noise drifts away, until Wei Wuxian is left only with the sound of the wind in the forest, and the soft noise of Lan Zhan’s breathing. Wei Wuxian shamelessly helps himself to a set of Lan Zhan’s silk underclothes, and then to a book of poetry he finds sitting on top of Lan Zhan’s desk, a dried peony marking the place where he’d stopped reading. He props himself on the floor next to Lan Zhan’s bed, so close that, were there any justice in the world, Lan Zhan would sense his presence and wake up to tell him to fix his posture.
“But there is no justice, is there,” Wei Wuxian says, fixing his eyes on the page. “Well, when you wake up you can tell me otherwise. Or tell me to come to bed, eh, Lan Zhan?” He aims a smile over his shoulder, and is rewarded with the sight of Lan Zhan’s face, slack and peaceful in sleep.
Wei Wuxian watches Lan Zhan for a while, and it’s almost as peaceful as sleeping himself.
Wei Wuxian comes to wakefulness slowly and unwillingly. First, his awareness that he is awake: deeply unpleasant. He is laying on a bed, covered with a thin blanket: surprising. Everything smells cool and sweet, like sandalwood incense: lovely. There are people speaking quietly, very close to him, and a hand is stroking his hair.
It has been so many years since he’s woken up feeling safe and soft that for a moment he can’t remember if it’s ever happened to him at all. The sensation sinks over him like a blanket, impossibly gentle, reducing Wei Wuxian to a state of animal-like comfort and pleasure. He’d stay exactly like this forever, if whoever is petting him would only allow it.
The conversation flows over his head. The words are hard to pick out, soft and sweet like candy, and it’s a few minutes before Wei Wuxian realizes, thrilled, that it’s Lan Zhan and Sizhui talking together in the sugary Gusu dialect. Wei Wuxian has never heard Lan Zhan speak it before; never thought to wonder if he’d taught it to Sizhui, and he’s so delighted that it curls through his whole body. His knees, shifting, encounter other knees. His forehead bumps against Lan Zhan’s hip. The hand in his hair waits for him to settle and then takes up its duties again.
“ - no, but it turned out that there were,” Sizhui is saying, some of the words close enough to the dialect they all share that he can understand, the rest coming through in sentence fragments, “the shrine in the mountains, but Brother Ning and I,” unintelligible things about ghosts, maybe, “for three nights until we,” and he loses it again. Wei Wuxian’s sleep-fogged brain clings to a word or two at a time, puzzles over it, and lets it slip away with the rest of Sizhui’s story, which is probably exciting and full of danger and something that Wei Wuxian will have to ask Sizhui to tell again, later, when he’s coherent enough to listen instead of just focusing on how cute it all sounds. Instead he’s drifting loose, body-warm, cradled in the palm of Lan Zhan’s hand.
He reaches up and takes that hand, pulls it close. With his eyes closed, barely awake, every movement feels like a secret, like there’s no one else in the world except the two of them: his lips pressed against the thin skin of Lan Zhan’s wrist, sliding up to the deep callouses on his palm and fingertips. With his eyes closed, it makes perfect sense to curl Lan Zhan’s fingers around his own, and then bite delicately down on Lan Zhan’s knuckles, rubbing them across the wet inside of his lower lip, just to feel Lan Zhan’s skin inside his mouth.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. Eyes resolutely closed, Wei Wuxian sinks his teeth into Lan Zhan’s finger. Then lets go and presses his tongue against the grooves left behind, soothingly. Very softly, Lan Zhan sucks in a breath and says again, “Wei Ying.”
Oh, he sounds serious. Also maybe as if he’s laughing. But definitely serious. Wei Wuxian cracks one eye open and then the other. Oh. Oh. Poor Sizhui is right there, isn’t he? Sitting on a stool next to the bed with a comb in his hand, blushing all the way up to the roots of his hair. It’s too much; Wei Wuxian pushes his face back into Lan Zhan’s thigh in a poor attempt at smothering his laughter.
“Ahhhh, good morning Sizhui, good morning Lan Zhan,” he says, when he’s able to control himself. He pushes up into a sitting position, already mourning the loss of Lan Zhan’s hands on him - but then he looks up, and sees the look on Lan Zhan’s face. Their eyes meet, and for a blessed moment Wei Wuxian doesn’t think about anything at all.
Eight months since they parted. Eight months of tramping through the world, watching the seasons change without him: unneeded, unrecognized, unmoored. How strange it had all been, how restless-making. Wei Wuxian could pass entire days without speaking to anyone, or speak to dozens of strangers who didn’t recognize him and knew nothing about him. No one expected anything of him, unless maybe to quiet that noisy donkey. He could have slipped away entirely, disavowed his own name, for how much that once-hated name seemed to matter anymore.
Wei Wuxian laughs. It bursts out of him, light and bubbly. Lan Zhan is there, so close beside him that he can feel the warmth of the other man’s body seeping into his own. He’s there, undeniably, stripped down to his essential parts: his hair entirely loose around his shoulders, forehead ribbon folded and set aside, dressed only in the same thin underclothes that Wei Wuxian is wearing. The ties are loose in front, baring a sliver of skin the full length of his chest, no bigger than the width of a finger. The urge to run his own finger down it is overwhelming, as is the urge to push Lan Zhan down onto the bed and clamber on top of him, or to burst into tears, or to throw himself out of the window to escape the motifying ordeal of being so comprehensively known.
So Wei Wuxian laughs. What else can he do?
“Hello, you,” he says, very softly, and reaches forward to tuck a stray lock of hair behind one of Lan Zhan’s perfectly blushing ears.
Lan Zhan doesn’t look away from Wei Wuxian; his lips press together, but even he can’t quite stop his mouth from ticking up in one corner.
Sizhui coughs. “Senior Wei, I’m so glad to see you,” he says. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come to search for you yesterday. Did it take long for Jingyi to find you?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “No,” he says, which is probably true. “Not long at all.” It’s hard to look away from Lan Zhan. He’s just so happy to see him. They’d written faithfully to each other over the last few months, of course, through the talisman messengers of Gusu Lan, but the reality of being so near to him is overwhelming.
“You’re here now,” Lan Zhan says, and so he is, so he is. It still surprises him, sometimes - being anywhere at all.
Sizhui is smiling at them. It startles Wei Wuxian, when he can finally tear his gaze away. “I should get back,” Sizhui says. His tone is difficult to decipher. “I’m teaching a class on swordsmanship this afternoon. I should give myself some time to prepare. Senior Wei, will you - ?”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says, because the answer is obvious even when he doesn’t know the question. Will he change bandages? Administer medicine, wash bed linens? Tenderly spoon horrible Lan soup into Lan Zhan’s mouth? Kill any impertinent fool who dares to petition the Chief Cultivator while he’s injured?
Sizhui holds up the comb. Ah.
“We can’t leave Hanguang Jun only half groomed, of course,” Wei Wuxian allows, and takes it from him.
“It would be against the precepts,” Sizhui agrees. Sizhui, out of all of them, looks like he’s been up for hours. He’s flawlessly tidy-looking, with perfect posture, practicing perfect filial devotion. The very model of a Lan clan disciple, if not for the surprising amount of mischief lurking in his eyes, which he turns on Wei Wuxian with the piercing force of an arrow. His smile gets bigger, rounds out his cheeks - and then falters when Wei Wuxian abruptly says nothing, doesn’t toss a joke to him to volley back - just sits and stares and stares at him. The silence stretches uncomfortably.
“Sizhui,” Lan Zhan says quietly.
Sizhui startles like a rabbit. His eyes dart to Lan Zhan and then back to Wei Wuxian, his smile tentative now, and distant. Respectful. Wei Wuxian remembers that smile well enough from Mo Village. He’d been a little stunned by Sizhui’s kindness even then, and it hurts to see it now.
He shrugs on one of Lan Zhan’s robes and trails Sizhui to the door, mindful of the distance between them. At the threshold, Sizhui turns and looks at Wei Wuxian thoughtfully. Wei Wuxian twists the comb in his hands and waits for judgement. After a moment Sizhui nods, leans close, and says, “The doctor left painkillers on the desk. He didn’t want to take any while she was here, but he should soon. Don’t let him say no for too long.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “I will obey,” he says, and sketches a little bow. Sizhui bows back, pressing his lips tightly around a smile. Wei Wuxian watches the corner of that smile anxiously, and stands at the doorway for a long time after Sizhui has gone.
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian calls to Lan Zhan, eventually. “He had dimples when he was a baby, didn’t he?”
Lan Zhan is watching him. He nods.
“He doesn’t have them anymore,” Wei Wuxian says, tentatively, even though it’s not a question. Just a statement of fact.
Lan Zhan shakes his head.
Wei Wuxian comes to sit next to him again, still twisting the comb in his hands. They regard each other silently. It’s the first time they’ve been alone since - well, since the last time they were together, but if distance couldn’t possibly make them fonder it at least made them more honest. The words they’ve written fill the spaces between them and overflow the Jingshi entirely. Now that he’s more awake, Wei Wuxian can see shallow cuts and scrapes along Lan Zhan’s face and neck, little bruises here and there. Lan Zhan’s dark eyes flicker over Wei Wuxian, making his own mental catalog. His attention, as always, feels like sunshine on Wei Wuxian’s skin.
Wei Wuxian laughs. Lan Zhan’s expression barely shifts. He waits for Wei Wuxian to tell him what’s funny. “It was bad,” Wei Wuxian says. “Wasn’t it? Your wound, I mean. You really were hurt.”
Lan Zhan looks away. Wei Wuxian leans in closer, chasing warmth. He watches the long line of Lan Zhan’s throat shift as the other man swallows, turns infinitesimally towards him. Wei Wuxian’s chest aches. For a moment he’d worried Lan Zhan didn’t realize he was being teased. “You really must be hurt,” Wei Wuxian says, softer, “if you’re still just sitting there, instead of living up to everything you promised me in your letters.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes dart up, and then down to Wei Wuxian’s mouth. It’s properly morning now, and the air is getting hotter inside the Jingshi even with the doors open to catch the wind. The white hum of buzzing insects comes softly through the window, somewhere out of sight. There are fine beads of sweat at Lan Zhan’s temples, and in the hollow of his throat. “What should we do now?” Wei Wuxian asks. He holds up the comb, tapping his fingers along the teeth, widening his eyes for effect. “Shall I brush your hair?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes narrow.
“Ridiculous?” Wei Wuxian guesses. “But you are only half brushed, you know. Tch, that lazy child of yours didn’t finish the job. Bed rest doesn’t mean you can let your hair get full of knots.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, plaintive. He reaches for Wei Wuxian, who dodges neatly, then snatches Lan Zhan’s hand and presses a kiss to his palm.
“Let me see it first,” he says.
Lan Zhan takes his hand back, cradling it to his chest. “And after?” he asks.
“After, I’ll brush your hair,” Wei Wuxian says, unrepentant.
Lan Zhan sighs deeply. He shifts fully upright with a grimace and sets his hands to the mattress on either side of his hips. He closes his eyes as Wei Wuxian edges close and undoes the first tie on his sleeping shirt, pulling the right side open. The other tie is on the inside of the shirt, high up under his arm. His skin is very hot against Wei Wuxian’s fingertips. His breath is humid against Wei Wuxian’s throat.
Underneath is a large bandage, held fast against his stomach by a simple wrapping. Wei Wuxian peels away each layer carefully, watching Lan Zhan’s face to see if it’s hurting him. When the wound is uncovered Wei Wuxian hisses between his teeth - not because it’s that terrible, because it isn’t, mostly: the Lans are as famous for their doctors as they are for their rules, and it’s been stitched together neatly, with no sign of redness or infection, just the faint staining of medicinal herbs left on his skin. It’s sizable - as long as Wei Wuxian’s hand - and it must have been deep, to leave someone as strong as Lan Zhan bedridden for five days - but he’s seen worse, much worse during the Sunshot Campaign, or even just from the commonplace sort of accidents that can happen on a farm or to a builder.
“It will heal fine,” Lan Zhan says softly, and it will, but it hurts anyway to see him hurt. But there’s nothing to be done about that. He can see with his own eyes that Lan Zhan will be okay, and that should be enough. He’ll have another scar to add to his collection, and this one isn’t even Wei Wuxian’s fault.
Wei Wuxian looks up, offers Lan Zhan a lopsided sort of smile. “I knew Jingyi was exaggerating,” he says. “He claimed you had to stuff your intestines back into your body.”
Lan Zhan looks guiltily away. “Sizhui did it,” he admits.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian sighs. There’s not really an answer he can make to that, can he? What a terrible thing. “Is he all right?”
“He hasn’t said anything,” Lan Zhan says.
“Would he? If he wasn’t.”
Without hesitation, Lan Zhan nods.
Wei Wuxian nods as well, swallowing. He rewinds the bandage around Lan Zhan’s slim waist. He doesn’t refasten Lan Zhan’s shirt, and Lan Zhan makes no move to do it himself. Wei Wuxian’s hands itch, held uselessly in his lap. Lan Zhan is watching him closely, with a look on his face that’s strangely hard to read. What is he thinking, Wei Wuxian wonders, and then blushes. Lan Zhan had written less often, but sent letters that burned the very pages they were written on. He doesn’t have to wonder what the other man is thinking.
Wei Wuxian lifts a hand - he watches, pleased, as Lan Zhan tenses all over in anticipation - and picks up the comb from where he’d set it on the bed. “As promised,” Wei Wuxian says, and spins the comb between his fingers. The agonized look that comes over Lan Zhan’s face is blissful, but so too is the way he smooths out his expression afterwards, willing to play along.
Sizhui had pulled a stool up to the bed, and presumably just stretched his little arms out to get at Lan Zhan, who is propped upright with many pillows. Wei Wuxian shifts the stool a little closer, and then, dissatisfied, braces himself with one knee on the bed itself, where there’s a little space between Lan Zhan, the pillows, and the bed rail. The ends of Lan Zhan’s hair shine, as smooth as still water; Sizhui must have been working from the bottom up.
“I’m surprised that no one’s come to beat down the door of the Chief Cultivator yet,” he says idly, as he sets himself to work. Lan Zhan’s hair is finer than his own, but there’s so much more of it, and his fingers find dozens of invisible snarls under its heavy fall. “Unless you’ve been lying to me this whole time and are secretly living an wastrel’s life.”
Lan Zhan’s shoulders twitch with a repressed laugh. “Visitors are banned from Cloud Recesses. For now, all petitions will be answered by letter only,” he answers, then adds, “My brother will visit later, so we can go through what’s been sent so far.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says. “No rest even for the weary, eh? Has anyone tried to sneak in yet?” He threads his fingers gently through the underside of Lan Zhan’s hair, warm from the heat of his scalp. It needs a wash - presumably he hasn’t been able to bathe since his injury - but close up he still mostly smells like medicinal herbs, and underneath that, sandalwood and clean sweat. It’s strange being able to see the exact shape of his shoulders, without the protective swaddling of his mourning clothes. Better still is the pale stretch of Lan Zhan’s neck, revealed in glimpses as Wei Wuxian lifts sections of his long hair and lets them fall again.
Lan Zhan hums softly. When Wei Wuxian peeks, his eyes are closed. He lets Wei Wuxian move his head around without resistance, so Wei Wuxian does it more - rolling Lan Zhan’s neck in a gentle stretch, both hands buried now in Lan Zhan’s hair. The motion of it pulls Lan Zhan almost flush against him. His back presses against Wei Wuxian’s stomach. Too close now for hair brushing. Not nearly close enough.
The funny part is - and it is a little funny, even if Wei Wuxian has no one left to share the joke with - they never have. Not anything. He has never kissed any part of Lan Zhan besides his slim hands; never been even partially undressed with him anywhere besides a miserable, xuanwu-infested cave. It’s always been like this between them, this simmering need, this desperate understanding: a knowledge so deep that it lives somewhere in his bones, that if he wanted to have Lan Zhan he could have him, and if Lan Zhan wanted Wei Wuxian he could have that too. But they never have.
Then he digs his thumbs into the tense muscles at the base of Lan Zhan’s skull, and Lan Zhan’s mouth falls open in surprise, and he groans. The sound of it hits Wei Wuxian like a physical blow. His hips jerk forward, uncontrollable, and Lan Zhan opens his eyes, staring stunned up at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian kisses him. He has to. There’s simply no other option. No thought in his head. No more waiting. Lan Zhan is lax against him, his head cradled perfectly against Wei Wuxian’s collarbone, his pulse thundering against Wei Wuxian’s fingertips. The touch of their tongues undoes Wei Wuxian completely. They kiss deeply, the only way that’s possible in the position they’re in: Wei Wuxian up on one knee, wrapped around and over Lan Zhan so that his own hair falls forward over his shoulders, surrounding them in a black curtain. It might be enough to hide how Lan Zhan opens for him, shamelessly, without hesitation: letting Wei Wuxian pull his jaw open wider, or pinch his chin between greedy fingers to tip his mouth back even further, demanding even better access. He matches Wei Wuxian’s fierceness, clutching at his shoulders, his hair, whatever he can put his hands on. It’s good, it’s so good, and for once in all of Wei Wuxian’s lives he feels no fear at all.
Then - so quiet that he almost doesn’t hear it - Lan Zhan whimpers. It’s not a good kind of whimper. It’s not like the way he’d groaned, or the way he’s breathing hot into Wei Wuxian’s mouth, as if Wei Wuxian was stealing the very air from his lungs. It’s a pain kind of whimper, and he makes it again when Wei Wuxian stops kissing him, chasing after him as best he can, splayed out like this against Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“You,” Wei Wuxian says, and over the sound of his whole body singing more, more! he sees that only one of Lan Zhan’s hands is threaded into his hair, and the other is pressed hard against the bandages on his own belly, and his chest is dotted with little drops of sweat.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says desperately. “Don’t stop.”
It would be difficult to do anything, with Lan Zhan’s fingers clutching like that at the roots of his hair. He tugs a little, punishingly, when Wei Wuxian dips his head back down - and only kisses Lan Zhan’s cheek, the crease of his eye, the tip of his blushing ear.
“Come, let me loose,” Wei Wuxian whispers. “I won’t go anywhere, don’t worry.”
Lan Zhan shifts away, and they search each other’s expressions. Lan Zhan doesn’t want to let go. He’d happily let Wei Wuxian maul him until his stitches all tore and someone had to stuff his intestines back into his body again. Wei Wuxian laughs, just a little. He can’t help it! Lan Zhan scowls immediately, which only makes Wei Wuxian laugh harder. His whole body aches, even as he laughs. He can tell already that it will hurt, not to be touching Lan Zhan all over.
“You’re so stubborn,” Wei Wuxian tells him, and kisses him once more, because he can’t stand it otherwise. “And a fool! Letting me be so careless with you.” He eases Lan Zhan back against his pile of pillows, and has to look away entirely before he’s unmade again by that furious look and either laughs until he cries, or crawls back on top of Lan Zhan to finish what he started. “I’m just getting your medicine,” he says, and does.
The scowl fixes itself on the bottle of medicine. Lan Zhan’s still breathing hard. His lips are red from being kissed, and pinched bitterly tight. “Unnecessary,” he sniffs.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian admonishes him, and tries also to catch his breath. “What is this? Are you a bad patient all the time? Or only for me?”
“The pain is manageable,” Lan Zhan says, watching Wei Wuxian retrieve a tea cup from the shelf and pour what’s probably the right dose into it.
“No it isn’t,” Wei Wuxian says easily. “Do you know how I know? I know because you didn’t follow me over here.” He returns to the bed and sits down, close enough that he can press his hip into Lan Zhan’s knee.
The eyes that lift sadly up to Wei Wuxian’s tell him he’s being very cruel. Lan Zhan, one hand still pressed against his stomach, wraps his fingers around Wei Wuxian’s wrist with the other. He nods, finally, still looking unhappy about it.
“This isn’t going to make you go crazy like the wine, will it?” Wei Wuxian asks, trying to make him smile. “I won’t have to chase you all around Cloud Recesses?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. He accepts the medicine in the hand not holding Wei Wuxian’s but doesn’t drink it. “Wei Ying,” he says, and then shakes his head again. He looks sad.
“I know,” says Wei Wuxian, and holds three fingers to the sky. “But you can chase me around Cloud Recesses as soon as you’re a little better.” He adds, more softly, “I can wait.”
Lan Zhan’s mouth twitches and, finally, uncrimps just a little bit. “Mark your words,” he says, and drinks the whole cup down.
Wei Wuxian watches him closely for the next few minutes, but Lan Zhan doesn’t fall asleep, like he would if it were wine: he goes boneless and sleepy instead. He lets Wei Wuxian uncouple their hands long enough to retrieve the book of poetry from where he’d left it last night, and he listens quietly as Wei Wuxian reads to him from it - slowly, since sometimes Wei Wuxian looks up, and sees Lan Zhan watching him, and forgets to look away for a long time. How many years had he begged for the favor of one single look from those dark eyes?
Lan Zhan’s thumb strokes softly over Wei Wuxian’s wrist. His breath comes even and quiet, his eyes opening and closing slowly like a cat in a sunny window, unwavering in his attention even as the medicine makes him soft all over.
Wei Wuxian wants - heaven knows he wants - but if nothing else in their lives is true, their trust in each other must be.
Eventually, two disciples arrive with trays of covered dishes, Lan Xichen following behind, and Sizhui trailing behind him with his arms full of papers. Lan Xichen stops dead in his tracks as soon as he catches sight of them, his eyes moving quickly over Wei Wuxian - his back against the long rail of the bed, sunshine in his hair - and then over his brother, slower, more searchingly, his face moving through a series of epiphanies. Wei Wuxian waits it out, unmoving. So does Lan Zhan, who took back his hand a while ago but has his feet tangled together with Wei Wuxian’s.
“Ah,” Lan Xichen says finally, and smiles blandly. Lan Zhan frowns at him. For a moment they have an entire and entirely silent conversation over the juniors’ heads, which Wei Wuxian follows with great interest. Eventually, Lan Zhan turns away and stares into middle distance, somewhere short of where the windows are. Lan Xichen lets his smile drop, sits down at the table, and starts blank-facedly spooning rice into his bowl.
“Who won?” Wei Wuxian asks curiously, clambering over Lan Zhan to get off the bed.
“Won what?” Lan Xichen asks without looking at him, helping himself to some stir fried vegetables.
Sizhui locks eyes with Wei Wuxian. He tilts his head minutely towards Lan Zhan.
Wei Wuxian laughs, and kneels down at the table to see what’s been sent. Sizhui sets his burdens down and comes to help. He moves through the Jingshi with confidence, unearthing a tray for Lan Zhan’s knees from a storage chest in the other room. But then this had been his home too, hadn’t it? Maybe the third room, where Lan Zhan’s library is now, had been little A-Yuan’s room. Had the Jingshi ever been littered with toys, the way Jiang Cheng’s room always was? It’s hard to imagine.
“Oh, I’ll get that, Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian says. He snags Lan Zhan’s lunch - a bowl of broth with a bit of rice in it, terrible, at least the broth looks like it was made with meat - and brings it carefully to Lan Zhan, who watches through lowered eyes as Wei Wuxian fusses: bringing him a soft robe to drape over his shoulders, arranging the cloth napkin and spoon just so on the tray, going back to the table to fetch him a cup of tea. “You should eat more than this, Lan Zhan, I don’t know what the doctor is thinking,” he scolds.
Lan Zhan, his gaze somewhere around his own lap, smiles. Wei Wuxian’s breath catches in his own throat to see it. If they were still alone, he would tell Lan Zhan how strange and good it feels to be the one to spoil him for a change. He would put his thumb against Lan Zhan’s lips and trace the shape of that smile, commit it to memory. Push his thumb between those lips and -
Lan Xichen coughs. Wei Wuxian pulls away laughing, mostly at himself. It seems that his heart had lied to him all winter, pretending that it burned as hot as it could, if a glimpse of Lan Zhan’s smile in summer could light him so thoroughly aflame.
He goes to join Lan Xichen and Sizhui at the table, serving himself sadly from a variety of barely-flavored vegetables and cold jellied chicken. He can feel Lan Zhan’s attention on his shoulders like a physical weight, as if the man himself was standing close enough to lean his weight back into. The only sound is the click of chopsticks and the scrape of spoons, which tickles uncomfortably up and down his spine. Even Sizhui is silent, his eyes trained obediently on his meal and on the teacups of his elders, which he refills faithfully each time one is more than half drunk, even Lan Zhan’s. The tea is as cold as the meat, a strange feeling. When Wei Wuxian was young he’d burned summer heat from the body with hot tea and hotter food.
“Master Wei,” Lan Xichen says eventually, setting aside his bowl, “how long do you intend to stay this time?”
The question sounds mild enough, for anyone who’s not a Lan. Wei Wuxian swallows and says, matching Lan Xichen’s tone, “Don’t know yet. I guess we’ll decide once Lan Zhan is well enough.”
“Hm,” Lan Xichen says. “Well, do let me know if I can make your stay here more comfortable.”
Wei Wuxian looks over at Lan Zhan and finds no solace; Lan Zhan is drinking his soup and staring out the window, maybe. He’s listening, though. Maybe he also expected Zewu Jun to offer a warmer welcome, after the length of the rope he’d allowed the two of them after Wei Wuxian’s unexpected return. Maybe a lot of things have changed since then.
“You’re looking well, Zewu Jun,” Wei Wuxian says. “I hope it hasn’t been too much trouble for you to attend to sect responsibilities while Lan Zhan is recovering.”
“No trouble at all,” Lan Xichen says, “as they are my responsibilities as well.”
Sizhui kneels up and starts collecting dirty dishes, stacking them neatly back on the tray. He’s as impassive as Lan Zhan is. Wei Wuxian leans back on his hands to get out of his way. “Of course, of course!” he says, and laughs. “My apologies, Zewu Jun. You’d think of all people that I’d know better than to listen to rumors.”
“Rumors?” Lan Xichen asks. The dirty dishes are replaced with Sizhui’s stack of correspondence, ink, brushes, paper, and, finally, five books with dense looking titles that Sizhui retrieves from the other room.
“I’d heard you were in secluded mediation,” Wei Wuxian says. “That you’d removed yourself from earthly concerns.”
Lan Xichen’s eyes lift to meet Wei Wuxian’s own. He says nothing.
“Brother,” Lan Zhan says. Everyone looks at him. His head is bowed, his eyes are closed. “Let’s get started.”
So they do. Lan Zhan straightens his spine, as if he’ll be less of a leader if he slouches in accommodation of his injury, and then the Twin Jades of Lan settle in to tearing apart the needs and wants of other clans with a surprising amount of ruthlessness. Sizhui passes each letter to Lan Xichen, who reads them aloud, adding his own commentary and thoughts. Current events and intra-clan intrigue are held up to the light for vulnerabilities and soft spots. Even Sizhui joins the feast, adding a soft aside that the Ouyang clan was experiencing a low number of births this year, and the local cultivators hadn’t been able to find a cause.
“We’ll start in Baling, then,” Lan Zhan says, and Sizhui makes a note of that.
For his part, Wei Wuxian abandons posture entirely and goes to sit out on the Jingshi’s long wooden deck. There’s a small tool kit in the sleeve of Lan Zhan’s robe, so he finds himself a bit of wood and dedicates himself to the twin tasks of carving and eavesdropping. The familiarity of it amuses him: when he was young, he’d never been invited into the great halls of Lotus Pier during this kind of discussion. The business of running a sect had been part of Jiang Cheng’s education only, as it was now apparently Sizhui’s. But Wei Wuxian had made a habit of finding a nice hiding place so that he could listen in, and he and Jiang Cheng would talk everything over afterwards.
Wei Wuxian wipes at his sweating face and neck absently with Lan Zhan’s sleeves, smiling down at the rabbit he’s slowly uncovering from the soft wood. The flick of a cautious ear. A surplus of rice in southwest Lanling. Two long hindlegs, poised to run. A rumor that Yunmeng was selling treasures. He spends an endless time on its eyes, as Sizhui rattles off tax rates and carve outs, tariffs that might be raised, who had complained so far of the Chief Cultivator’s new burdens, and eventually sighs and lets it be. No matter what he does, the rabbit doesn’t look much like the spoiled residents of Cloud Reccesses.
He drifts. Time has been strange since he was returned to life. There’s just so much of it. So many hours to fill. He wakes sometimes in the middle of the night covered all over in sweat, trying to remember all of the things he’s forgotten. Maybe the wards need shoring up. Maybe there’s been an attack during the night. Maybe someone has died. Maybe A-Yuan is crying. Maybe shijie is. He never manages to get back to sleep afterwards. When he was traveling, he would stay up and write letter after letter to Lan Zhan. He sent most of them, too. Before dawn is the best time for honesty.
He wakes when a shadow crosses over his face. It’s Sizhui, crouched over him. He stares muzzily up at the boy, somewhere beyond words. Sizhui puts out a hand and helps Wei Wuxian to his feet. Lan Xichen is waiting near the gate. He catches Wei Wuxian’s eye and then turns away, one hand behind his back. Sizhui hesitates, and then follows Lan Xichen away. There are cicadas singing in the trees, and the moment feels very loud even though none of them speak.
Wei Wuxian closes the Jingshi’s door behind himself. The world falls away abruptly, even though the windows are still open to catch the breeze. Inside it smells of sandalwood incense and medicinal herbs and, he realizes, like himself as well; like he’d brought the smell of the road in on his boots.
Lan Zhan opens his eyes. He watches as Wei Wuxian crosses to the basin and dips his hands into it, splashes his face with the water. It runs cool fingers down his temples and the back of his neck, and he shivers. When he opens his eyes, Lan Zhan is still watching him.
“Zewu Jun was angry with me earlier,” Wei Wuxian says. Some of his hair has caught the water, and he smooths it out of his face.
Lan Zhan looks away. His eyelids droop. Wei Wuxian wonders how sober he is, if the medicine has worn off yet. “He copes with seclusion as well as I did,” he says.
Wei Wuxian hums quietly. He stands and comes to sit next to Lan Zhan on the bed, nearly in the same place he’d sat before. “How long is his sentence, then?”
“Undetermined,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Wuxian looks at him, surprised, and he adds: “It’s his decision.”
Wei Wuxian sighs. He rubs the side of his neck absentmindedly. “How long until the great clans forget Zewu Jun’s mistakes?” he wonders. “How many years of mourning before they stop thinking of him as Lianfang Zun’s fool?”
“Four,” Lan Zhan says, and then looks surprised, as if he hadn’t meant to say that. Still drugged up, then. He doesn’t meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes, staring instead at - actually, Wei Wuxian isn’t sure what he’s looking at. His own memories, maybe. There are many things, still, that they haven’t told each other, that maybe they never will.
But Lan Xichen had told Wei Wuxian to ask, back when he had felt like sharing Lan Zhan’s secrets with other people. “Four years after your seclusion ended?” he asks, feeling like he’s easing his toes into a murky lake, unable to see the bottom. “Or four years total?”
“Total,” Lan Zhan says.
“Four years of being Yiling Laozu’s fool,” Wei Wuxian muses. Lan Zhan says nothing. Abruptly, Wei Wuxian is angry - uselessly, and without direction. Those years were long ago for Hanguang Jun, who by all accounts now seems to be near-worshipped by the average farmer, if not the wealthy clan leaders. But even they still pay lip service to the peerless second Jade of Lan - praising him for his integrity and wisdom, the way they’d praised Wei Wuxian for his strength and cunning. “Useless,” he mutters. “They never change, do they?”
The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth lifts, though he still doesn’t look up. “What’s the point?” Wei Wuxian says. “I don’t know why you bothered to come back, after everything they did to you. They don’t even leave you alone after you had your guts pulled out of you.”
“How else can I live?” Lan Zhan asks, very softly.
Wei Wuxian scoffs. “Go and find a corpse mountain,” he says. “Declare yourself the king of it. What? Why are you laughing? You’re practically a king now.”
Lan Zhan frowns. “Wei Ying,” he says, and then lapses back into frowning. Wei Wuxian waits for him to find his words, but none come.
“You’re good at being Chief Cultivator,” Wei Wuxian says, shifting to the side to try and catch Lan Zhan’s eye. “It’s not an insult.”
Lan Zhan sighs, so deep that Wei Wuxian can see his shoulders rise with it. He’s frustrated. He doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s sorting through his own feelings, and finding it a ponderous job. “It’s hot,” Lan Zhan finally decides. “We’ll go to the cold springs.”
Wei Wuxian taps his fingers against his own chin. He wants to laugh, even though Lan Zhan is right. It is hot. It’s hot inside and out the Jingshi. The air feels thick in Wei Wuxian’s lungs and heavy on his shoulders. Summer comes even to the clouds. “We don’t have to talk about it,” he offers. “I’ll go back to chewing your ear off about nothing important. I’ll recount every conversation I had with Little Apple in the last few weeks. Anyway, you’re supposed to stay in bed.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t dignify any of that with a response, just presses one hand against his belly and tries to get out of bed. “Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian says, and moves to help. Between the two of them they get Lan Zhan dressed and on his feet, though it’s a process, and Lan Zhan is sweating again by the end of it.
“Do you really need to be so stubborn?” Wei Wuxian asks, one arm under Lan Zhan’s shoulders as he takes slow, shuffling steps across the floor. He lets Lan Zhan lean against the doorframe as he digs through a chest for a pair of sandals that Lan Zhan claims to possess. “These are actually Sizhui’s, aren’t they?” he asks, when he finds them.
“No,” says Lan Zhan, without humor. He lets Wei Wuxian squat down and hold them steady enough to put his feet in them, and together they stagger off the Jingshi steps and down the slope of the mountain.
The air feels thick and stagnant, but it gets cooler as they get closer to the cold spring. Soft voices filter through to them, and as they pass under the gate they can see a few disciples taking advantage of the cool water. There’s an immediate flurry of Hanguang Jun! Hanguang Jun! and all of them scramble for the shore and their robes and the best bows they can make under their mostly naked circumstances. Hanguang Jun watches all of this impassively, his arm still draped over Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, and Wei Wuxian’s arm around his waist. “Goodness,” Wei Wuxian says. “The perks of leadership!”
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, and drives them towards a bench left thoughtfully by some Lan ancestor. Wei Wuxian had only really bothered to put one of Lan Zhan’s less fussy capes on him, and made him decent just by loosely knotting a single wide sash around his waist, so Lan Zhan is already half out of his clothes by the time Wei Wuxian has dropped him carefully onto the bench. And Wei Wuxian knows - he knows that Lan Zhan is still chewing over whatever’s on his mind, and he knows that Lan Zhan is cranky and tired and still probably a little goofy on painkillers - but he’s still not really prepared for the sight of Lan Zhan irritably sliding both cape and undershirt off at once, baring himself to the waist.
Wei Wuxian - who had put most of his own clothes back on before leaving the Jingshi - is suffocating. It’s a moment before Lan Zhan notices. A long moment where Wei Wuxian takes in the long stretch of his neck, the breadth of his ribcage, the defined muscles in his shoulders and arms, the unimaginable amount of skin. His fingers, graceful, pause at the ties of his pants. It’s ridiculous - he saw Lan Zhan’s chest only hours ago, checking the man’s injury for himself - but not like this, his hair disheveled and clothing caught in soft layers around his elbows, like a picture of a courtesan in a spring book just before the story gets really good. “You,” he says faintly. “You’re -”
Lan Zhan looks up and then - does nothing. He lets Wei Wuxian look.
“I don’t know why I thought,” Wei Wuxian says, except he does know, remembers very clearly being young and stupid and charging into the cold spring wearing everything except his shoes. Remembers, too, that first morning - wandering around Cloud Recesses with all the ghosts he’d brought with him - how quickly Lan Zhan had moved when he saw Wei Wuxian’s eyes on his scars.
Lan Zhan lifts his hands, fitting them carefully along Wei Wuxian’s waist, then dragging them down, achingly slow. His fingers stretch almost all the way around Wei Wuxian’s body, the tips almost touching in the small of his back, just above the swell of his ass. When he strokes his thumbs over the sharp points of Wei Wuxian’s hip bones, it’s firm enough that Wei Wuxian can feel his skin stretch under the touch. He never looks away.
It feels a little like his heart is being slowly peeled open, instead of only his robes. Lan Zhan never hesitates, the way Wei Wuxian had imagined he might. He undoes Wei Wuxian’s belt with the same confidence he does everything else with, dropping it on the bench next to him. He grips the front of Wei Wuxian’s outer robe and uses it to tug him closer, between his knees. He spreads Wei Wuxian’s inner robe and pushes both his hands under the fabric, putting them exactly where they’d been before.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. The words feel caught in his throat. He’s standing outside his body and at the same time occupying it fully, every nerve crackling. He’s overly aware of the sweat in his armpits and the backs of his knees, and the soft clatter of the bamboo around them, the whole world in motion. “La - Lan Zhan, anyone could come. Anyone could see.”
“Let them come,” Lan Zhan says, and closes his teeth around the line of Wei Wuxian’s hip. His mouth is the same temperature as the sun that cuts through the forest in stripes across their faces. “Let them see.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes squeeze shut. His body betrays him, gathering fistfuls of Lan Zhan’s hair, reaching down for Lan Zhan’s shoulders and chest and arms for all the places he hasn’t touched yet, even as he twists away from the hot, wet kisses that Lan Zhan is pressing against his stomach, achingly close to the scar he doesn’t have anymore. “Lan Zhan,” he whispers, “Lan Wangji, Lan Er-ge, please, I don’t want them to see.”
Lan Zhan stops kissing him. They breathe in synch, panting open mouthed into the quiet air. Wei Wuxian is trembling all over, or maybe Lan Zhan is, or maybe it’s both of them, wrestling themselves back from the edge. When Lan Zhan licks his lips he’s close enough that the tip of his tongue flickers like a dragonfly against Wei Wuxian’s belly, and he can’t help the shudder that wracks all the way through him.
Wei Wuxian sways when Lan Zhan lets him go. It would feel like withdrawal if not for the cracked apart mess of his heart, the way Lan Zhan sways forward with him, like the wind blows them both together.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
Wei Wuxian covers his eyes with both hands. He laughs shakily and says, apologetically, “I’ve been seen enough.”
Lan Zhan nods. No apology needed. The wind cools the sweat on the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck. He begins to feel less like he’s back on a cliff edge. How funny it is, that when he kissed Lan Zhan this morning he’d thought he had nothing to fear. It’s even more funny that he’s not even sure what he’s so afraid of.
He smooths his palms over his cheeks, wiping away tears that never actually fall. “I’m all right, Lan Zhan,” he says. “Steady yourself. We’re still here to bathe, after all.”
Lan Zhan laughs. It’s a soft sound, as all of the sounds he makes tend to be, but to hear it always makes Wei Wuxian’s heart impossibly glad. It’s easier, then, to grin and deal with the awkwardness of standing at arms’ length and watching each other take off the rest of their clothes, and having to help Lan Zhan out of his pants when it turns out he can’t do it by himself.
It would be impossible not to laugh at the sight they make: Wei Wuxian, naked and squatting and hard, Lan Zhan’s hands braced on his shoulders for balance, Lan Zhan’s cock bouncing a little in his face, also hard. “Don’t poke my eye out,” Wei Wuxian warns, and Lan Zhan laughs at this too, which is great. They’re on the same page. The ridiculousness doesn’t make him feel less overheated, but it helps. He can smell Lan Zhan, the body warmth of him. He steals glimpses of the other man, because to look at him directly would be too much. There are scars all over his body, and Wei Wuxian touches some of them gently as he bunches Lan Zhan’s pants around his ankles to slip them off his feet, and then stands back up.
Then they’re both standing, and there’s nowhere to hide. Wei Wuxian returns Lan Zhan’s courtesy, and lets him look.
Lan Zhan holds out his hand, and Wei Wuxian slips his own into it. He taps the thick bandages on Lan Zhan’s stomach with his other. “Is this waterproof?” he asks. Lan Zhan nods and finally, finally, they step into the water.
The relief is indescribable. It’s so hot that the water isn’t actually cold, just cool, but it’s enough that both of them gasp. Wei Wuxian doesn’t remember dying, not exactly, but what he does remember reminds him of this: the weightlessness of it, the shock to all of the soft animal parts of his body, the sudden cessation of pain. “Fuck,” Wei Wuxian says, heartfelt, and plunges all the way under.
It’s not possible to really swim in the cold springs. It’s only waist deep in most parts, full of big rocks, and water rushes through the shallower places on its hurried way down the mountain. Wei Wuxian does his best anyway, grabbing handfuls of stones to move himself around, kicking absently. Beneath the water, it’s absolutely quiet. When he surfaces, Lan Zhan is submerged to his collarbone, and seems to have found somewhere relatively still to sit. His hair is wet all the way through, and he’s rubbing his fingers through the middle parts of it, rinsing the oil from his days in bed. It makes beautiful tangles across his forehead and over his shoulders. Wei Wuxian slips close to him, and under the water Lan Zhan’s hands move softly over his back and shoulders.
He thinks that Lan Zhan will pull him close and kiss him again, and he thinks maybe that he’d let it happen - pretend that the high rocks and the water are enough to shield them, as if the way they cling to each other wasn’t breaking half the precepts up on that big stone wall anyway - but Lan Zhan doesn’t try to. Age, it turns out, hasn’t tempered Hanguang Jun in any way except for one: he makes no demands of Wei Wuxian. They hold each other loosely, submerged and secret.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian sighs.
Lan Zhan sighs too, but it’s a different sort of sound. Wei Wuxian pulls back a little to look at him, his downcast eyes, his beautiful face. “I would wait, if I could. Recover properly,” Lan Zhan explains haltingly. “But we must move quickly, before the other clans tear down Lianfang Zun’s watchtowers.”
“The watchtowers,” Wei Wuxian echoes. He’s seen them, of course. Passed through villages that hosted them. They’d been meant to host cultivators, to spread resources and protection to those without, although since they were staffed mainly with Lanling Jin cultivators the actual benefits varied. After Lianfang Zun’s crimes had been revealed, Wei Wuxian had heard bitter accusations that the watchtowers were just the same as Qishan Wen’s supervisory offices. He wonders what they’d said when Lianfang Zun was alive.
“Doctors,” Lan Zhan says. “The first will leave Gusu this month.”
“To Baling,” Wei Wuxian says, remembering.
Lan Zhan nods.
Wei Wuxian considers this, as Lan Zhan’s fingertips play along his spine. The meeting that he’d casually eavesdropped on reorganizes itself in his mind, sorting neatly into which clans will be paying for the health of others, who has needed help being convinced, and who just needs help. The framework had always been clear, along with the underlying motivations. If he’d ever thought Lan Zhan wanted to be a king, well -
Well, they’d probably never have become friends at all.
“Doctors, then. Not teachers?” he asks. He means it to tease, but Lan Zhan shakes his head.
“If the parent is sick, the child must work,” he says. “If the child is sick, they can’t learn. Doctors first. Teachers in two years, we hope.”
“You play a long game,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. His mouth is against Lan Zhan’s neck. His hair and hips and legs float free in the water, touching nothing. He’s still hard, and sensitive all over - but it doesn’t really matter, arousal just one part of his overall state of being.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. His cheek is pressed against Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “Wei Ying,” he says, so softly that Wei Wuxian can barely hear it over the sound of the spring. “We’ve said many things to each other. Did you notice?”
Lan Zhan waits patiently. After a moment Wei Wuxian opens his eyes, staring at nothing. He receives the world in neutral observations. The sun passes overhead, and the shadows have changed. Through the rippling water he can see the elegant lines of Lan Zhan’s body, and that he’s still hard too. The tips of his ears and his nose are pink. His toes are like pale fish against the dark river stones. “You’ve never asked me to stay in Gusu,” he says.
“And you never asked me to leave,” Lan Zhan agrees.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Let’s leave,” he says. Here, in this suspended state of being, it’s easy to ask for. “Run away with me. We’ll travel the whole world together. Let everyone take care of themselves for once.”
Lan Zhan’s hand curls around Wei Wuxian’s hip, down the line of his thigh, and up again. The sensation as his hand travels back along Wei Wuxian’s skin is strange, moving against the current, like petting a rabbit backwards. The look in his eyes, barely visible where Wei Wuxian is still cradled against his chest, is wistful. “I would,” he says. “But you wouldn’t be happy.”
“I would be happy with you,” Wei Wuxian argues. His hand drifts to the scars that wrap over Lan Zhan’s shoulders, his fingertips exploring the wing of his collarbone. There are divots in the middle where it must have been broken, long ago. He presses his lips to them carefully.
Lan Zhan smiles. It’s one of the real ones, the kind he doesn’t mind if Wei Wuxian sees. “You’re not happy if you aren’t trying to fix the world,” he says.
Wei Wuxian freezes, and then pushes away. Lan Zhan lets him go. He’s so patient. More patient than Wei Wuxian deserves, more than anyone deserves. He watches silently as Wei Wuxian turns the thought over in his head carefully, brushing past the old hurts. Says, finally, slowly, sure of the answer, “You wouldn’t be happy either.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. The smile lingers around his mouth. Wei Wuxian wants to taste it. “Wei Ying,” he says, “If I don’t live like this … how can I live?”
Wei Wuxian’s breath catches in his throat. There are many things he doesn’t remember, and many memories he’s chosen to leave behind, but that - yes, he remembers asking that of Lan Zhan, who didn’t have an answer then but had brought those times up only a few weeks ago. Wei Wuxian had written to him, When did you know?
Two nights later the answer had come: When you asked me to kill you.
“You can’t,” Wei Wuxian says, “fix the world, Lan Zhan.”
“I can’t,” Lan Zhan agrees. “Can you?”
“I tried once,” Wei Wuxian says, but he didn’t, not really. If the other clans had left them alone he would never have come down from the mountain. He’d have stayed up there forever farming radishes with his handful of Wens, probably. Hopefully they would have grown something else at some point.
His knees brush against the bottom of the river bed. His hands part the water around him, keeping himself upright against the current. He’s still only an arm’s length away from Lan Zhan, who is watching Wei Wuxian with horrible fondness, his whole face soft. “Wei Ying,” he says. “What do you want?”
Has anyone ever asked him that? He can’t remember. He examines Lan Zhan’s expression, looking for a catch he already knows he won’t find. “I don’t know,” he says slowly. There are so many possibilities that suddenly he can’t think of anything at all. “What do you want?”
“You,” Lan Zhan says immediately. “However you will have me.”
Wei Wuxian laughs automatically. You just said that isn’t all you want is the first thing he thinks, but it’s too painful, so what he says instead is, “Oh? However I’ll have you?”
Lan Zhan holds his hands out under the water, and Wei Wuxian takes them, allowing himself to be towed in close. His knees bump into whatever rock Lan Zhan is sitting on, and then come to rest on either side of Lan Zhan’s thighs. The head of his cock brushes against Lan Zhan’s, probably accidentally, and they both inhale. It’s a reflex to drop a hand down and cup himself but when he does it, Lan Zhan’s lips part and the flush on his ears spreads across his cheeks. He likes it. Wei Wuxian’s fingers tighten around his cock automatically. Lan Zhan’s fingertips dig into his hips. Even in the cool water, Wei Wuxian can heat pouring off of him.
“What if I said you couldn’t?” Wei Wuxian asks. Lan Zhan’s eyes dart up to his and then back down, watching through the rippled surface as Wei Wuxian strokes himself - just lightly, barely pulling at all. Even just that makes the muscles in his legs and stomach jump, hypersensitive and sweet. He’s been turned on for so long that it’s almost painful to touch himself, painful that it’s not Lan Zhan’s hand on him instead. He could, if he wanted - he could take Lan Zhan’s hand and wrap it around his cock instead, or shift up and take both of them in hand at once, bring an end to all this ugly, fearful waiting - but the impulse to tease and torment and conceal wins out instead. He pinches Lan Zhan’s chin with his other hand, forcing his gaze back up to Wei Wuxian’s face, and says, “Well? What if you couldn’t have me?”
“If that’s what you want,” Lan Zhan gasps. Their mouths are so close. He feels water start to move around his thighs; Lan Zhan is stroking himself as well, following Wei Wuxian’s lead. It isn’t friction - they’re still not touching each other anywhere except for Lan Zhan’s hand lightly on his hip, no longer clutching but just steadying, but it’s enough to stir the hair along his inner thighs, the vulnerable stretch of his balls, hyper aware of every place they could be touching but aren’t.
“What if I told you to let me go,” Wei Wuxian breathes, “ahhh, and we’d never see each other again?”
“Anything,” Lan Zhan groans, his throat bobbing. His fingers flex on Wei Wuxian’s skin, like he can’t help himself. His face is flushed, his nose pink, his mouth red. He’s leaned forward, offering himself for kisses, to be touched. “If you wanted it.”
A part of Wei Wuxian is still listening for footsteps on the path, still hearing birdsong, always watchful. The forest bends its arms around them, whispering so loudly that it drowns out the soft sounds they make, the barest splashing of water, the desperation in their voices. It hurts to feel so good and so hungry at the same time. He batters himself against a wall he built with his own hands.
His hand moving faster, tighter now, his body burning, he manages to blurt out, “Are you in pain? Does it hurt?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and underneath Wei Wuxian his whole body jerks, once, twice, his thighs brushing against the inside of Wei Wuxian’s even as he fights his body’s impulse to curl in on itself. He’s coming, and Wei Wuxian drinks in the sight of it greedily, adding this orgasm to the piles of gifts Lan Zhan has already given to him.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps out, hardly knowing what he’s begging for, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, please -”
Lan Zhan’s arms come up around him; he crushes Wei Wuxian to his chest, squeezing all the air out of his lungs, and it’s enough, finally, finally, the sweet edge of pain, the mindlessness of being held and not let go of is enough, and the water washes him clean away.
The aftermath is as overwhelming as orgasm itself. Wei Wuxian is the water, the stones, the forest. He’s the crush of Lan Zhan’s arms, the heavy rise and fall of his lungs. He’s the tremors wracking through both of them, the silence of the world and all the thoughts inside his head, which make plain the truth he’s always known, the core of all their why nots: that once they have each other there will be no letting go.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers, when he can, “don’t cry, Lan Zhan, please, I would never ask that. Not even if it thundered in winter or snowed in summer. Not ever, not ever.”
Lan Zhan, beyond words, tucks his face more securely into Wei Wuxian’s throat and presses kisses to the skin there. For all the distance that they’d left before, they’re so entwined now that even the river can’t come between them. It’s not enough. He’s not sure what would be, what would satisfy. He sees his hunger reflected back when Lan Zhan finally raises his eyes. He looks as though Wei Wuxian has destroyed him completely. His heart is pounding so hard that Wei Wuxian can see the throb of it just beneath his pale skin.
They cling to each other until their breathing slows and they remember the rest of the world. They put their clothes back on without speaking. The quiet in Wei Wuxian’s mind lingers, and the peeled away feeling of his heart. It feels stranger to pull Lan Zhan’s pants back on than it did to take them off, the impulse to kiss every bit of him stronger than ever. He’s not sure what Lan Zhan is feeling. He’s afraid to ask, or afraid of being misunderstood, or afraid of what Lan Zhan might say.
He can’t resist slipping a hand into Lan Zhan’s shirt, before he can tie it closed. His fingertips just barely brush bare skin; his palm spans almost the width of Lan Zhan’s bandages. “It’s not a problem,” Lan Zhan says gently.
He’s telling the truth, as he always does, and anyway Wei Wuxian can see for himself how Lan Zhan is improving. His color is better. His posture is less strained. The skin above and below the bandages, which had been warm to the touch this morning, seems less inflamed. Lan Zhan had pulled himself from the cold spring, needing only minimal assistance from Wei Wuxian to get over the slippery stones at the edge of the water. But he feels hypnotized - his focus so pulled that he startles when Lan Zhan steps in closer and takes Wei Wuxian’s face between his hands.
He doesn’t deserve it, but he leans into the touch regardless, closing his eyes like one of Lan Zhan’s fat, spoiled rabbits. A tear slips out and makes it over his cheekbone before Lan Zhan can wipe it away. “I should be comforting you,” Wei Wuxian says. “I shouldn’t have - I’ve never -”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. It’s not quite an interruption; heaven only knew what Wei Wuxian would have even said, if left to himself. “It’s all right. I’m all right.”
“How,” Wei Wuxian manages, gritted out between his teeth. His hands travel up Lan Zhan’s bare skin, over the Wen brand Lan Zhan has never told him about, the scars on his shoulders and arms where the lashes missed his back. He touches every mark he can reach. He’d take all of Lan Zhan’s clothes off again, here, standing in the same place he’d refused Lan Zhan only a while ago.
Lan Zhan hums to himself, and then takes Wei Wuxian’s hand, sliding it up his shoulder and down his arm. His shirt slips open, baring his chest and shoulder and bicep and - “What’s this?” Wei Wuxian asks, mostly to himself. It’s a scar, that much is obvious. Thin, at a bit of an angle along the back of Lan Zhan’s arm, about halfway towards his elbow. It’s barely noticeable, especially compared to the weals along his back. He’d been stabbed here, but why -
His whole body goes cold, from head to toe. The suddenness of it staggers him, the feeling of standing next to his own body. He hasn’t moved - hasn’t staggered or flinched. His breath comes fast through his nose. It takes everything he has to push away the memory, which only comes through in pieces anyway, too large to look at by itself. The smell of the fires below him. The swing of his body’s weight through the air. Pain so huge that it probably would have killed him anyway, if he hadn’t chosen the cliff instead: an arrow hole in his chest, his shoulder yanked out of its socket, organs spitting blood up into his mouth, wrist bones grinding together, and worst of all shijie, shijie, gone.
It’s a moment before he can think again. He drinks in the air and it’s full of cool water and soft forest. Lan Zhan’s other hand is on his waist, keeping him steady.
There’d been blood running down Lan Zhan’s arm, in the last few seconds of Wei Wuxian’s first life. A lot of blood, soaking his white sleeve all the way through. His fingers had been wet with it, slippery on Wei Wuxian’s wrist. It must have been so hard to hold on.
“The sword cut almost to the bone,” Lan Zhan says. He lifts his hand, shifting Wei Wuxian’s fingers accidentally to the soft skin on the inside of his elbow. He touches his thumb to his first finger, then his middle finger and says, thoughtfully, “The nerves healed poorly, probably because it wasn’t tended to after my punishment. At first I couldn’t move these fingers at all, and then it was very painful. Even now, there’s less sensation than before.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, trying to free some of the ice stuck in his chest. He tries very hard not to think about before. He’s been ambushed by his own heart, and the memory of Lan Zhan’s terrified face so far above his own. “I’ve never noticed,” he says faintly. “You play as beautifully as you did when we were young.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes drop towards their hands. He never did know how to take a compliment. “I worked very hard,” he says, so plainly that it can only be the truth. “It took almost a year to get back enough dexterity to hold a brush. Much longer than that to be able to play Wangji again.”
Wei Wuxian exhales slowly. “Why even bother?” he asks, and for once lets himself sound as bitter as he feels, in the deepest parts of his chest.
Lan Zhan puts his other hand over Wei Wuxian’s and laces their fingers together. “Because I love to play music,” he says.
They make their way up the mountain slower than they’d come down. Lan Zhan is steady enough to only hold onto Wei Wuxian’s arm, like a maiden being escorted to the market, but the steeper angles slow them down enough to take the longer way home. It leads them a little closer to the busier parts of Cloud Recesses, to the paths that even Wei Wuxian remembers, but it isn’t until they crest a little hill and come into view of the meadow where Lan Zhan’s rabbits live, that anyone takes notice of them.
Instead of rabbits, the meadow is full of children. It’s late afternoon, and classes must be over, the dinner bell not yet rang. They lounge about in little white clusters, schoolwork dropped in piles, heads bent over secrets. In the middle of it all is Sizhui, lunging back and forth with his friend Jingyi, the two of them armed with wooden practice swords, surrounded by admirers. They’re both laughing, bright and clear in the slanting sunlight.
Wei Wuxian stops. Lan Zhan stops with him, his hand still braced lightly on the inside of Wei Wuxian’s elbow. They stand and look on in silence for a little while, watching how the juniors play when they don’t know they’re under observation. Wei Wuxian recognizes only a few of them, the handful that were old enough a year ago to leave the clouds and go night hunting on their own. A few of the kids are only a little older than A-Yuan was when Wei Wuxian had cared for him on the Burial Mounds, not yet big enough to have swung a sword at Lotus Pier, and like always it sends a little stab of emotion through his heart. It strikes him that they would make a relaxed bunch even for Yunmeng Jiang (half of them have even shed their outer layers in the heat, left in crumpled piles as if grass stains don’t come to Cloud Recesses) but they’re a kind group, too. The older kids watch over the younger ones: peeling fruit to snack on, chasing down anyone that tries to make a break for it. They shout encouragement to each other, cheering when Sizhui lands a good hit, fluttering to haul Jingyi up from the ground when he takes a tumble.
It’s so peaceful. It makes his heart feel sore and quiet. His fingers flex, where he’s left them resting over Lan Zhan’s. The air in his lungs is sweet and clear. For a moment it’s enough - more than enough, more than he’s ever really asked for - just to be alive.
Lan Jingyi, fruitlessly trying to beat dust off the knees of his skirts, chooses that moment to look up and point and shout.
“Uh oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Can we run? I think we should run, Lan Zhan.”
“If you’d like,” Lan Zhan says, though he doesn’t try to move. Maybe he can’t run. Wei Wuxian looks him up and down dubiously, trying to remember whether he can actually carry Lan Zhan.
The moment of hesitation costs them their escape: a cloud of white robed children descend upon them, mostly shouting “Hanguang Jun! Hanguang Jun!” except for a few weird outliers who yell, “Senior Wei! Senior Wei!” instead. Even the little ones come running, and three of the bravest come right up and grab hold of Lan Zhan’s sleeves before Wei Wuxian can block their attack.
“Careful, careful,” he scolds, “He’s still sick, don’t pull him off balance.” Immediately, a few of the bigger kids leap forward to gently pull sticky fingers off of Hanguang Jun, holding the little ones’ shoulders so they don’t try for a second assault. It still earns them another shrill chorus of, “Hanguang Jun, are you okay? Are you sick? Are you okay? Were you hurt?”
“Jingyi said you were hurt really bad,” says one.
“Are you better now?” asks another.
“You’re not going to die, are you?” blurts out a third.
“They’re really not afraid of you at all, are they?” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Zhan, a little wry.
Lan Zhan raises an eyebrow at him. Why would they be? that eyebrow asks.
“Hanguang Jun will be fine,” Sizhui says, from the back of the mob. The other kids look to him instinctively, then back to Lan Zhan as if to judge for themselves. “He’s very strong, so he just needs to rest well and follow the doctor’s instructions.”
“That’s right!” Wei Wuxian says brightly. “You kids all think Hanguang Jun’s the best, right? And the only way you stay intact long enough to be the best is by listening.” He remembers halfway through saying all of that, that Hanguang Jun is supposed to be on bed rest, absolutely no activities, and adds before Sizhui can bring it up, “That’s why I always follow the instructions of the best doctor I’ve ever met. Her advice was: get up and do something useful!”
The kids zero in on him with unnerving focus. “Bathing is useful,” Wei Wuxian says, a little defensively. Next to him, Lan Zhan lets out the tiniest, most delicate snort of laughter, which instantly is the most delightful sound that Wei Wuxian has ever heard. He laughs; he can’t help himself. He turns to tell Lan Zhan how cute he is, but only ends up leaving his right flank open for attack.
“Senior Wei, were you with Hanguang Jun when he was hurt? Were you scared?”
“Senior Wei, how did you hear he was hurt? Did you drop everything to rush to his side?”
The kids sigh happily. Wei Wuxian fixes his face, distributing glares around the crowd. “Who,” he demands, “is behind this black market trade of romance novels in Cloud Recesses? Lan Zhan, where do your students get all these ideas? When we were young, our classmates only had taoist tomes and all six thousand of your rules to memorize!”
“There’s only three thousand, eight hundred and eighty nine!” two children eagerly shout at him.
“Eight hundred and ninety two!” three children shout back at them.
“A reduction!” Wei Wuxian thunders. “How can there be fewer rules for this lazy generation? You all need at least ten thousand rules to live up to the examples your seniors set.”
“That’s true!” Jingyi calls, his arms folded over his chest. Wei Wuxian feels a trickle of unease pool in his gut, which turns into a stone when Jingyi follows it up with, “Senior Wei is so wise! He should give these unworthy disciples lessons on cultivation.”
It turns out that the kids aren’t exactly afraid of Wei Wuxian either. The smaller ones even jump up and down in excitement. In the chaos, one of them vibrates out of her senior’s hold and latches onto Wei Wuxian’s arm. She curls her little fingers under the bottom of his sleeve in order to hang on, clearly more used to long drapey Lan robes. “Haven’t any of you heard of the terrible Yiling Laozu?” Wei Wuxian complains to her, mostly just to save himself the face, but also because she and the rest of the kids are all very cute and maybe their enthusiasm is kind of nice. He’s been singing this same song for most of his life, and he’d never stopped being surprised when people believed him. “You all know I’m very scary and famous, right? I shot down the sun. I tore apart mythical beasts with my bare hands! Okay, Hanguang Jun mostly did that one. But I have eaten death itself!”
“Tell us about it!” Jingyi says, grinning.
“I’ve only just gotten here,” Wei Wuxian retorts. “Are you trying to get me kicked out of Gusu already? Tell them, Lan Zhan, tell them that your uncle will throw me right down the mountain, and he’ll make sure I roll down every single -”
His breath catches in his throat. He’d chanced a look at Lan Zhan, partially for backup but mostly because he always likes looking at Lan Zhan, only to find out that the man isn’t looking at Wei Wuxian at all. He’s looking at Sizhui - and although Wei Wuxian had seen a fully silent conversation happen between Lan Zhan and Lan Xichen this morning, it pales in comparison to the quiet way that Sizhui’s looking back, steady over the smiling faces of his peers, the two of them exchanging volumes in a language Wei Wuxian doesn’t speak.
He could have been forgiven, he thinks, for not realizing the truth about Sizhui immediately, the night they’d met again in Mo Village. He knew that every person on the Mounds had been killed. He had no reason to think that A-Yuan was spared - no, it had been too much. To hope would have killed Wei Wuxian all over again. And of course, Lan Zhan had said nothing - showed no favoritism, gave no hints that told Wei Wuxian that he’d raised a child, much less this particular child. Wei Wuxian had asked why, of course, but it wasn’t until they’d parted that Lan Zhan tried to offer an explanation, hesitation outlining every brush stroke: I needed to keep him safe, as long as I could.
He understood. He did. Maybe he would have done the same thing. Heaven knew he’d kept secrets from Lan Zhan too.
“Wei Ying is an excellent swordsman,” Lan Zhan says, without allowing Wei Wuxian a moment to prepare his heart. He adds, shamelessly, “Perhaps he could be convinced to give a demonstration of skill.”
The kids reach a fever pitch, one that previously Wei Wuxian had only seen them reach when Lan Zhan had shown up and done anything more than mildly remarkable. “Yes! Please, Senior Wei! Please teach us!”
Wei Wuxian stares wild-eyed at Lan Zhan, who ignores him. “I don’t think,” Wei Wuxian attempts, “I’m not really a,” and then gives up. “Oh, you’ve made your point, you monster. Anyway, I’m years out of practice, how do you even know I could give a good showing?”
“You’ll do fine against the juniors,” Lan Zhan says, clearly enjoying himself. The smug line of his mouth doesn’t waver until he looks over to see for himself whatever expression Wei Wuxian’s face is making. His eyes widen, just a little, and maybe they speak each other’s language after all.
“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian says quickly, because it is. He’s fine. He can give a little demonstration, show these brats what Yunmeng Jiang style looks like. He squeezes Lan Zhan’s hand, and feels his own fingers get squeezed in return, reassuring. “All right - here, Jingyi, come take Hanguang Jun and make sure he doesn’t fall over.”
Lan Zhan accepts this handover with equanimity, transferring one hand to Jingyi’s arm and holding the other one out so that the little ones can attach to it like barnacles. The junior clinging to Wei Wuxian abandons him in an instant. Smoothly, Jingyi hands his wooden sword over at the same time, so there’s barely a moment that Wei Wuxian’s hands are empty. He twirls the practice sword between his fingers and brings it up to bear, so quickly that the younger kiddies scream and jump back, then burst out into giggles.
“All right,” Wei Wuxian growls, “Who’s ready to take on the demon of the burial mounds? Who thinks they’re strong enough to defeat the terror of the four clans?”
“I will,” Sizhui calls. He adds, for politeness’ sake, “If Senior Wei allows it.”
Wei Wuxian’s heart falters, despite his best efforts. Of course he would allow. There was a time he would have brought this child the moon, if only he wanted it. He knows that Lan Zhan is watching them, waiting to see what Wei Wuxian will choose. He clears his throat and shakes his sword, and hopes that Sizhui can’t see all it costs him to say, “I accept! Prepare to be ground into the dirt.”
Sizhui bows to him, big and formal and perfect, and says, “I am ready to be humbled, teacher!” and it hardly hurts at all.
They walk to the middle of the meadow and turn to face each other. Sizhui had smiled when he’d made his challenge, but there’s a set now to his jaw that’s unfamiliar, a little nervous. “What?” Wei Wuxian asks him warily. “Are you imagining your own death? Many people do when they face me, you know.”
Sizhui shifts into a ready stance. “Senior Wei, I’ll make you a bet,” he says quietly. The other kids are all settling down around them, waiting for the show. One kid even has paper out on his knee so he can take notes. “For every round I beat you, you’ll stay for a week. If I beat you twice, you stay for two weeks. Three times, three weeks. And so on. What do you think?”
“I think that’s a strange bet to make,” Wei Wuxian says evenly. “Do you think I’ll leave so quickly?"
Sizhui shakes his head. “I don’t want you to leave at all,” he says. He says it so assuredly, as if they’re easy words to say, and maybe for him they are. As a baby - as a young man - he doesn’t really seem to be afraid of anything.
Wei Wuxian looks over his shoulder, checking on Lan Zhan. He finds him surrounded by children, who have unearthed a cushion for him and given him peeled fruit to eat. The day has cooled a little as the hour trundles towards dusk, but the air is still sticky with humidity and Lan Zhan’s hair has dried into thick, soft-looking waves. His head is cocked just barely to one side, listening very seriously as a child cups her hands around his ear and tells him whatever little kid secrets are on her mind.
Ah, what is there to say? Nothing, Lan Zhan would probably reply. Just don’t speak at all.
Wei Wuxian rolls his shoulders out. He lifts high up on his toes, drops back down, shifts from side to side and stretches his hips. He stretches one arm across his chest and then the other. Sizhui watches him do it, unconcerned, one corner of his mouth turning up.
“Okay, Young Master Radish,” Wei Wuxian says, and lifts his sword. “Show me what you’ve got!”
They all pile back to the Jingshi for the evening’s meal: he and Lan Zhan, and Sizhui and Jingyi, and two of their little friends who had sparred and lost to Wei Wuxian. The four kids are insatiable on the walk back, peppering Wei Wuxian with questions until he’s forced to demonstrate no fewer than eight techniques with a rolled up music score standing in as a sword.
While the other three rattle off to the kitchens to fetch dinner for everyone, Sizhui helps him get Lan Zhan settled back in bed. Then he administers what is apparently a proper dose of Lan Zhan’s pain medicine, which is approximately three times what Wei Wuxian gave him this morning.
“You are the worst,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Zhan. “You are a villain.”
With only Wei Wuxian and Sizhui there to witness it, Lan Zhan rolls his eyes, breathes very deeply for a moment or two, and appears to go to sleep.
“I knew it,” Wei Wuxian says, “I knew it. He lied to me, you know. He’s shameless.” He goes to collapse at the table in the center room, forgoing posture for sprawling all his limbs out as far as they can reach. Sizhui hums sympathetically and steps neatly over one of his legs to sweep the table clean of the detritus Wei Wuxian had left there this morning. He puts down place settings. He stokes the little brazier back to a reasonable fire, and sets a kettle on top of it. Wei Wuxian goes back and forth between watching him and watching Lan Zhan, enjoying the upside down perspective. “Ahhh, you young people!” he complains. “You’ve worn me all the way through, like an old pair of shoes. No mercy for your seniors whatsoever, I see.”
“No mercy at all, Senior Wei,” Sizhui agrees.
Lan Zhan, drowsy, eyes closed, says, “Sizhui. The lower cabinet, please.”
“Yes, baba,” Sizhui says, and vanishes out of Wei Wuxian’s line of sight. He comes back and places something porcelain-sounding on the table. It’s almost too much to hope for, but -
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian breathes, propping himself just far enough on his elbows to see the white bottle on the table, the cup waiting next to it. Sizhui smiles at him, uncaps it carefully, lifts his sleeve out of the way, and pours Wei Wuxian his wine.
“None for you?” Wei Wuxian asks, shifting upright. He places his fingers around the little cup, but doesn’t yet touch.
Sizhui shakes his head. “It’s against the rules,” he explains, but adds, a little sheepishly, “Also, I don’t like the taste.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him. “Better not to learn to like it, then,” he advises, and brings the wine under his nose, enjoying the fragrance. He laughs at himself - savoring the moment instead of just dumping the cup down his throat, the way he’d start most nights. The anticipation feels sweet, like treading warm water on a summer day. The ache in his muscles feels good, familiar: a reward instead of a punishment. Even the smile on his face doesn’t hurt.
“Hey, Sizhui,” he says suddenly. Sizhui looks at him, but for a moment the words don’t come, or maybe Wei Wuxian just doesn’t have any, for once in all his lives. Maybe he just doesn’t want to name the feeling in his heart - this slow, strange unfurling - for what it is.
He’s saved when the other kids come back with everyone’s dinner, loud enough to be heard all the way down the winding path to the Jingshi. They’ve brought along Wen Ning; Wei Wuxian hadn’t even known he was in Cloud Recesses at all, and they get reacquainted while the kids serve out all the food. Wen Ning fidgets throughout - not because he’s uncomfortable, but because the kids have sternly forbidden him to help. “Still getting bullied by children?” Wei Wuxian asks, laughing.
“Yes,” Wen Ning sighs, but he looks happy about it, so Wei Wuxian bullies him too by making him tell everyone about him and Sizhui’s adventures while they eat dinner. One of the kids had unearthed a bottle of chili garlic sauce from somewhere, and Wei Wuxian dumps most of it on his food even though it tastes a little stale. Jingyi, nervously, adds a single red drop to his snowy white tofu, and complains about it, sweating, for the rest of the meal.
Conversation turns naturally from recent night hunts to older ones, to stories about when Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning and Lan Zhan had been young, and then to softer memories that only Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning share, of people lost to them. By that time the kids are drooping in their seats, grimly clinging to consciousness after a lifetime of indoctrination to the Lan bedtime. One of the new-to-Wei-Wuxian kids has actually fallen asleep at the table, his face pillowed on his arms. Only Sizhui is mostly awake, his chin resting on his knees, his bright eyes shifting between Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning, drinking in everything they say.
Lan Zhan is, maybe, also asleep; he’d roused a little when Sizhui brought him a bowl of broth with rice and greens in it, and quieted down again afterwards. He hasn’t moved for a while when Wei Wuxian finally declares the night over and bundles everyone up and out the door.
Halfway down the steps, Sizhui turns and comes back to where Wei Wuxian is standing still in the doorway. The candles have burned low and the fireflies are all asleep, and the world is dark beyond their little circle of light. The air feels thick, and the wind stirs the trees. Sizhui’s friends loiter at the gate, Wen Ning a shadow behind them in the gloom. Wei Wuxian tucks his hands behind his back, and waits for Sizhui to speak.
“You’ll honor our bet?” Sizhui asks, very quietly. He looks towards where Lan Zhan is sleeping, and then back to Wei Wuxian, biting his lip. He’s such a good boy.
Wei Wuxian laughs, tucking his chin into his chest. His hands twist behind his back. “You probably don’t remember this,” he admits, “but that wasn’t the first time we’ve crossed swords.”
Sizhui’s eyes widen. “What?”
He doesn’t look at the boy as he says, “It was when you were very little, of course. Lan Zhan came to Yiling to see me, and he bought you a pair of toy swords. You and I duelled all up and down the mountain for weeks afterwards.”
He chances a look up to see Sizhui staring at him. “Did I,” he asks faintly, and clears his throat. “Did I ever win?”
Wei Wuxian smiles. He reaches for Sizhui - strokes a hand over the smoothed-back top of his hair, the part in between his silver headpiece and the cloud-patterned ribbon across his forehead. “Come back tomorrow,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “I’ll tell you some stories about your grandmother.”
Sizhui ducks his head. He nods, brushes a sleeve over his face, and looks back up smiling. Such a good boy.
The Jingshi feels very quiet when he’s gone. Wei Wuxian blows out candles, turns in circles in the center room, tidies away the last bit of mess left behind. He talks to Lan Zhan as he does it, his voice soft. “Does he live here? Wen Ning, I mean. He had a jade token on his belt. He said he planted a garden this year, and I should come and visit. Did you give him a house here?”
And, “I don’t think anyone will really put up with me being here for any real length of time. Especially once you start receiving visits from other clean leaders again. It’s just so awkward for everyone, pretending that they’ve never tried to kill me. You can’t really think anyone will let me stay.”
And, “This younger generation may not be hopeless after all. Some of those kids were pretty good. Very smart, too. They all worship the ground you walk on, of course. I would never have guessed you’d be such a good teacher.”
And, “How does Sizhui stand it? Knowing all that he does now. He grew up surrounded by people who had a hand in his family’s death. Your clan was there in the Burial Mounds too at the end, weren’t they? Have you talked about it with him? What did he say? What did you say?”
He undresses by the last candle and then blows it out. For a moment he’s plunged entirely into darkness, not even the faint familiar shapes of furniture and screen and bed to guide him. He reaches a hand out, searching for his own edges - and after a moment he finds them. There’s a pale moon coming in through the window, and as his eyes adjust he sees also the pale curve of Lan Zhan’s cheek, the soft shape of his body underneath the blanket. There’s a storm coming - he can feel it in the way that the air gathers close, the taste of rain’s potential in his mouth.
He climbs into bed, tucks himself into the space between the window and Lan Zhan that was left for him. He pulls the thin sheet up over his shoulders, and presses his forehead to Lan Zhan’s shoulder. His fingertips find the front of Lan Zhan’s sleeping shirt and slip in between the ties. He goes to sleep with his palm spread flat on Lan Zhan’s chest, measuring time by the steady beat of his heart.
His name is a gasp, a fish hook in his belly that drags him slowly up to wakefulness. A hand in his hair, on his face, on his waist, pulling him close. Wei Wuxian lets it happen, his limbs loose and heavy and good feeling. He gasps when a hand slips under the back of his sleeping shirt, burning hot against his skin. “Lan Zhan,” he whispers, breathing it into Lan Zhan’s mouth. They kiss slowly, laboriously. His muscles, still mostly asleep, barely listen to him, to how much he wants this. He is kissed, he is held; that’s all that matters. He stretches his legs, his shoulders, presses them against Lan Zhan’s body, entwines their ankles. Their tongues, moving together, make his skin feel like lightning has touched him, like all the nerves in his body are waking up at once.
He’s touching Lan Zhan all over, everywhere he can reach, and is being touched in return. His hands find skin unexpectedly: where Lan Zhan’s shirt came loose in his sleep, in the gap between his bandages and the waist of his pants, the bumps of his spine like a secret beneath his heavy hair. He’s aware of lying half on top of Lan Zhan, but the detail is fuzzy - whether Lan Zhan put him there or whether Wei Wuxian crawled on top of him. He thinks maybe he had climbed on top, that he’d started this, reaching for Lan Zhan in his sleep. It feels unimportant, or less important than the way Wei Wuxian’s cock is pressed against Lan Zhan’s thigh, and that he isn’t touching Lan Zhan’s cock in return, the angle of their bodies not enough for it. Less important than how good he feels, every part of him, everything about him suddenly making sense.
Lan Zhan pulls away. Wei Wuxian follows, not meaning to, chasing his mouth. He moans out loud, not meaning to do that either, when Lan Zhan kisses him once more, open mouthed and wet but without the wonderful slide of his tongue, and then puts distance between them for real. When Wei Wuxian tilts towards him, Lan Zhan’s hands hold him down. Hold him back. Waiting.
Wei Wuxian opens his eyes. He hadn’t, yet. Had kissed and ground up against Lan Zhan in the dark, mindlessly, and when he opens his eyes the world is still very dark. It’s not anywhere near dawn yet. There’s a storm going on outside - he can hear the wind whipping at the bamboo, the grumble of thunder, but no rain, not yet, not here. Not even the moon is awake anymore, and all that Wei Wuxian can really see is the wet shine of Lan Zhan’s mouth, the blurry, pale motion of his eyelids. Their faces are still very close. He’s still mostly on top of Lan Zhan, who’s breathing deep and ragged enough that it feels like being rocked in a boat.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers, and Wei Wuxian presses his fingers to the underside of Lan Zhan’s jaw, meaning to angle him upwards, to lick and suck along his throat, but Lan Zhan catches his hand. “Wei Ying,” he says again, a little louder this time, enough of a shift in tone that Wei Wuxian stills - listens - and shakes loose some of his haze.
“Did I hurt you?” Wei Wuxian whispers back. It’s hard to focus. He doesn’t think he went near the bandages, but he was touching Lan Zhan everywhere else he could reach, maybe his hand slipped. He’s so turned on that it hurts a little, his hips rocking just barely against Lan Zhan’s thigh, not nearly enough, and maybe Lan Zhan has the right idea of it after all. He goes to shift his lower half away, and one of Lan Zhan’s hands flies down and grabs hold of his hip, pinning him in place.
Wei Wuxian looks up, tries to find Lan Zhan’s eyes in the dark. For all that Wei Wuxian can read Lan Zhan’s emotions laid bare in his face and body language, his voice can sometimes be the most incomprehensible part of him. He wishes he could see the other’s face. He could read his fortune in Lan Zhan’s eyes, if only he could see.
“Wei Ying, what do you want?” Lan Zhan asks.
Don’t ask me things like this, Wei Wuxian wants to groan. Not like this. Not when you’re holding me like this.
“You didn’t hurt me,” Lan Zhan says. His thumb strokes over the thin bones of Wei Wuxian’s wrist. It’s the same hand he’d grabbed on Dafan Mountain. The same wrist he’d broken, probably, trying to stop the fall.
“Lan Zhan, please,” Wei Wuxian whispers, not quite knowing what he’s begging for. He lets his head fall forward onto Lan Zhan’s chest. Rubs his forehead back and forth against his skin. Lan Zhan is so tense underneath him that his muscles twitch from the effort of holding still. Lightning flashes across the ceiling of the Jingshi and Wei Wuxian lifts his head, just a second too late to see. Against his own, he feels Lan Zhan’s heart beat rapidly - four, five times, and then a roll of thunder follows behind.
Lan Zhan’s hands move to his waist, pulling him up a little closer, tucking Wei Wuxian against him. “I will let you go,” he says very softly, his mouth soft on Wei Wuxian’s neck, just underneath his ear. “If you wish it, I’ll let you go. Tomorrow, I’ll let you go. In five years, I’ll let you go. In twenty years, I’ll let you go. If you wish it.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. It’s a painful sort of noise, almost too soft to be heard. His arm slips around Lan Zhan’s shoulders. The other is pressed between them, his fingertips tracing the broken divots of Lan Zhan’s collarbone. “You love me that much?” he muses, and feels Lan Zhan inhale shakily.
“Always,” he promises. “Wei Ying, what do you want?”
He can feel the cliff edge beneath his feet, edging closer as if Lan Zhan is driving him towards it. But then, too: Lan Zhan’s warm arms around him, their legs entwined together, safety and danger twisting confusingly in his head, the risk as real and enormous as anything else he’s ever done.
“You,” Wei Wuxian says, helplessly. The answer tears itself out of him, wretched and nearly unwilling. He flinches as if he hadn’t said as much to Lan Zhan anyway in their letters - but it’s one thing to say it in a letter and another to say it in the dark, with no more distance between you, nothing to protect you from the things you want. “You, Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, Lan Er-ge, it’s always been you.”
Lan Zhan’s arms tighten, nearly crushing him, and it’s so good, it’s exactly what he wants - to be held and never let go of. Lan Zhan shudders underneath him, as raw as he’s made Wei Wuxian feel, and when he asks, “What else?” it sounds nearly like a sob.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “To do good,” he says breathlessly, and it comes a little easier this time. They made this promise together, after all. It’s the root of everything they are together, the people they remained despite everything else that came afterwards. “To defend the weak and stand for justice. You’re right, I can’t live any other way. I don’t want to.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, still laughing, and rocks them together, pushing at Lan Zhan as if they were still kids and could still tease this way. They meet each other halfway, as he reaches up and Lan Zhan reaches down, and in between kisses he says, “What else? What else do I need? Will you give me everything I ask for, then?”
“Anything you want,” Lan Zhan says, low and hungry sounding. Another lightning flash, another missed glance: Wei Wuxian’s teeth around his earlobe, Lan Zhan’s hand stroking down his belly. “Anything that’s mine to give.”
“Not everything is yours to give,” Wei Wuxian says, and for a moment they let it hang between them, breathing hard, their bodies shifting restlessly against each other. Three seconds, four. Thunder shakes the windows and the trees. Lan Zhan says nothing to that, because there’s nothing that can be said, nothing to make it less true.
“I want to fuck you,” Wei Wuxian blurts out, because that too is true, has always been true, and in the darkness he can say it too. He says it laughing, and, stumbling over the words, adds, “Or you can fuck me, that’s good too. Easier that way, since you’re hurt. You shouldn’t move so much anyway. Yeah, that - that would be good. We can do it so you don’t have to move at all. I’ll take care of you.”
“We take care of each other,” Lan Zhan says, which makes Wei Wuxian laugh harder, of course, of course, such a stubborn man.
“Yes, you fool, of course we take care of each other,” Wei Wuxian says, and covers his face with kisses. “For now, let me take care of you. That’s what I want. Right now, that’s what I want.”
“And after?” Lan Zhan asks.
This time, when lightning strikes, they’re looking right at each other. In the silence, before the thunder follows, Wei Wuxian makes no promises, says no words except one. He says, “Yes,” and somehow, Lan Zhan understands.
He peels Lan Zhan out of his clothes, piece by piece. They pull his arms out of his sleeping shirt and leave the untied fabric beneath him. The pants are even harder, and it takes both of them struggling before Wei Wuxian kneels between Lan Zhan’s thighs and lifts him bodily with one hand, which makes them both so hot that Wei Wuxian has to shove his own pants down around his thighs and press as much skin as he can to Lan Zhan’s, grind their cocks together. He forgets to take his own shirt off. He forgets how not to kiss Lan Zhan. He forgets that he wants to be fucked and nearly comes then and there, nearly lets Lan Zhan come too before he jerks away, laughing, touching each other nowhere except his hand circled around the base of Lan Zhan’s cock and Lan Zhan’s hand on his - not rubbing, just holding, catching their breath. He’s still on his knees between Lan Zhan’s thighs, his spine curved, one hand braced on the bed, his hair falling loose over his shoulders. Everywhere they aren’t touching aches in the best way, the sweet agony of anticipation.
He guides their cocks together, breathless and curious - not the full length of them, just the tips. Lan Zhan’s is so wet that he’s dripping down Wei Wuxian’s fingers. He gasps out loud when Wei Wuxian rubs them together, spreading that wetness against the hot, sensitive skin there, shoving his hips up just once before Wei Wuxian rears up and holds him down. “Stay still,” he tells him, as stern as he can manage when his voice is shaking, when all of his focus is on that excruciating point of contact, that fascinating slickness.
“Have you done this before?” Wei Wuxian asks. He’s only vaguely curious. He wants a moment to calm down more than he actually wants to know. He hasn’t, himself - been fucked, that is. He’s done other things, with other people. He became an exquisite masturbator with Nie Huaisang those months they were all young together in Cloud Recesses, laughing as they fingered each other. Wen Qing, sometimes, the two of them alone together at the end of the world, arguing over latrine placement and crop rotation, helping each other feel a little bit more alive.
Lightning illuminates the room: Lan Zhan on his back, his legs spread wide, his head thrown back, flushed all the way down his chest. The darkness nearly snatches the nod he makes, eyes shut tight. “Have you?” Wei Wuxian asks, surprised - or maybe not surprised, nothing so specific as that, just - some nameless squeeze of emotion. He lets up on teasing Lan Zhan just long enough to swirl his fingers through all that wetness and drag it down the rest of his shaft, curl curious fingers around his balls.
“Once,” Lan Zhan groans. He’s jerking Wei Wuxian off slowly, his other hand clenched his own thigh like he’s not sure what to do with it. He’s letting Wei Wuxian take care of him.
The emotion in Wei Wuxian’s heart bubbles up and identifies itself as happiness. “I’m glad,” he breathes, pressing his lips to Lan Zhan’s knee. “I’m glad you weren’t alone the whole time. Did you like it? Which way did you do it?” He lets go of Lan Zhan’s hip and reaches blindly for his face, his ears, looking to see if Lan Zhan blushes when he answers.
“Both ways,” Lan Zhan says, his earlobes hot between Wei Wuxian’s fingers. “It was - ahh, it was good.”
“Good,” Wei Wuxian echoes, pleased, pushing his cock into Lan Zhan’s grip, fucking his hand. He sinks his teeth into the soft part of Lan Zhan’s thigh, “good. We’ll do it the other way sometime too, when you’re better. I’ll make it good for you, Lan Zhan.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, and reaches for him - but, thrillingly, he doesn’t try to move, he’s listening, he’s wonderful. He makes faint complaining noises when Wei Wuxian just kisses his fingers and clambers over him to go rummage in his bag. He’d bought the oils early on in his travels, flush with money, bored with the road, and slowly stewing in Lan Zhan’s heated letters - remembering that he and his body had loved each other when they were young. How long it had been since his body had been anything but a tool for him, a way to move from place to place, an instrument to kill and defend with. He’d told Lan Zhan about it, of course, but only sideways: I’ve taken a few days to rest in town and intend to be hedonistic in every way I can. I’d paint you a picture if I could, if I knew how well you would receive it.
He’d kept himself decently stocked since then. Not as well as Nie Huaisang might, but Wei Wuxian was only a simple man on the road. He wanted to enjoy having a body again, with all the aches and delights that came along with it. Even the simple joy of masturbation - enough space in his ragged heart to feel pleasure, to feel like himself - had been overwhelming, like something precious he might not get to keep.
“Light a candle,” Lan Zhan says suddenly. Wei Wuxian pauses - squatting near the door next to his bag, naked from the waist down - and he listens as Lan Zhan shifts on the bed, barely audible. The Jingshi feels full to the brim with soft sounds and heavy expectations. He thinks, maybe, that the storm has arrived. That it’s starting to rain. “I want to see you,” Lan Zhan adds.
He lights the candle nearest to the bed. He sheds his shirt and returns, naked, bedclothes shifting under his knees as he straddles Lan Zhan’s hips. Lan Zhan’s knees are still up, and he settles his weight back against them, rests gratefully in the cradle of his body. In the candlelight, Lan Zhan is beautiful, every part of him gold and soft-edged. He sets a hand on Lan Zhan’s belly, above and below the bandages, feeling for tightness or heat. “Okay?” he asks.
“Good,” Lan Zhan answers. He’s staring at Wei Wuxian with his mouth a little open, his eyes heavy and stunned looking. It’s reassuring; Wei Wuxian feels stunned too. How many years have they wanted this? How many times had they turned away from each other, both of them knowing what the other felt, what he wanted?
He leans forward to kiss Lan Zhan. He has to. There’s no other option, now that he can, now that they’ve finally run out of reasons not to. They walked thousands of li away from each other only to find themselves back where they began, on the same familiar shore. Lan Zhan captures Wei Wuxian’s face in his hands, and kisses him like he knows exactly what Wei Wuxian is feeling, like he means to keep him for as long as Wei Wuxian wishes it. Wei Wuxian has to turn away after a few moments, happy and overcome, like his heart is trying to churn its way up and out of his throat.
He’s liberal with the oil, when he sits back up - pouring some onto his fingers, some on Lan Zhan’s cock, some on his own. It’s thin and slippery, and the sensation is so good. He’s so glad to be able to share it with Lan Zhan, to feel good together. His thighs tremble a little, pressing together hard enough that Lan Zhan’s hip bones dig into his skin. Everything feels so good. Lan Zhan’s hands, slick now with oil, work over Wei Wuxian’s cock and pet his stomach. He scratches blunt nails over Wei Wuxian’s thighs as Wei Wuxian works one finger into himself and then a second. It’s always surprising: how soft the skin is inside his body, how he can feel the muscles there gripping himself, giving way reluctantly. Lan Zhan props himself up on his elbows to watch intently, but he’s mostly looking at Wei Wuxian’s face. When Wei Wuxian catches his eye it hits him almost physically, dragging a startled groan out of his throat - how much he wants Lan Zhan’s eyes on him, always, always. He lifts his cock and balls in one hand, holding them out of the way so Lan Zhan can see, his face feeling hot, his whole body hot, his fingers moving wet and easy now, both of them falling into rhythm.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan begs, and Wei Wuxian has to hold him down all over again, laughing.
“You’re so impatient,” he scolds. “What’s the rush? You haven’t waited long enough, have you?” With his free hand pressing down on Lan Zhan’s hip, careful of his bandages, Lan Zhan can’t watch what he’s doing anymore - so he touches Wei Wuxian everywhere he can reach, the look on his face ferocious, his hands heavy and possessive, goading Wei Wuxian into giving way until finally he does, pulling his fingers free and wiping them clean on the hem of Lan Zhan’s sleep pants, crumpled up in the corner of the bed. Then the kiss of skin against skin. They hold their breath and let it out at the same time.
He always rushes this part, when it’s just him. Goes too fast, pushes in too deep. Lan Zhan’s hands go to hold him steady, curling at the line where his ass becomes his thighs, supporting his weight. “Yes,” Wei Wuxian breathes, meaning it’s good, it feels good, and thank you, and yes. Yes, finally. He moves his hips in a little circles, relishing how different it feels from his own fingers, the open stretch of his thighs almost as sweet as the stretch of Lan Zhan entering him.
“Don’t move,” he warns, his eyes closing, his head tipping back, letting Lan Zhan take his weight. “Lan Zhan, don’t move. Look at me. Don’t look away.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan answers, his hands flexing, his whole body shaking, “yes!”
He’s taken Lan Zhan into himself, as deep as he can go. The feeling is beyond words, beyond description - everything that matters is held between them, the way each thrust builds towards something obvious and inevitable, they way they fuck together. Lan Zhan holds so, so still beneath him, so good at following orders - panting harshly, sweat gleaming in the candlelight on his chest and his throat. Wei Wuxian is sweating too, his hair sticking to his neck and back. It feels good, the air cooler where it’s coming in through the window, sweet and wet in his mouth. It’s raining for real now, drowning out the noises they make for each other, the low, guttural sounds spilling from Wei Wuxian, the wooden shuddering of the bed beneath them. He’s braced mostly on his knees - one hand reaching behind himself, wrapped around Lan Zhan’s shin, the other just barely touching his chest - his feet underneath him like he’s running. His legs spread as wide as he can make them, and Lan Zhan pulls them even further apart, beyond words, begging him for more.
He watches Lan Zhan’s face as he fucks him, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow - greedily watching every shift in his expression, and like a good boy Lan Zhan watches him back. He never looks away, not even when Wei Wuxian does; he opens his eyes to catch Lan Zhan’s again, so obedient even though it looks almost like it hurts him to do it, to stay focused on Wei Wuxian. It’s a good hurt - a pain that Wei Wuxian can fix. “That’s it,” he grits out, his hips finding an angle so sweet he feels locked into it, driving them both towards that edge, hard and relentless, “that’s it, good boy, just like that, tilt your hips up just a - fuck, like that, you’re perfect, Lan Zhan -”
He’s almost there - he can feel orgasm gathering in the base of his stomach like the storm raging above them, stiffening his limbs, his balls tight up against his body, more of his weight dropping against Lan Zhan’s legs, his cock dripping with oil and his own slick - he thinks Lan Zhan is close too, his breath coming like he’s sobbing - he thinks maybe they can get there together. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian manages, everything he feels nearly choking the air out of him, “Lan Zhan, touch me, please, please -”
And they do. They take care of each other.
With the last bit of his mind he’s careful, so careful not to fall on top of Lan Zhan, not to touch his stomach or the bandages. He holds on. He drags air into his lungs. Their fingers are twined together, gently cradled around Wei Wuxian’s softening cock, wet with come and oil. Slowly - so slowly, so carefully, he curls his spine forward, gets close enough that Lan Zhan can put his arms around him. He tucks himself against Lan Zhan’s chest. They both wince when his cock slips free, and then - do nothing, not for a long time, listening to each other’s heartbeats slow, and the storm pass them by.
Wei Wuxian wakes, warm and comfortable and alone. He stares blearily across the rumpled sheets, the blanket tucked around his shoulders, his empty hand, palm up in the space where Lan Zhan should be. He can smell sex all around him: in the bedclothes, on his skin. He sits up slowly, enjoying the way he aches. The door to the Jingshi is open, and light spills across the floors.
He follows, one foot dragging behind the other, shrugging his red under robe over his bare shoulders as he goes. It’s early still, and the world outside is wet and dripping, the trees hanging still and soggy. Lan Zhan is there, as Wei Wuxian knew he would be: sitting as still as a jade statue in the little pavilion next to his home, sheltered from the rain by its eaves. He looks up when Wei Wuxian sits next to him. His hair is pulled loosely back, and he’s beautiful in the morning light, in any light. On the table in front of him is his forehead ribbon, Wei Wuxian’s flute, and a pot of tea, still steaming.
“Good morning,” he says, gathers his sleeve in his hand, and pours Wei Wuxian a cup of tea. There’s a cup in front of him too, nearly empty, so Wei Wuxian takes the pot from him, refills it. Lan Zhan taps the table with his fingertips, and they sit together in silence, listening to the rain drip off the roof.
For once in all of Wei Wuxian’s lives, he doesn’t have anything to say. Instead, he picks up the flute - smooths his fingertips down its surface, looking for dust and imperfections - raises it to his lips - and begins to play.