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Shall I leave you a gift, A-Zhan? asks his mother. Her smile is loving, but her eyes are flat, a strange, sharp light to them.

 

A-Zhan does not understand.

 

A gift? he asks.

 

Yes, A-Zhan. A very important gift.

 

Something about her bearing…troubles him.

 

But. This is Mother.

 

If it would please you, he says with a small bow of his head, as is proper when demonstrating gratitude.

 

It would please me very much, A-Zhan. You are such a good child. Such a good boy.

 

Her fingers lie warm upon his cheek for a single, blissful moment. Then they trail over his headband and to his brow. Trace soft lines, the ghosts of unknown characters; and he keeps his back straight and his hands still upon his lap and waits, patiently, for her to finish.

 

A-Zhan does not know their purpose, but has been taught of the power that characters can hold.

 

This is Mother.

 

The touch pauses. A light fingertip at precisely the centre of his forehead.

 

Trust in your mother, A-Zhan.

 

Unable to nod, he replies: Yes.

 

A single tap, and numbness spills down his body like springwater. Neck, wrists, thighs. A metamorphosis. An erosion.

 

A breeze brushes gentle against his skin. There is no warmth to it; only the cold of the unyielding wood beneath his knees.

 

This is Mother, he tells himself, thoughts strangely distant. Mother would only ever help me.

 

She lifts her finger away and it glistens, crystalline, in the sunlight.

 

Ah, you are much safer like this. So much safer. My A-Zhan.

 

The frost-encrusted finger curls, joining her others in a tight, shaking fist. Cold as her eyes are burning.

 

You will be safe now. Do you understand?

 

Yes, Mother, he says.

 

What have you done to me? he does not.

 

The next three minutes are the last he ever spends with her.

 

~

 

Lan Wangji folds his hands atop the lacquered wood of the writing-desk, one thumb resting upon the hinge of the other, fingers forming a perfect lattice.

 

Be as the steadfast trees before the rushing wind, he recites. As the rooted boulder within the swift rapids. As the—

 

‘Lan Zhan!’

 

His eyes remain, unflinchingly, closed.

 

As the tranquil pool undisturbed by falling droplets. As the cool stone untouched by fire.

 

‘Are you ignoring me? So rude of you, Second Young Master Lan! So heartless!’

 

Something brushes against his cheek and he flinches away from it, eyes snapping open. Wei Wuxian, First Disciple of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, leans in through the library’s open window, obstructing its tableau of a flawless porcelain sky. One hand is braced against its frame, the other extended, waving the delicate young fern that had touched Lan Wangji’s skin.

 

Lan Wangji wants to snatch it from his grip and crush it.

 

It would be disgraceful. Unforgivably childish. Yet — so pleasing.

 

‘Finally, you woke up! Lan Zhan, you know, you were so still that I thought you had died where you sat. Were you even breathing?’

 

‘Impudent,’ he replies coldly. Perhaps if he infuses enough ice into his words, they will freeze that blinding, capricious smile, as they have to so many others.

 

They do not, of course. After a mere three days’ acquaintance, Lan Wangji is already gaining a sense of the sheer depth of Wei Wuxian’s incomprehensibility; attempting to interpret his actions can only ever end in humiliating defeat. And a blinding headache.

 

Accordingly, it is with a smile grown only brighter that Wei Wuxian vaults in effortlessly through the window. And even as Lan Wangji returns his gaze to his readings, he knows it to be a futile gesture.

 

Displays of disinterest to not deter Wei Wuxian; if anything, they incite him, driving him to new extremes to recapture Lan Wangji’s attention.

 

It is inexplicable.

 

Lan Wangji cannot comprehend what has led Wei Wuxian to take such a determined interest in him. He has made no overtures towards friendship, and none in particular to enmity — only dispensed discipline when it was required. In every respect, he has acted as he customarily would. And customarily, this is met with formal civility, deference, or dislike, with Xichen the only exception.

 

Lan Wangji does not particularly mind any of those three reactions. They he can understand to a certain extent, even if he never has been adept at reading others.

 

Wei Wuxian’s behaviour…

 

It makes him feel like a weaver, staring down at two dozen different colours of fine silken thread snarled into an incomprehensible tangle large enough to fill his Jingshi. Overwhelmed by dizzying, formless disorder.

 

Lan Wangji does not know where to begin; he should stop attempting to do so.

 

And he would. If only Wei Wuxian would leave him alone.

 

‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei Wuxian wheedles. Lan Wangji hears the clatter and thud of him sprawling by the desk, but does not look away from the columns of calligraphy above his folded hands. Their neat order is comforting, in the face of Wei Wuxian’s presence. The sight of it eases a degree of the tension tightening his spine, just slightly, fingers relaxing on the strings of a guqin.

 

Then ink-black hair spills across the page, and both the perfection of the calligraphy and Lan Wangji’s precious moment of inner peace are ruined.

 

Wei Wuxian is leaning in to peer at the words. He is so close that Lan Wangji’s every breath must brush against the shell of his ear, but Lan Wangji will not show his discomfort. Will not betray another weakness to be exploited.

 

‘Poetry?’ Wei Wuxian exclaims, with incredulous delight. Lan Wangji refuses to be self-conscious.

 

‘The Midnight Songs are an expected area of study.’

 

‘It’s love poetry? Hey, Lan Zhan — are you a romantic? I would never have guessed!’

 

In silence, Lan Wangji shifts the position of his hands, minutely. Their angle is now more precisely parallel.

 

‘Ah, here. Let me see. Where could such kindred hearts join?’ Wei Wuxian reads, voice breathy and trembling with affected longing but laced, unmistakably, with a laugh.

 

On the west ridge, beneath that cypress,
sheltered by four walls of dazzling light,
There, bitter frost will—
’ 

 

Throughout the stanza, Wei Wuxian has been inching forwards and craning his neck further until he has twisted over entirely. He lounges half-on the desk, head resting upon the book. Utterly shameless, beaming up at Lan Wangji, eyes like polished jetstone glittering with amusement at his expense.

 

Halfway through a line, Lan Wangji jerks his hands away, rises swiftly to his feet. Turns, heedless of the shame in what could be perceived as his retreat.

 

He must leave. Must leave, must return to a space quiet and safe and — crucially — without Wei Wuxian in it, to re-order his thoughts and settle a mind which has descended into unforgivable disarray.

 

It should not matter how Wei Wuxian provokes him. He is a disciple of Gusu Lan. There is no excuse for disorder.

 

‘Wait, wait, wait!’ comes the requisite protest, carried upon a laugh and a scramble. ‘Don’t run off, come on, why was my reading so offensive to you? I poured my heart and soul into it, how cold—’

 

Lan Wangji hears the approach of light quick staccato footsteps and knows what is going to happen an instant before it does. Pulls his wrist from the path of Wei Wuxian’s reaching hand and turns on him — angry as he cannot recall ever being, pushed past the limits of his control.

 

If Wei Wuxian touched his skin—

 

If Wei Wuxian found out his most secret weakness—

 

He cannot complete the thought.

 

Can only, in his panic and discomposure, command — sharply intense, with far too much emotion — ‘Do not touch me.’

 

Something flickers in dark eyes. A responding lick of flame. Lan Wangji cannot put a name to it — but it angers him, angers him as does the small satisfied curl to Wei Wuxian’s mouth, as does the shameless pout which replaces it.

 

Lan Wangji cannot understand him.

 

Lan Wangji cannot control him.

 

Lan Wangji is going to be driven mad.

 

‘Aiyah, Lan Zhan,’ Wei Wuxian whines. ‘You are so heartless! I wouldn’t stain your perfect self just by touching you. And my hands are clean, I swear!’ He holds them up. Lan Wangji pauses just long enough to note that his long fingers are, in truth, darkened by dirt.

 

He may escape the room, but he cannot escape Wei Wuxian’s mocking laughter.

 

~

 

Lan Wangji has always considered his classes a restful experience. Much of the content is already familiar to him, of course; but sitting silently in the sunlit Lanshi, immersed in the serenity of studious learning — the muted rustling of a page, the careful stroke of a brush — there, he finds a quiet enjoyment.

 

Then his classes come to include Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji finds himself in danger of forgetting the meaning of quiet or studious or restful.

 

Yunmeng Jiang’s First Disciple is like a tempest found human form. Erratic, restless, wild and uncontainable. Focused solely upon his own amusement, to the detriment of others. He distracts Jiang Wanyin, distracts Nie Huaisang; even distracts Lan Wangji, though he would never admit to it. Derails the lessons over and over again until Lan Qiren inevitably sentences him to copying the sect rules. It has taken less than a ten-day for Wei Wuxian’s expulsion from the classroom to become an almost daily ritual.

 

And Lan Wangji is always left to supervise.

 

Leaving him, for hours upon end, Wei Wuxian’s sole source of entertainment. Anyone would consider it a most unenviable position, and Lan Wangji is no exception.

 

Chastisement does not work. Each repetition of ‘Improper’, or ‘Ridiculous’, or ‘Shameful’, merely widens the pleased curve of Wei Wuxian’s smile. Lan Wangji almost comes to wonder if such words are somehow considered compliments in Yunmeng. It is as deeply discomforting, he imagines, as running Bichen through a fierce corpse and having it thank him for his trouble.

 

Use of his sect’s Silencing Spell is equally futile. He would even call it detrimental, as it merely encourages Wei Wuxian to resort to nonverbal means of diverting his attention. And those are — far worse. Recalling that shameful book, the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears prickle strangely, an echo of what had then infused his entire face.

 

Having exhausted all two options known to him — discounting violence, which is tempting, but nevertheless against the rules — Lan Wangji sits, completes his work as well as he can, and tries, quietly, to not lose his mind.

 

Thus far, Wei Wuxian has loudly composed a poem to his favourite type of rice wine, drawn a rather unflattering image of Lan Qiren, and told a number of increasingly lewd tales. Lan Wangji has borne it all in silence, made passive by resignation.

 

This seems to affect Wei Wuxian where none of his rebukes ever had.

 

Inexplicable, as ever. Lan Wangji should not be surprised.

 

The childish pout makes a return, and eventually Wei Wuxian grows entirely silent in a manner both blissful and troubling. He leans his head upon his fist and stares as if Lan Wangji is an unidentified talisman he wishes to decipher, until Lan Wangji is feeling well and truly unsettled.

 

And then it begins.

 

‘Lan Zhan,’ says Wei Wuxian, inching slowly closer, ‘you’ve spilled ink on your sleeve, look!’ With snakelike speed, his hand darts out to catch Lan Wangji’s wrist.

 

Lan Wangji is faster. He pulls it away, glaring.

 

Briefly, Wei Wuxian stills, before a slow smile reveals his large white teeth one by one.

 

A word rises to the forefront of Lan Wangji’s mind. Not a civilised word. Not one that he should even be aware of. Definitely not one the sect rules would ever allow him to verbalise, but perhaps he might make an exception, just this once. He thinks that he might deserve it.

 

He looks again at Wei Wuxian’s expression and revises that. He undoubtedly would deserve it.

 

‘Lan Zhan,’ begins the next attack on his person, a bare handful of minutes later. ‘The breeze has made such a mess of your hair! Here, I’ll fix it for you before someone else sees.’

 

Then, ‘Lan Zhan! There’s a bug on your neck!’

 

‘Lan Zhan, my head is so heavy from all this endless studying, let me rest it on your shoulder.’

 

‘Lan Zhan, the way you hold your brush is so strange, what are they teaching in Gusu? See, this is how you do it…’

 

Wei Wuxian’s excuses flow in a ceaseless river. And all of them, without fail, are engineered to touch Lan Wangji.

 

Wei Wuxian is smart, and quick, and bored; once or twice, he almost succeeds.

 

Ultimately, Lan Wangji keeps his secret, but not without sacrifice. The perfection of his hair. The array of his robes. His composure. Dignity. Temper. Soon, his place in the sect.

 

Because he is going to murder Wei Wuxian.

 

It is perhaps fortuitous that Lan Xichen enters the Library Pavilion when he does, in search of his brother for their weekly tea in the Hanshi. Lan Wangji does not truly wish to be expelled from Gusu. He knows that, intellectually.

 

But on another level, watching Wei Wuxian roll cackling at his feet, borrowed white robes in wild disarray, tears beading at the corners of his eyes, he thinks that it might be worth it.

 

‘My,’ says Lan Xichen, and smiles. ‘How lively.’

 

Lan Wangji turns his gaze onto his brother. Slowly.

 

Lively is a strange choice of descriptor. He himself would have selected noisy. Stressful, perhaps. Nightmarish.

 

And Lan Xichen laughs at him.

 

He coughs slightly to hide it, conceals it behind an elegantly raised hand. But Lan Wangji knows that lift to his brows, and the damage is done.

 

Lan Wangji straightens his back, straightens his robes, straightens his hair piece, and leaves the room as swiftly as he can without outright running, before he commits two crimes against the sanctity of his sect.

 

~

 

‘Your headband is still crooked.’

 

Lan Wangji evades the approaching hand with a skill practiced enough to be graceful despite his current condition, which is…less than favourable.

 

No matter how he blinks, the odd numbing sheen will not clear from his vision. All of his limbs seem both larger and heavier than usual. The sour taste of wine still lingers upon his tongue, his lips, within his chest. Spreads strangely throughout his body.

 

‘What are you doing?’

 

Wei Wuxian gives him an injured look, widening his large eyes further.

 

‘I just want to help you adjust it. Why are you so nervous?’

 

‘The headband is of great significance to me.’ Lan Wangji lowers his gaze. The matter must be afforded its due solemnity, regardless of his condition. ‘Nobody may touch it except my parents, partner, and children.’

 

Wei Wuxian reacts with a predictable lack of respect — snorting out his wine and reaching up again, as if Lan Wangji had not spoken. Lan Wangji bats him away with his cloth-wrapped wrist.

 

‘Why do you always wish to touch me?’ he asks, driven to exasperation. Wei Wuxian’s grin is bright in the half-light.

 

‘What, don’t you like it, Lan Zhan?’

 

Don’t know. He has not felt another’s touch in over a decade.

 

In place of responding, he carefully adjusts his headband. A Lan must be neat at all times. A Lan must diligently uphold that. A Lan is not avoiding the question; no, that would be childish.

 

‘You don’t like it when I touch you?’ Wei Wuxian persists, leaping up onto the bed by Lan Wangji. Bracing a hand just by his thigh, Wei Wuxian leans his weight upon it, comes so close that his hair swings down and brushes against Lan Wangji’s forearm. His head falls to the side, bares the sharp, sweeping angle of his jaw. The sight makes something strange twist inside Lan Wangji.

 

He simply decides to not think about it. Summons his best quelling look. ‘Wei Wuxian.’

 

‘Ah-ah. Wei Ying.’

 

Lan Wangji stares at him vacantly. Is he playing some sort of game?

 

‘Wei Ying,’ Wei Wuxian repeats, more insistently. ‘Come on, Lan Zhan, call me Wei Ying. Do it. For your Wei-gege? Please?’

 

He is inching closer and closer, as Lan Wangji leans further and further away to escape him. He must stop his advance — he is not sure how much further back he can lean without falling. That would be embarrassing. The last thing he wants.

 

What would Wei Wuxian do if that happened? Would he watch, and laugh? Or would he follow him down, hovering over him, trapping him—

 

No, Lan Wangji cannot consider it. Does not want to consider it.

 

So he relents.

 

‘…Wei Ying.’

 

‘Good boy, good boy. That wasn’t so hard, was it?’

 

Lan Wangji turns his face away. The air feels strange against his skin.

 

‘Not a dog,’ he replies.

 

‘Hm?’

 

‘Not a…good boy.’

 

‘Oh? Lan-er-gege is a bad boy, then?’

 

Lan Wangji glares. Not what he had meant.

 

‘No.’

 

‘Alright, alright!’ Wei Ying laughs, collapsing down to lounge on his elbow, to smile up at Lan Wangji. One hand plays with the hem of Lan Wangji’s sleeve, tugging it between clever fingers. ‘Sorry! Don’t be angry, I’ll stop.’

 

Lan Wangji does not know what to say, so does not speak. And uncommonly, neither does Wei Ying; he sinks into a strange mood as he fiddles with the fine white fabric, face becoming blank and still. Seeing him so expressionless is — odd. Almost regrettable. Though Lan Wangji does not know what he did to cause it, or if it was he that did.

 

By the time Wei Ying finally speaks, Lan Wangji has been enveloped by a swirling shimmering haze. His quiet words take a moment to sink through.

 

‘Why don’t you want to be touched, Lan Zhan?’

 

Lan Wangji blinks. Struggles to parse through his tone, his meaning. It was seriously intended this time, he thinks; an honest question. Not something meant to unsettle him. He cannot think of a reason not to answer, though Wei Ying still does not look at him.

 

‘Don’t.’ Lan Wangji breathes in softly through the haze, thinks of a soundless memory — ice glittering on Xichen’s far smaller hand, rounded by childhood. Startled fear flashing through his widened eyes. ‘Want to hurt anyone.’

 

Wei Ying’s fingers stop.

 

‘What?’

 

The word manages, barely, to travel through the mist pressing upon Lan Wangji’s ears. Its meaning does not. Lan Wangji cannot connect it to a previous idea, cannot recall what the previous idea was. Can only sit motionlessly in the eddying numbing haze which encompasses him, and try not to disturb it further. It is dizzying enough already.

 

‘Lan Zhan, what are you talking about? What do you mean, hurt? Who would you hurt?’

 

Wei Ying’s face is close, suddenly, features a little twisted — as if concerned — but Lan Wangji cannot think about that. Can only think about close and curse and hurt.

 

With a wordless sound of displeasure, he turns away. ‘Don’t,’ he says, the word strange and small in his ears. ‘Don’t.’

 

There is a pause, and then a whisper.

 

‘Okay. Okay, Lan Zhan, I won’t. I won’t touch you any more, I promise.’

 

Lan Wangji does not understand most of it, but hears the promise, and nods.

 

He breathes in. Breathes out. The sound rushes through the mist.

 

Something presses against his arm, and he thinks, I must move away from itDid I? — the touch has disappeared. Must have.

 

He knows a yielding softness beneath his head, and nothing more.

 

~

 

Something has happened to Wei Ying.

 

What, exactly, Lan Wangji cannot say — his behaviour is different. The change is not striking. It took a number of days for him to notice, but is present, unmistakably; because while Wei Ying continues to provoke him at every opportunity —

 

Even in the Cold Springs when he could have wanted warming. Even at the Lantern Festival when he could have corrected Lan Wangji’s hold. Even at a dozen other moments which Lan Wangji had warily identified —

 

Wei Ying had not tried to touch him.

 

Of course, Lan Wangji is glad for it, yet it confuses him. Unnerves him slightly.

 

At one point, he realised, suddenly, that he might have confessed too much in his drunken state. One afternoon’s observation had driven it from his mind; the way Wei Ying looks at him is not the way one looks at the bearer of a curse. In the rare moments when he is not aiming to elicit a reaction from Lan Wangji, he merely appears thoughtful, as if parsing through some puzzle known to no-one but himself.

 

And even Wei Ying’s provocations have come to seem harmless, in the face of the conduct of the Qishan Wen Sect.

 

While the Wen Sect has always sent representatives to participate in Gusu’s teachings, following the tradition of powerful sects, of late it has become increasingly evident that they resent the implications of another sect deigning to teach them anything.

 

Wen Chao has been particularly offensive. He displays none of the dignity and compassion befitting the son of a sect leader, preferring to revel in his perceived superiority to those he deems less fortunate. Though his behaviour during lessons does not reach a level that necessitates his dismissal, it is ill-natured in a way that Wei Ying’s is not, fuelled by arrogance rather than freedom of spirit.

 

Lan Wangji is prepared to silently bear indignity of it, for the sake of peace.

 

However — his tolerance is not limitless.

 

When, one cool grey morning, his patrol of the forest’s outer edges brings him upon Wen Chao and a cluster of his red-robed cultivators ringing Wei Ying and his friends, swords in hand — when he sees the stiff, defensive set of Wei Ying’s body, the bitter curl to his smile — Lan Wangji can no longer stand by.

 

‘Unauthorised fights are forbidden within the Cloud Recesses.’

 

Crimson robes flare like falling petals as a dozen cultivators whip around to face him. Beneath their shock, he remains still as the trees which surround him, eyes resting steadily upon their leader.

 

‘Second Young Master Lan.’ Wen Chao’s tone barely passes for civil, and he does not so much as incline his head. ‘This is business of the Qishan Wen. It doesn’t concern you or the Lan Sect.’

 

Wei Ying’s incredulous laugh rings loud through the forest, and Wen Chao’s lips twist into something ugly.

 

‘Doesn’t concern the Lan Sect? You’re guests of Lan, within Lan territory! Tell me, how is it not their concern?’

 

Jiang Wanyin, who is looming behind Wei Ying, gives a warning hiss of his name, his hand tightening on his sword; and Nie Huaisang, who is hovering, brings his fan anxiously to his mouth.

 

‘Do you not see this blatant disrespect?’ Wen Chao demands, flinging out an arm. ‘How can I not discipline him? Are you asking me to simply stand by and allow this?’

 

‘Hey, Lan Zhan. Teach this yapping dog that respect must be earned, will you?’

 

Wen Chao purples.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ Lan Wangji says, evenly. Wen Chao speaks over him.

 

‘This is unforgivable, Lan Zhan. It will be considered a slight against the Wen Sect if—’

 

‘And what about your slights against the Jiang Sect, ah?’ Wei Ying interrupts, voice grown hard with sudden anger. ‘Against the Lan? Insulting my shijie and using Second Young Master Lan’s personal name without permission, such shameful acts! How will that speak for Qishan Wen, I wonder?’

 

Wen Chao turns on him with a snarl, and Lan Wangji leaps over, flying above the ring of cultivators and landing lightly by Wei Ying’s side. He brings his sword, pointedly, before his waist.

 

Wen Chao draws back. For a moment it seems that the coming conflict may have been averted.

 

Then Wei Ying says: ‘Hah, so much for competing with the sun for radiance! You couldn’t compete with one single fucking glow-worm, Wen Chao.’

 

‘Wei Wuxian!’ snaps Jiang Wanyin, darting forwards to seize his arm. He shrugs him off, eyes dark upon Wen Chao, who stares back, an ominous stillness to his bearing.

 

‘Alright, Wei Ying.’ He nods slowly, half-smile spreading into an unhinged slash. ‘Alright. You like to laugh, don’t you? I’d like to see how you laugh after this—

 

And he is striding forwards, a weapon in his hands that Lan Wangji recognises as a branding iron, its head steaming, glowing red as a lantern — thrusts it towards Wei Ying’s chest — and Lan Wangji steps forwards and catches it in his hand. It hisses, angry and reptilian, as exclamations tear from a half-dozen throats.

 

Lan Wangji ignores them.

 

‘Childish displays,’ he says, slowly and deliberately, tightening his grip upon the branding iron until he can feel every last line of it imprinting upon his palm, ‘are forbidden.’

 

Wen Chao’s grip slackens upon the brand. Shock, humiliation, fear, and resentment tangle across his face, as his gaze darts from Lan Wangji’s unmoving one to the pale steam curling between his fingers to a point over his shoulder and back.

 

Lan Wangji waits, motionless.

 

The brand drops to the grass. Wen Chao spins with a swirl of his needlessly ostentatious robes and hurries away, followed by all but one of his disciples.

 

In the single breath of silence that follows, Lan Wangji flexes his hand.

 

There is no resistance to the movement, no pain; and while he knows, logically, that it should have been searing, the metal pressing into his skin had felt nothing but cool.

 

‘Lan Zhan!’ Wei Ying exclaims, crashing into his side. His hands fist in the material at Lan Wangji’s shoulder, tightly enough to hurt. ‘Ai, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, why did you do that? Are you alright? We need a healer, someone send—’

 

The remaining Wen cultivator steps forwards. ‘I’m a healer. Let me see to it.’

 

Her expression is forbidding, disapproval in the tight set of her lips. Whether it is directed at him, or at Wen Chao, Lan Wangji cannot say. He recognises her to be Wen Qing, the most hardworking of her sect’s representatives, whose medical skill is gaining increasing renown throughout the cultivation world; she has not participated in any of the disrespect of her clan, and Lan Wangji has no reason to not respect her.

 

Nevertheless.

 

‘It is not necessary,’ he tells her.

 

Wei Ying releases an unsteady exhale when he displays his hand, unmarred aside for a faint impression of the blazing sun motif. His strangling grip on Lan Wangji’s clothes relaxes, but does not withdraw, and he gives a laugh far more subdued than usual. ‘As expected of you, Lan Zhan. You really are the most impressive.’

 

Lan Wangji finds himself feeling, for the first time in the entire span of their acquaintance, grateful for Wei Ying’s inclination towards ceaseless chatter — Wen Qing’s frown had merely deepened upon seeing Lan Wangji’s lack of injury, and her gaze is discomfortingly sharp.

 

‘Ah, but you know, I’m disappointed,’ Wei Ying sighs, his voice slightly brighter. ‘I really thought I had learned all your ten thousand rules! That last one about childish displays, I didn’t remember it at all — aiyah, and I’ve probably broken it so many times…’

 

Lan Wangji looks at him serenely. ‘Wen Chao would not know,’ he says.

 

Wei Ying stares back for a beat, uncomprehending. Then he laughs, as loud and vibrant as ever, and curls his other hand around Lan Wangji’s elbow, pressing himself almost bodily to his arm. It is over cloth and therefore harmless, so while Lan Wangji stiffens at the contact, he does not shake him off. He does not have the heart to douse the light in Wei Ying’s eyes, so newly returned.

 

‘Look at you! Who would have thought that Second Young Master Lan could break the rules so calmly? And for a merciless scolding like that — ah, Wen Chao will never recover—’

 

He cuts off with a squawk as his brother yanks him roughly by the ear, and reels backwards, yelping like a puppy. Lan Wangji takes an instinctive step after him.

 

‘Look at you, clinging to him so brazenly!’ Jiang Wanyin barks. ‘Where is your shame, Wei Wuxian? And what were you thinking? You would’ve been seriously injured if Lan Wangji hadn’t saved your worthless ass!’

 

Wei Ying wriggles nimbly from his grip. ‘I lost my shame, A-Cheng,’ he replies mournfully, as he rubs at his ear. ‘Will you help me find it?’

 

‘You—!’

 

‘No fighting,’ says Lan Wangji. Jiang Wanyin glances at him, huffs, and grabs Wei Ying by the collar.

 

‘Second Young Master Lan,’ he says, with a short sketch of a bow. ‘Thank you for helping my idiot brother.’ He then tows Wei Ying away, deaf to his loudly vocalised displeasure. Nie Huaisang hurries after them, with the occasional darting glance back at Lan Wangji.

 

He is not left alone.

 

‘That was a spiritual weapon,’ says Wen Qing. ‘No matter how high your cultivation is, it should have left a mark.’

 

Lan Wangj had hoped, evidently in vain, that she would have let the matter rest. He prepares himself for defence.

 

‘I am fine.’

 

She raises her brows in unconcealed, unapologetic disbelief, and holds out her hand. ‘I’ll decide that for myself, Young Master Lan.’

 

Lan Wangji thinks that she must believe him to have somehow hidden his injuries, and will not relent until she has discovered and treated them. It is an honourable intention, of course, but in this situation…inconvenient.

 

‘Young Mistress Wen,’ he says, more firmly. ‘There is no need.’

 

‘Isn’t there?’

 

Lan Wangji looks away in silence, which leaves plenty of space for Wen Qing’s pointed sigh.

 

‘Young Master Lan, I promise you, if there is a secret that must be kept I will keep it. Let me see.’

 

She thrusts her hand further forwards, and somehow — Lan Wangji relents. Perhaps it is the knowledge that she will not soon back down, and that it will be beyond his ability to easily extract himself from the situation. Perhaps it is a desire to avoid causing further tension with the Wen Sect than he already has. Perhaps there is something in her brusque, efficient manner that makes him want to defer to her, to trust in her, to allow her to assist him.

 

Perhaps he has simply grown tired of hiding.

 

He watches her face carefully as she takes his ceded hand in her own, as frost webs out from the contact and she drops it as if burned, stepping swiftly away.

 

‘A curse?’

 

Lan Wangji nods. 

 

‘A powerful one,’ she says quietly, studying the lace-like dusting upon her skin. It takes only a moment for it to melt away in the morning sun, the only evidence of its existence a fleeting wisp of vapour. Her eyes lift to his, and narrow, but only in thought.

 

‘How long have you had it?’ she asks.

 

And Lan Wangji thinks that something in him might begin to hope, just a little.

 

~

 

As companions in study, Wen Qing and Wei Ying could not be more different.

 

Wen Qing is neat enough to rival Lan Wangji, carefully stacking her books and scrolls by a straightforwardly logical system. Her concentration is unbreakable, her voice only heard when absolutely necessary, and her focus is a perfect complement to his own.

 

It is…strange. Unusually so. Evidently, Lan Wangji has become far too accustomed to constant disruption, which must be why he occasionally glances up to check why Wei Ying is being so worryingly silent, and feels a disconcerting jolt in his stomach when his eyes do not find him.

 

After a thorough questioning of Lan Wangji, and a handful of days’ research, Wen Qing sought permission to study the effects of the curse by practical means. Eventually, Lan Wangji had given it. He trusts Wen Qing to be careful of her own health — she seems more sensible in that regard than most — and despite his intrinsic aversion to touch, he knows that there are no other avenues of study left to them within the Cloud Recesses.

 

‘Looking closely, it doesn’t appear to be unusual in itself.’

 

Eyes upon the frost seeping up Wen Qing’s fingers, Lang Wangji gives a short hum of acknowledgement. Two of them lie upon his wrist, as if to check the rhythm of his blood; the objectively clinical manner of it has lessened his discomfort at the contact, if not dispelled it entirely.

 

‘The patterns formed are just like those of normal ice,’ she continues, leaning down to study it more closely. Lan Wangji suppresses an instinctive flinch. ‘Although—’

 

Her sentence, along with all semblance of serenity, is abruptly shattered by the door slamming open. Through it bursts Wei Ying, along with his bright voice. ‘Lan Zhan! I’ve been looking everywhere for you, I…’

 

Though Wen Qing is faultlessly swift in removing her hand and straightening her spine, the way that Wei Ying falters to a stop makes Lan Wangji suspect that more was seen than he would have preferred.

 

‘Ah, Wen Qing,’ he says, and smiles, polite in a way that leaves Lan Wangji feeling vaguely concerned. ‘I didn’t know that you would be here?’

 

‘Wei Wuxian.’ By the way she eyes him, his unusual courtesy has not escaped her notice either. ‘I could say the same to you.’

 

Her gaze then flicks over to Lan Wangji. He is learning, if slowly, to read the messages hidden within her features, transferring the skill away from his brother for the first time in his life; and she is asking him a silent question, to which he gives a slight nod. She quirks a brow somewhat dubiously, as most do upon witnessing Lan Wangji willingly spend time with Wei Ying, but stands to leave nonetheless.

 

‘Then, I will…leave you to it.’

 

Lan Wangji rises to return her bow. ‘Thank you for your assistance.’

 

Her smile is brief but beautiful, lending the somewhat sharp planes of her face an elegance comparable to the mist-wreathed heights of Gusu — and it disappears abruptly the moment her eyes catch upon Wei Ying.

 

With the same air carried by Lan Qiren moments after he has ejected Wei Ying from the classroom for the seventh time in one ten-day, she turns upon her heel and sweeps away.

 

It does not leave Lan Wangji feeling…especially confident.

 

And upon seeing Wei Ying’s expression, he finds that his is unease is, unfortunately, far from unfounded.

 

‘Lan Zhan, you sly fox,’ Wei Ying says, sauntering closer as his tone once more floods Lan Wangji’s ears with that odd tingling sensitivity. ‘Deceiving such a beauty into spending time alone with you, how scandalous! However did one so boring manage it? Quickly, quickly — tell me your secret.’

 

Lan Wangji retakes his seat, and carefully arranges his sleeves.

 

‘I did not deceive her,’ he replies stiltedly. He is perfectly aware of what Wei Ying is implying, but can only hope that if he pretends not to, it will go away.

 

‘Hey! I know.’ Wei Ying holds up a finger, before tapping it against his temple in a slow, thoughtful motion that makes Lan Wangji’s jaw tighten. He knows that gesture; has seen it used time and time again, when Wei Ying wishes to humiliate an adversary he has judged particularly irksome.

 

He has never once used it against Lan Wangji.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ he warns quietly.

 

Wei Ying ignores him.

 

‘Surely, it must be all thanks to me! Lan Zhan, you should be so grateful. Didn’t I give you the opportunity to show off your peerless chivalry? Perhaps I should become a matchmaker! Ah, Lan-er-gege, your children will be so beautiful—’

 

‘Enough.’ The prickling sensation has spread all the way down his neck and to his chest. His fingers, curled over the book which he had next intended to read, are forebodingly white, but he cannot bring himself to slacken his grip.

 

‘What? Are my words making Second Young Master Lan uncomfortable? Sorry, sorry…But, Lan Zhan, these are things you really must know if you wish to be married, or else your poor wife will be left so unsatisfied—’

 

‘Wei Ying!

 

Lan Wangji is an inch away from slamming his hand upon the table, but his voice had cut through the air with equal sharpness. A shameful loss of control, but he is not given space to regret it.

 

‘I have a good idea! How about I lend you another book?’ There is a look in Wei Ying’s eyes that Lan Wangji has not seen before as he sinks down to kneel at his side, the motion graceful as ever. He leans in close, close enough for his breath to brush against Lan Wangji’s ear, the sensation disconcertingly acute, as his voice falls low and sultry. ‘Or could it be that the esteemable Second Young Master Lan has already been educated in such matters?’

 

His fingers trail down Lan Wangji’s arm, drawing near to the bare skin of his hand. Lan Wangji watches them, his breaths speeding, and for a moment he is frozen. Overwhelmed.

 

Wei Ying’s index finger slides languidly over the curve of bone at the back of his wrist. Traces the hem of his sleeve, and—

 

Lan Wangji tears his hand away. Shoots to his feet. Stares down at Wei Ying’s mocking grin, and he is breathless, he is hurt.

 

Why is Wei Ying pushing him so? He had thought — had thought them to be friends, or at least something approaching it, but the twist of Wei Ying’s smile is almost cruel.

 

He wants to say, You have gone too far.

 

To say, Did you not call us close?

 

Say, Have you merely been playing with me, then, for all this time?

 

He says nothing.

 

He leaves, in confused, angry, painful silence, and Wei Ying does not follow.

 

~

 

Lan Wangji had not realised just how much Wei Ying looked at him until he stopped doing it entirely.

 

Previously, he had always been watching, assessing, devising the best way to irritate and fluster Lan Wangji, and then glorying in the result of his endeavours. His lively gaze had been an unfamiliar and discomforting weight, one that Lan Wangji had not noticed until it was gone.

 

And now, whenever Wei Ying’s eyes skip over him, flicker away from him, drop quickly to the ground, he feels lightened by it; not in a way that brings him relief, but one that makes him feel like a lantern released from the anchoring safety of careful hands, left helplessly adrift in endless, all-encompassing cloud.

 

After some thought, Lan Wangji determines that it his emotions are merely a reaction to the sudden loss of what had previously been constant companionship, as jarring as its initial advent had been. This realisation makes him all the more grateful for Wen Qing. He has adjusted to her presence with surprising ease; and she seems to mind his perpetual coldness as little as Wei Ying did, though she seems content with his silence, rather than seeking to fill it with mindless chatter.

 

She appears similarly indifferent to the anger of her cousin. Wen Chao has made a point of curling his lip whenever he sees her in Lan Wangji’s company, and Lan Wangji is aware that he has attempted to reprimand her on the subject at least once. Her reaction to such an indignity is not difficult to imagine, with the result being a visible increase in Wen Chao’s resentment towards the both of them.

 

Lan Wangji had not paid it much mind. Wen Chao is an average cultivator at best, and his swordsmanship is hardly better; moreover, he surely would not dare to move recklessly within the Cloud Recesses.

 

Lan Wangji had underestimated the power of his wounded pride.

 

He reflects upon this as he stands before the corpse of a bearlike yaoguai, cold with the absence of his spiritual power and grimly repressing the urge to lean his weight upon his left leg. Half a day ago, he and a small number of other disciples had been sent into the mountains surrounding Gusu on a night-hunt. It was a fairly routine situation, with rumours of immense bloodthirsty beasts plaguing a small village, and the disciples following the trail to a steep plateau only reachable by sword-travel. They had hardly time to dismount, however, before an array had flared into life around them, deadening their golden cores, and Wen Chao’s triumphant laughter had rung through the night.

 

He had looked down upon them from the safety of his sword — surrounded, as ever, by his circle of sycophants — and wished them luck in dealing with a horde of ravenous yaoguai without the use of spiritual power.

 

‘I hope this will give you opportunity to rethink your positions,’ he had said, gaze heavy upon Wen Qing. Then he was gone, ignoring Jin Zixuan’s threats and Jiang Wanyin’s shouts and Wei Ying’s curses, leaving them virtually weaponless in the midst of a demons’ nest.

 

It had taken hours.

 

Hours of circling and tense anticipation and sudden attacks, repelled by sheathed swords used, profanely, as makeshift clubs, and the arrows of Wei Ying and Wen Qionglin, Wen Qing’s brother. At last, Lan Wangji had brought down the last creature with a strike of Bichen’s hilt, but he had not felled it without a price.

 

Lan Wangji draws in a slow breath as he cleans Bichen with the cloth always stored within his robes, forcing the altitude-thin air through lungs already tightened by pain. The ghost of the yaoguai’s claws still sear through his right calf, sinking almost to the bone and blistering up past his knee.

 

He thinks that he is doing a passable job of concealing it — with the assistance of the darkness, his long skirts, and the exhaustion of his companions — until there is a loud gasp and an exclamation of, ‘Young Master Lan, your leg!’

 

It takes every last second of Lan Wangji’s long years of training to restrain himself from unleashing the full force of his glare upon the innocent Nie Huaisang, but his expression likely remains far from amiable, if the manner in which he squeaks and hides behind Jiang Wanyin is any indication.

 

Regardless, the damage has been done; Wen Qing’s head has snapped around like a dog on the hunt.

 

‘And when were you planning on telling me about this?’ she snaps, leaving her brother’s side to stalk over to him with a terrifying rapidity.

 

Lan Wangji sets his jaw. ‘I’m fine,’ he says, knowing full well that protests are useless before the words even leaves his mouth.

 

He is correct.

 

‘Sit down, Lan Wangji, before I lose my temper.’

 

And he, being still in possession of his sense, sits down.

 

Though he uses a jagged outcrop of rock as a support while he lowers himself, his traitorous leg gives out midway through and he falls with a huff and a slight wince that he cannot suppress. Upon reopening his eyes, he finds Wen Qing looking more concerned than angry. Lan Wangji supposes he should take that as a less-than-comforting indication of his condition.

 

She kneels before him as Wen Qionglin hurries to her side, the pouch of spare supplies which he carries already in hand. The rest of the disciples are grouped in the corner of his vision, but Lan Wangji refuses to acknowledge them; refuses to add further to his shame, refuses to check whether Wei Ying has finally looked at him.

 

‘Was it the teeth or the claws?’

 

‘Claws.’

 

Wen Qing nods shortly. When she reaches to uncover his injury, it is pure instinct that has him reaching to stop her — and unceremoniously, she slaps him away. His eyes snap immediately to the glitter of ice on the side of her hand, set coldly aflame by the light of the moon; but it quickly fades, and no startled exclamations follow it.

 

Lan Wangji relaxes minutely. Even this inconsequential movement sends pain blistering through his veins, and the effort of holding himself still and silent is beginning to send sharp jabs of it lancing through his skull — but he will not betray his weakness.

 

He can feel Wen Qing moving his clothes, painstakingly careful to both avoid touching his skin and cause him as little discomfort as possible. As cautious as she is, each minuscule drag of fabric amplifies the shameful sob building within his chest. He bites his lip against it, terrified of its escape.

 

Wen Qing captures his attention with a sharp gesture.

 

‘Give me your headband.’

 

In his distraction, Lan Wangji cannot prevent the incredulous widening of his eyes. ‘What?’

 

‘Give it to me, quickly! I need to bind the wound and there is nothing else long enough.’

 

When he still hesitates, she forces a tense breath through her teeth. ‘Let me ask you, is it worth losing your leg over?’

 

He stares at her blankly, mind slow and surging with the beat of his heart, and feels his own blood inch down his skin, so much of it that he represses a shudder.

 

Steeling himself, he bites out a terse ‘Take it,’ temper unforgivably inflamed by pain and humiliation. She nods. As she leans forward, he shuts his eyes like a child, unable to watch this latest disgrace — but before her touch can alight upon his brow—

 

‘Wait. Use this instead.’

 

Wei Ying.

 

He is holding out his fist, pale but resolute, gaze fixed upon Wen Qing. From it flutters his long crimson ribbon.

 

Somewhere behind, Jiang Wanyin inhales sharply. ‘A-Xian, that’s—’

 

‘Use it,’ Wei Ying repeats, pushing it closer. Lan Wangji cannot look away from him, does not see Wen Qing’s reaction, but she must relent because her smaller hand is brushing against Wei Ying’s. Then, finally, finally, Wei Ying’s eyes begin to slip over to Lan Wangji, as if compelled, expression faltering into something almost vulnerable—

 

‘Alright, move,’ Wen Qing snaps, elbowing him brusquely out of the way. ‘I need some space, Wei Wuxian!’

 

As she kneels again before Lan Wangji, he watches Wei Ying over her shoulder, the way his mouth parts around a breath, or an unspoken word, his gaze lingering somewhere around Lan Wangji’s collarbone.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ he says, almost without realising it, and Wei Ying’s teeth press unsteadily into his lower lip. Then Jiang Wanyin is taking his arm with uncommon gentleness, and he is half-turning away, and Wen Qing is dabbing something onto Lan Wangji’s skin that tears the breath from his lungs, and his attention must return once more to repressing his pain.

 

Nevertheless, Lan Wangji does not miss that throughout the treatment of his leg, throughout the slow, crimson sunrise, throughout the arrival of Lan Xichen and the destruction of the array and the reawakening of their golden cores, Wei Ying still does not look at him.

 

~

 

Lan Wangji does not quite know how he has found himself in the cool, pale light of the Yashi, having tea alone with Jiang Yanli. However, he does know that he is…exceedingly uncomfortable.

 

It is not entirely the fault of his wounded leg, which after intensive healing allows him to kneel almost painlessly; nor is it particularly the fault of Lan Wangji’s admitted shortcomings in the area of conversation, to which he would usually attribute any tension.

 

No, in this situation Lan Wangji is willing to ascribe it to the fact that Jiang Yanli is the sister of the man who still has yet, a full ten-day after the events of the ill-fated night-hunt, to meet his eyes.

 

‘Thank you for agreeing to see me, Young Master Lan,’ Jiang Yanli says at last. As she carefully places down her teacup, Lan Wangji silently marvels at the concept that one in possession of such quiet, understated elegance — who could, in truth, have easily been mistaken for a blood-member of the Lan Sect — had been raised in the same household as Wei Ying.

 

Lan Wangji gives her a slight nod in acknowledgement.

 

His brother would likely have returned the pleasantry with a smile of his own and an effortless Young Mistress Jiang, the pleasure is mine, but such words have never sat correctly upon Lan Wangji’s tongue, and he has long since stopped trying to make them do so.

 

‘I’m sure you know what this is about…’ She trails off, her gentle smile taking on a rueful tinge. ‘Or rather, who.’

 

‘Wei Wuxian.’

 

‘Yes. You see, he is worrying me.’

 

Lan Wangji’s gaze lowers to where Jiang Yanli rubs her delicate fingers against the equally delicate rim of her cup. He does not think that they have ever before spoken, but a significant portion of Wei Ying’s ramblings had centred around her, waxing lyrical about her inexhaustible kindness and patience. Lan Wangji does not know how this applies to him: whether she blames him for her brother’s condition, or merely seeks to understand it.

 

‘He has been so listless recently…he tries to hide it, of course, but it isn’t difficult to see. You must have noticed the change in his behaviour, Young Master Lan.’ Her sigh is soft, steadying. ‘And still, he won’t tell me what’s wrong. He isn’t usually one to hide things from me…and you two have become very close, so I hoped that you might have some insight into what happened?’

 

You two have become very close.

 

Lan Wangji has to press his lips together for a long moment, until he is sure that his voice will be sufficiently controlled.

 

‘We have not spoken recently,’ he says. ‘I would not…consider us close.’

 

Jiang Yanli’s eyes narrow almost imperceptibly. ‘Why is that?’

 

‘I don’t know.’

 

It is the only answer he can give, and it escapes him low and quiet and overtly unhappy. He stiffens, self-conscious, but the sympathetic smile which Jiang Yanli gives him somehow manages to calm him. Strange, as sympathy would usually serve to heighten his discomfort — but there is something in her manner that seems…familiar. Comforting.

 

‘Well, I can’t imagine you doing anything to offend him — and usually, when he is offended, it is very hard to miss.’

 

Lan Wangji finds himself close to smiling at the truth of that statement. The urge dies, however, when he reflects on Wei Ying’s attitude towards him. He no longer believes that Wei Ying simply views him as a source of amusement; that would be far too callous, and in spite of his tendency to tease, Wei Ying is intrinsically good.

 

So what had he done?

 

What had Lan Wangji done to Wei Ying, to create such a change in him?

 

As if to grant him privacy, Jiang Yanli has looked away. He wonders, with a cold creeping sense of shame, how much of his emotion must show upon his face.

 

‘Jiang Cheng told me a little of what happened on the night-hunt,’ she says eventually, her voice gentle. ‘Do you know who gave Wei Wuxian that ribbon?’

 

‘I do not.’

 

‘It was his mother.’

 

Very little of Wei Ying’s mother is known to him, but he is aware that she and her husband had died when Wei Ying was a very small child, too young to possibly remember much of them.

 

She had given Wei Ying his ribbon, which he wears every day without fail. Which, despite his nature, he has carefully kept for over a decade. Which he had allowed — offered — to be used as a bandage, to be wrapped around Lan Wangji’s wound and stained by his blood, perhaps irrevocably.

 

Lan Wangji cannot reconcile it: not with the Wei Ying who has avoided his eye for almost a month, who has darted away whenever he nears, who has looked upon him with contemptuous eyes and blatantly questioned his celibacy.

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Because he does care for you, Young Master Lan. I know that his behaviour lately has been strange…’ A slight, concerned frown tightens her lips. ‘And I can’t give an explanation for that, but I know my brother. I know that he regrets whatever it is that happened between the two of you.’

 

An echo of sensation brushes against his skin, the ghost of indolent fingers trailing down his sleeve. He tightens his fists against it, unwilling to let the memory overwhelm him.

 

‘Was it so terrible?’ Jiang Yanli asks. He had not realised how closely she had been watching him; and he cannot lie, so instead focuses on something else.

 

‘He was different.’

 

‘Different?’

 

‘Yes. As if I had done something to anger him.’

 

‘Can you…think of anything…?’

 

She is hesitant, clearly wary of causing him offence, but Lan Wangji merely gives a small shake of his head.

 

‘The last time I had seen him, he had treated me normally. I do not remember anything happening in between. But when he found me in the Library Pavilion a month ago, he — changed.’

 

Her brow creases faintly, as if she is searching for the answer to a particularly difficult question. ‘You were in the library?’

 

‘With Young Mistress Wen.’

 

She continues to frown for a moment longer, before it clears with a startling suddenness.

 

‘Ah…and Young Master Lan, were the two of you alone?’

 

‘Yes,’ he says, before recalling Wei Ying’s insinuations and looking up swiftly. ‘We were studying together, there was — nothing—’

 

‘Oh, yes, of course! Of course, Young Master Lan, I would never think — but did A-Xian…?’

 

‘Wei Ying said,’ Lan Wangji explains haltingly, ‘that I must have deceived her into being alone with me, that there are—’

 

—things you really must know if you wish to be married, or else your poor wife will be left so unsatisfied

 

He stops short. Such things should not be mentioned, or even intimated, not in polite company. Jiang Yanli seems able to discern a good deal of it, however, if the hand which she raises to her mouth is any indication.

 

‘Oh, A-Xian,’ she whispers, looking away; and then something else that sounds like you fucking idiot, but Lan Wangji must surely have misheard.

 

Jiang Yanli clears her throat and visibly recollects herself. ‘Young Master Lan, please allow me to apologise on my brother’s behalf. I am certain that he regrets his behaviour.’

 

Something tucked into the corners of her kind smile makes Lan Wangji think that if Wei Ying does not already regret it, he will very soon be made to.

 

‘You do not need to apologise.’

 

And she does not. It was not Jiang Yanli who caused him pain.

 

‘Thank you,’ she says softly, and takes a sip of her tea. Lan Wangji follows suit. The silence is oddly comfortable, unlike the stilted pauses which he customarily experiences around others, and he finds himself feeling unusually, quietly, content.

 

His tea is almost finished when Jiang Yanli next speaks.

 

‘Just know, Lan Wangji…A-Xian wouldn’t give up his mother’s ribbon for the sake of someone he doesn’t care for.’ Her eyes are kind, encouraging; and for a moment, Lan Wangji is so powerfully reminded of his own sibling that a small returning smile rises easily to his lips.

 

~

 

When Lan Wangji rounds the corner of one of the Cloud Recesses’ covered walkways and sees Wei Ying hovering outside his rooms, he is not entirely sure what he feels.

 

His emotions are a strange bittersweet blend in his chest, very few of them nameable — relief, apprehension, hope. Jiang Yanli had implied, during the latest of their now-routine conversations over tea, that she had been encouraging Wei Ying to speak to him.

 

Lan Wangji had not truly allowed himself to expect much; and yet, here he is. Standing before Lan Wangji’s door, weight shifting restlessly, hands twisting behind his back, hair full of the honeyed light of early evening.

 

‘Wei Ying.’

 

He whips around. Flinches almost imperceptibly when he sees Lan Wangji, though he hastily summons an uncertain half-smile. Lan Wangji cannot help but compare it to his usual bright, unrestrained grin, and find it wanting.

 

‘Lan Zhan…you’re here. I was just—’ he gestures vaguely, eyes averted. ‘I was—’ He clears his throat in evident discomfort, and Lan Wangji feels, somehow, that he is on the verge of making some excuse. Before this can happen, Lan Wangji steps forwards, something urgent driving him to keep Wei Ying there.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ he says again. ‘I am glad to see you.’

 

His sincerity seems to have conveyed itself, as Wei Ying shuts his mouth with vulnerable eyes.

 

‘Ah,’ he replies, after a moment, with another small smile. ‘I suppose it’s been a while, hasn’t it?’

 

Lan Wangji nods.

 

‘Well,’ says Wei Ying, and: ‘That,’ and: ‘Ah,’ before looking down and rubbing at his nose. ‘That was my fault, wasn’t it, Lan Zhan?’

 

He nods again, a single small dip of his head. Wei Ying sighs.

 

‘Aiyah…and I mistreated Wen Qing, as well.’

 

Another nod.

 

‘I apologised to her, though! I swear I did! I just came from talking with her — she’s warming up to me, you know?’

 

His mouth is performing the motions of a smile, though it is half-hearted at best, and his gaze is still flittering restlessly somewhere about the level of Lan Wangji’s knees. Lan Wangji steps closer, slowly, though Wei Ying flinches as if he had violently lunged.

 

‘She told me,’ he says, before Lan Wangji can speak — ‘that there was — something else going on with you, Lan Zhan.’ His eyes flick up, finally; and Lan Wangji stills beneath them. All of him stills, for a moment. His limbs, his lungs, his heart. Transfixed by a dark, unwavering gaze, which holds more power than any of its owner’s talismans.

 

He had — missed it, he realises.

 

Missed Wei Ying’s eyes, his looks, his attention.

 

Missed Wei Ying.

 

‘And it made me think. I always remember what you told me, when — ah, you’re such a lightweight, you might not remember it — but I asked why you hate to be touched, and you said something about not wanting to hurt anyone.’

 

Lan Wangji does not recall saying anything of the sort; but indeed, very little of that night remains to him. He does not verbalise this, but the manner in which he tightens his lips seems to be enough for Wei Ying, whose own briefly curve into a smile. It is more genuine than anything else Lan Wangji has seen in the preceding month. The sight stirs something strange within his stomach.

 

‘And then,’ Wei Ying continues, serious once more, ‘there was what happened with that dog Wen Chao. Thinking about it, it is strange that you were completely uninjured, or had healed so quickly.’

 

He is the one to move forwards, this time. Slowly, carefully, he takes the very edge of Lan Wangji’s sleeve between two fingers, gaze never moving from his.

 

‘Lan Zhan. There’s something behind the way you avoid touch, isn’t there? Something more than dislike.’

 

In truth, Lan Wangji does not even have to think about it. Does not have to wonder whether he trusts Wei Ying, or whether Wei Ying will keep his secret; it all seems immaterial. He turns his hand into Wei Ying’s, lightly presses two fingers to the underside of his palm.

 

Wei Ying’s gaze drops to the spot where they touch. His lips part, as if he wishes to voice some question or comment; but Lan Wangji takes his hand just long enough to turn it, palm-up, and display the frost now glittering against tawny skin.

 

His expression becomes blank — entirely, uncharacteristically lost for words — and Lan Wangji allows himself a moment to be amused. A little endeared, he will admit.

 

‘It is a curse,’ he says, when it has passed. ‘I have had it for a long time, though I don’t know much about it. It is too dangerous to experiment with recklessly.’

 

Unsurprisingly, Wei Ying seems entirely deaf to the words dangerous and reckless, snatching up Lan Wangji’s wrist with a huffed, disbelieving laugh.

 

‘I don’t even feel it! Ai, Lan Zhan, that is so strange — to see ice, at this time of year!’

 

He removes his hand from Lan Wangji’s, and stares at the lace-like dusting adorning his fingers. After a moment, he wiggles them slightly with a laugh. ‘Does it change depending on where you’re touched?’ he asks, and does not wait for a response before skimming his hand up Lan Wangji’s arm and to his neck. Half-heartedly, Lan Wangji turns his face from it, but Wei Ying is as undeterred as he had expected. Pressing his palm fully against Lan Wangji’s cheek, he watches ice web silently up his wrist with rapt fascination.

 

Lan Wangji’s discomfort is quickly eclipsed by concern. He catches Wei Ying’s forearm — covered safely by his sleeve — and pulls it away.

 

‘You will hurt yourself.’

 

‘Sorry, sorry!’ Wei Ying exclaims, hardly seeming to hear him. ‘I’ve never even heard of anything like this, and the effects are so interesting — who cast it, do you know?’

 

‘My mother.’

 

Wei Ying falters. ‘Your mother?’ he asks, gaze darting to Lan Wangji’s face. ‘Why?’

 

‘I don’t know.’ He lifts his eyes to the line of blue sky visible beneath the walkway’s covering, and Wei Ying seems to understand that he has not finished, as he maintains an uncharacteristic silence. ‘She told me…’ The scent of gentians curls around him, the phantom sensation of fingers upon his cheek, his brow. He remembers thinking that they were warm, but does not recall what that means. ‘That it would keep me safe.’

 

Wei Ying’s arm twitches in his grip. ‘Safe?’

 

‘Mm.’

 

He can feel dark eyes on the side of his face, scrutinising his expression, and now — after so long — despite his solemn mood, and the topic of their conversation, he is…happy.

 

Wei Ying is looking at him again.

 

‘And what about you?’

 

Lan Wangji looks back to him, confused.

 

‘Do you think it’s kept you safe, Lan Zhan?’

 

He considers this for a moment.

 

‘It has kept me distant,’ he replies; an oblique answer, but one that he thinks Wei Ying will understand.

 

To him, the curse has never been exceptionally positive or negative. The necessity of hiding it has been inconvenient at times, of course, but the fact of the matter is that Lan Wangji dislikes touch, and had never thought his overall contentment to be affected by its absence. It is difficult to determine how much of this aversion is tied to his curse, as it has been such a constant presence in his life, but he had never thought it important.

 

Yet, of late…whenever Jiang Yanli reaches halfway across the tea-table before stopping herself, or Wen Qing pulls away from brushing against his shoulder, or Wei Ying grabs for his sleeve instead of his skin, he feels a faint, bittersweet ache in his chest, and thinks that it might be regret.

 

Lan Wangji does not like contact, and does not know if he ever will. It makes him feel tense, uneasy, raw, as if frightened that the touch may sink past his skin and into his bones, and his first instinct is always to flinch away from it.

 

Nevertheless, he thinks that he might like to try. Every skill can be learned, after all.

 

‘So this is what you and Wen Qing have been doing? Find a way to lift the curse?’ At Lan Wangji’s somewhat wary nod, Wei Ying’s expression falls into one exaggeratedly wounded. ‘And you didn’t think to ask me about it? Do you think so poorly of my skills, Lan Zhan?’

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head, a little exasperated, a little amused. ‘No.’

 

‘So why didn’t you tell me?’

 

That question is more sincerely meant, despite Wei Ying’s lingering little grin. Lan Wangji matches his seriousness, replying quietly: ‘We were not speaking.’

 

Wei Ying’s smile falls. ‘Ah…Lan Zhan, I’m sorry.’

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head again. He does not need an apology. He just needs an explanation, so that he can do all in his power to avoid a reoccurrence.

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Why?’ Wei Ying echoes, looking somewhat apprehensive.

 

‘Why did you avoid me, Wei Ying?’

 

‘I…I was being stupid, you should forget about it! You didn’t do anything, it was all me — just me. And look, I will promise that it won’t ever happen again, so you don’t have to worry. Okay? I promise.’

 

That is good enough for Lan Wangji. He nods. After a moment, Wei Ying takes his hand again, fiddling with his fingers, as if unable to stop himself after all the months he has restrained himself from touching.

 

‘Hey, Lan Zhan. What does it feel like for you?’

 

Lan Wangji keeps a careful eye on the spread of the ice upon Wei Ying’s hand as he responds.

 

‘I don’t feel anything.’

 

‘Hmm, really? Your fingers don’t feel cold?’

 

‘They…’ Lan Wangji considers this. ‘Yes. They always feel cold.’

 

He had never realised that before. Had become too used to it. But they are always cold, always numb.

 

‘Always?’ Wei Ying echoes, and laces their fingers together with a cheeky grin. ‘Even now?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

Wei Ying pouts, thwarted.

 

‘Aiyah, how sad. I’m not warming you up at all?’ He widens his eyes, chafing his fingers against the back of Lan Wangji’s hand. The ice has spread almost halfway up their length, so Lan Wangji gently disentangles them from his.

 

‘I do not feel warmth.’

 

‘Huh?’ Wei Ying exclaims, freezing briefly, before snatching back one of Lan Wangji’s hands and pressing it to his face. ‘You mean I don’t feel warm to you?’

 

The smoothness of his skin, the sculpted curve of his cheekbone, the faint brush of his quick breaths — all of it is so — unfamiliar, so deeply strange, and so — unsettling — that it moves something deep within Lan Wangji, a rapid rushing surge that unnerves him so much that he wants to tear away. Flee. Wash his hands until they are raw and red and the curve of Wei Ying’s cheek is forgotten. But even as his fingers twitch to do so, he thinks of how Wei Ying would look if he were treated as something diseased.

 

He does not move.

 

‘Ah — sorry, Lan Zhan,’ Wei Ying says suddenly. ‘I’ll let you go now.’

 

True to his word, he releases Lan Wangji and steps quickly back. Part of Lan Wangji knows that he must be showing far too much, but he is occupied with the unsteadiness of his limbs, the acrid hitch in his throat, the sensation of something within his chest having come permanently loose. He curls his still-tingling hand into a fist.

 

‘Sorry,’ Wei Ying whispers again, looking shaken.

 

Do not apologise. Do not.

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head wordlessly. He raises the hand to cover his eyes but stops halfway, pressing it briefly to his lips to still its betraying tremble before allowing it to fall to his side.

 

‘I want to,’ he says, quietly enough for it to sound steady. ‘I want to be able to touch.’

 

Wei Ying looks back at him; scrutinising, for a moment, before a small, beautiful smile blooms upon his face.

 

‘Then I’ll help you, Lan Zhan,’ he says, and Lan Wangji cannot look away.

 

~

 

The approach of daybreak is just beginning to infuse the grey world with colour, the first birds singing their sweet welcome, when Lan Wangji notices Lan Qiren’s presence.

 

He is halfway through performing a sword form; as Lan Qiren’s business does not seem urgent, by the way he stands impassively at the edge of the courtyard, Lan Wangji completes the motion before sheathing Bichen and bowing in his master’s direction.

 

‘Uncle,’ he says.

 

‘Wangji.’

 

Lan Qiren watches him approach in silence, though there is something appraising about his stare, as if he searches for the answer to some yet-unasked question. Only when Lan Wangji stands before him does he speak again.

 

‘I hear that you have been frequenting the Library Pavilion of late,’ he begins, gaze sharpening even further. ‘And you have not been alone.’

 

‘No.’

 

Lan Wangji sees no reason to conceal it. He has been well aware that his uncle would come to know, at some point, of the research that he is performing.

 

‘You are attempting to lift the curse, then. You and Young Mistress Wen.’ Briefly, Lan Qiren pauses, expression curdling minutely. ‘And Wei Wuxian.’

 

‘Yes.’

 

He gives a single, approving nod. ‘Good. I am glad to see you at last taking an interest, Wangji; and I believe your choice to be auspicious. However, given your…family history, I urge you to recall the importance of caution and restraint.’

 

It is halfway through this final sentence that Lan Wangji realises that the topic in question is no longer his curse, and has shifted to something of an even more personal nature. He is so taken aback by his uncle’s broaching of such a subject that for a moment, he could not possibly respond; a moment of sufficient length for Lan Qiren to visibly move on.

 

Had he referred to Wei Ying? No — surely he would not look upon such a match with approval. He dislikes him, holding views much as Lan Wangji had five months before, before being granted the insight into his good qualities that his uncle has not. Lan Qiren knows nothing of his inherent selflessness, of the impassioned manner in which he defends those he cares for, of his capacity for thoughtfulness and care when the topic in question is of enough importance.

 

With his current understanding, Lan Qiren would never view Wei Ying as a suitable partner for Lan Wangji.

 

The thought displeases him. It must be the injustice of it. If his uncle knew the story of a single red ribbon, would his perception change?

 

Oblivious to his thoughts, Lan Qiren reaches into his sleeve and withdraws a scroll tied with a deep blue ribbon. ‘This was left in my care, to be passed to you when you were old enough to fully comprehend your curse and began to be desirous of lifting it. I have never read it, as per your mother’s instruction, but she seemed to regard it as important.’

 

Lan Wangji accepts it almost entirely by reflex.

 

The colour of the ribbon has taken on a new connotation. Gentian-blue. His chest feels numb.

 

‘I wish you luck, Wangji,’ says Lan Qiren, and there is a whisper of robes as he leaves — but Lan Wangji cannot raise his eyes from the scroll in his hand, cannot truly move at all until a breeze sweeps by and he must curl his fingers to prevent losing it.

 

He cannot think of what to do.

 

The idea of opening it, and simply — reading characters written by his mother, over ten years before — it seems inconceivable. Disrespectful. Perverse.

 

He wants someone to look upon the situation with the logic of one less connected, to just tell him what he should do; and his mind can think of only one person.

 

This is how he finds himself before the doors of Wei Ying’s guest rooms, scroll still held loosely in one hand, hesitating to call out. It is a day of rest, and so early — Wei Ying would not wish to be awake for many hours yet.

 

Perhaps he should — call twice, and if Wei Ying does not hear, it may be for the best — Lan Wangji can — can face this himself. Eventually.

 

Drawing in a short, ineffective breath, he says, ‘Wei Ying,’ at a volume hardly louder than his usual speech.

 

Silence. Lan Wangji lowers his head.

 

Once more, just once more.

 

‘Wei Ying.’

 

Nothing.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ he whispers, and shuts his eyes as he gathers himself to leave.

 

A loud thud makes him flinch, in his current fragile state — fortuitously, nobody is present to witness this display — nor the humiliating way his shoulders fall, his inhale shudders, at the sound of Wei Ying’s voice.

 

‘Ah, wait — wait — I’m coming, I’m awake, hold on—’

 

The door is torn open, and Lan Wangji is abruptly faced with a Wei Ying evidently pulled straight from sleep; his hair is in disarray, eyes heavy, the imprint of a pillow creasing his left cheek. And, in a sight that succeeds in making Lan Wangji’s ears sting even at such a moment, he wears nothing but a thin white sleeping-robe, crooked and — improperly arranged. Lan Wangji thankfully still retains enough presence of mind to not look down at the exposed sweep of clavicle.

 

‘Lan Zhan! What are you doing here? Isn’t it a rest day?’

 

Unsure of where to begin, Lan Wangji averts his eyes.

 

‘I am sorry for waking you,’ he says, after a moment.

 

‘No, no! I’m glad to see you, of course, Lan Zhan — always. Come inside, then, if you’re not here to take me somewhere!’

 

Lan Wangji follows his shepherding, stepping in and allowing himself to be herded to the centre of the room, waiting motionlessly as Wei Ying hurries back to close the door.

 

‘So, what brings you here?’ asks Wei Ying, returning to his side. His gaze is regaining its customary sharpness, burning away the haze of sleep. His tone is more assessing, more careful. ‘Is everything alright?’

 

The scroll seems cold against Lan Wangji’s fingers. He looks to it, brings it before himself; but there is no frost upon it, no ice webbing across its delicate paper, and he does not know why he had expected there to be.

 

‘Wei Ying. Will you…’ He pauses. An idea seems to occur to him from nowhere, from nothing; yet it makes a strangely perfect kind of sense, and he finds himself speaking before he can second-guess it. ‘Will you read this to me?’

 

Slowly, he uncurls his fingers, holds it out. He can see the hundred questions flickering through Wei Ying’s eyes, but none of them are vocalised. He merely plucks the scroll with a small, brief smile.

 

‘Of course, Lan Zhan.’

 

Lan Wangji watches him untie it, fixedly — his fingers are unusually careful, coaxing the gentian ribbon from its tie and uncurling the scroll with barely a rustle. He inhales quickly, glancing at Lan Wangji, before he begins to read.

 

‘My love—’

 

Wei Ying hesitates slightly, as if the words had taken him aback. Swiftly, he collects himself, and starts again.

 

My love,

 

‘You are such a good, sweet boy, A-Zhan. So beautiful and kind. But there are people in the world who will see that and wish to exploit it, who will wish to possess you. I will never let that happen — but I know that there is not much time left to me. I cannot be there in person to protect you, so I leave you with my gift.

 

‘I know you well, my dearest. You are wary of other people. And no matter how I have teased you for that very quality, know that I am glad for it; others will only stain your brightness.

 

‘But with my gift, nobody will be able to stain you. Nobody will ever be able to get close when you do not wish it, or touch you against your will, or take you where you do not wish to go. You will be safe, then.

 

‘My son, all I want is for you to be safe, always. So my gift is permanent; I designed it so.

 

‘Trust in me, A-Zhan — it is better this way.

 

‘Know that I love you and your brother. You are not, and never will be, anything like your father.

 

‘Forever yours,

 

‘Mother.’

 

Wei Ying slowed, towards the end, as if every word had to be forced from him. Lan Wangji had been able to feel his gaze upon him, but was entirely unequal to meeting it. Drawing in a careful, controlled breath, he turns away. Moves to the window. The brightness of the morning sun sets his eyes to stinging, and he curls his hands over the sill, the wood soft and yielding beneath the tips of his fingers.

 

‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei Ying says, after a moment — so much included within the two syllables of his name, so many thoughts, words, emotions — and Lan Wangji presses his fingers into the wood until they are white and aching.

 

‘Lan Zhan—’ There are arms wrapping around him, a forehead pressed between his shoulderblades, a body fitted against his back — ‘I’m sorry, I hope this is alright, I just — Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan—’

 

His grip tightens, and the way he falls suddenly silent impels Lan Wangji to unclench one hand from the sill and curl it around his wrist, over his sleeve; Wei Ying relaxes almost immediately, slumping into Lan Wangji’s back with an emphatic sigh.

 

‘That was really from your mother?’

 

‘Yes,’ says Lan Wangji.

 

Pausing, he gathers his thoughts. Wei Ying quietly waits for him.

 

‘She died when I was six years old. Days after she created the curse. Xichen and I rarely saw her…before our birth, our father had her confined to the Gentian House, to shield her from the anger of the sect elders.’

 

Wei Ying’s thumb begins to stroke against his side, a small gesture of support and compassion. Lan Wangji gives a gentle squeeze of his wrist in response.

 

‘She had killed one of them. I still do not know why; Uncle does not speak of it. So Father married her, though she bore no returning love for him, and hid her within the Cloud Recesses.’

 

Something about the way Wei Ying listens to him — patient, simply holding him close and waiting through all of Lan Wangji’s many pauses, his usual restlessness entirely absent — makes the words come to him far less painfully than he could ever have expected. The tight breathless knot in his chest is loosening, even as another sensation, powerful and bittersweet, rises within him.

 

It is Wei Ying’s embrace that creates it, he thinks. The sweetness of its presence, and the bitterness of its eventual end.

 

Lan Wangji cannot yet consider what it means, at a conscious level; though part of him knows. The part that has him curling his fingers further around Wei Ying’s wrist, has him leaning back ever so slightly into his hold.

 

‘I remember her as kind,’ he says — because somehow, he does not want Wei Ying thinking negatively of his mother — he wants him to understand. ‘She never once complained about her own situation; merely sang to us, and played with us. I…truly think that she meant to protect me.’

 

Wei Ying straightens. Presses himself against Lan Wangji more fully, pushes his cheek against his shoulder. Lan Wangji suppresses a shiver.

 

‘I know, Lan Zhan. I think so too.’ Lan Wangji feels his cheeks puff with a soft sigh. ‘But I don’t agree with her methods. She shouldn’t have taken that choice from you.’

 

Unsure of how to feel about that, Lan Wangji remains silent.

 

‘Listen,’ Wei Ying says, quietly. ‘I’m not giving up, even if she did say it’s permanent. And I don’t think Wen Qing will either.’

 

Lan Wangji shuts his eyes, dips his head in a small nod.

 

The most powerful emotion that he feels is relief.

 

~

 

Every so often, Lan Wangji and his brother play together; he with his guqin, and Lan Xichen his xiao. Today, they have taken advantage of the bright afternoon sun and a break in their duties to find their customary spot by one of the Cloud Recesses’ gentler rivers, their song mingling with the voice of the water.

 

With the strings beneath his fingers, a soft breeze in his hair, bathed in sunlight latticed by the overhanging trees, Lan Wangji feels content in a manner so complete that it infuses his entire body, dissolving some constant underlying tension that he had not known to exist. Over a ten-day has passed since the reveal of his mother’s letter — enough time for him to discuss it with Wei Ying, with Wen Qing, with Xichen, and with himself, until he thinks on it with only love, even if the emotion is a little melancholy.

 

As Wei Ying had predicted, Wen Qing remains just as determined to lift the curse; and if anything, the time they spend within the Library Pavilion has increased.

 

Lan Wangji cannot forget their selflessness. They have spent so much time, so much effort, to no benefit of their own. He can barely comprehend it, that they would do so much. For him, for only him.

 

He looks upon them — bent over their books and scrolls with near-identical scowls — and can hardly breathe with the love he feels.

 

It is different, between the two of them. He is able, at least, to acknowledge that; but for both, it is overwhelming.

 

‘Wangji.’

 

His brother’s gentle voice breaks him from his state of meditation, and he realises that Xichen has lowered his xiao. With a smile that betrays a significant degree of amusement, Xichen gestures to the opposite side of the river, in the direction of the Recesses.

 

Lan Wangji follows it with some curiosity.

 

Only to see Wei Ying, bounding headlong through the trees, in a state of almost dizzying wildness. Upon noticing their attention he shouts, waving enthusiastically.

 

‘Lan Zhan! Zewu-jun!’ he exclaims, and as he approaches the river without so much as slowing down, Lan Wangji blinks — surely he won’t — before Wei Ying leaps in, charging heedlessly through the waist-deep water, grin undimmed.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ Lan Wangji says, somewhat faintly.

 

Lan Xichen makes a noise quite unbefitting of the dignity of the esteemed Zewu-jun — one might almost call it a giggle — before clearing his throat and straightening into the proper posture. Lan Wangji rises to his feet, stepping towards Wei Ying and extending a hand before he can think twice.

 

He is quickly waved off, however. ‘No, no! I’ll just get you wet, Lan Zhan. Anyway—’ Wei Ying clambers out of the river with more energy than grace, water cascading from his sodden white robes, dripping from the ends of his long hair — ‘listen to this! I’ve been thinking about Madam Lan’s letter, you know, and I realised — when she talks about the curse, she says that nobody will be able to get close when you don’t wish it, or touch you against your will, or take you where you don’t wish to go — do you see what I mean?’

 

Lan Wangji falters. For a moment, all he can think is: ‘Wei Ying, you memorised it?’

 

‘Yes,’ Wei Ying says, with some impatience. ‘But — aiyah, that’s not what’s important! She always mentions your own will, Lan Zhan. Nobody can touch you if you don’t want them to, that’s what she’s saying!’

 

‘Ah,’ Lan Xichen says. ‘You believe that Wangji has control over it?’

 

For his part, Lan Wangji does not quite understand how such a conclusion could be reached, but Wei Ying nods emphatically.

 

‘Yes, yes, exactly. Because — Lan Zhan, you don’t like to be touched, do you? Regardless of the curse?’

 

They both look to him; one expectant, the other with slight sorrow.

 

Even thirteen days before, Lan Wangji would have found the answer simple. Now, however, he thinks of Wei Ying’s arms around him, the press of his body, comforting and secure, and hesitates.

 

‘No,’ he says, eventually, as he is not quite ready to explain any other response. Wei Ying waves a finger.

 

‘See, that’s it! Lan Zhan doesn’t want anyone to touch him, so the curse stops everyone from doing it. But if he wanted it enough, if he was comfortable and happy and — liked the person — then the curse would allow it.’

 

Lan Wangji feels that this all is moving a little too quickly for him; he needs time to consider such consequential ideas. Both Wei Ying and Lan Xichen are aware of this, blessedly, so he is not pressed for a response.

 

‘That could be true,’ Xichen says. ‘It isn’t an angle that has been considered. We have always simply…preferred to entirely avoid contact, due to our limited knowledge of the curse.’

 

‘And that’s given Lan Zhan no chance to get used to it! He’s avoided touch for so long that it can only make him uncomfortable. But if he practiced, became a little more used to it…’

 

‘Young Master Wei, that may take a very long time.’

 

There is a warning note in his brother’s tone that Lan Wangji does not understand. Wei Ying seems to, however, by the way he subsides.

 

‘I know, I know,’ he says, and lowers eyes not reached by the half-smile upon his face. ‘It’s been over a decade, nothing’s going to happen overnight, of course! But it’s — possible.’

 

Lan Xichen’s expression gentles. ‘It is. Thank you.’ He cuts another indecipherable glance at Lan Wangji, before adding: ‘I am sure that you are very…well motivated, Young Master Wei, and will confront this issue with admirable tirelessness.’

 

Wei Ying’s eyes visibly widen. There almost seems to be a slight flush creeping down his cheekbones, but surely Lan Wangji is mistaken.

 

‘Ah,’ Wei Ying stutters. Lan Wangji blinks, stunned. ‘Yes.’

 

‘Well, I will leave you to it,’ his brother replies, with a serene smile, somehow absolutely unshaken by witnessing Wei Ying displaying embarrassment.

 

Lan Wangji cannot help but feel that he may be missing something.

 

~

 

‘I’ve got a good one, listen!’ Wei Wuxian exclaims.

 

Beneath Wen Qing’s narrow glare, he huffs, returning it with a wounded look. ‘I’m serious this time, I promise. No more poetry about shy rosebuds or blooming chrysanthemums…’

 

Wen Qing throws a scroll at him.

 

‘Ai!’ he says, dodging it with an all-too-practiced ease. ‘Lan Zhan, did you see that?’ Latching onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder, he peers up at him with the large pleading eyes of a victim. ‘Wen Qing just perpetrated an unauthorised fight in the Cloud Recesses!’

 

Frankly, Lan Wangji is still feeling a little discomposed by the eight lines of erotic poetry which Wei Wuxian had managed to read before Wen Qing had caught him. Their study had reached something of a standstill, after Wei Wuxian’s realisation four days before; yet somehow, they still find themselves spending their free time together in the Library Pavilion. Today, they are reading poetry, and sharing sections that each finds particularly striking; at least, they had been, until Wei Wuxian had somehow located a highly indecent book.

 

Perhaps another conversation with Nie Huaisang is in order.

 

Lan Wangji would never pick sides — that would be childish, and certainly unbefitting of a Lan disciple — but he cannot consider Wen Qing’s actions anything other than justified. So without raising his eyes from the page beneath his hand, he says, slow and deliberate:

 

‘I did not see anything.’

 

‘Ha!’ says Wen Qing, even as Wei Wuxian gasps dramatically.

 

‘Lan Zhan, such a shameless lie! Whatever would your elders think?’

 

When he is steadily ignored, he pushes himself from Lan Wangji’s shoulder with a pout, flopping down to sprawl upon the wooden floors. This provides Lan Wangji with a distracting view of the elegant stretch of his neck, and he finds himself suddenly unable to recollect the contents of the poem he had been reading.

 

A pointed cough from Wen Qing diverts Lan Wangji, alerting him to the vacant manner in which he has been staring. Swiftly, he returns his gaze to the book. His ears are stinging.

 

‘Well,’ says Wei Ying, after a long pause. ‘Neither of you deserve to hear the poetry I have to share. But there’s nobody else around, so you’ll have to do.’

 

‘Wonderful.’

 

‘Aiyah, Wen Qing! You are so bitter! Perhaps this verse will sweeten you—’ She raises another scroll and he flinches away, laughing nervously. ‘Joking, joking! I’ll read it now, don’t hit me.’

 

Only when she lowers it does he relax, clearing his throat in an exaggeratedly dignified manner and gesturing into the air with graceful hands.

 

‘One smile from you when we meet,

And I become speechless and forget every word.

For too long you have gathered flowers,

And leaned against the bamboos,

Your green sleeves growing cold,

In your deserted valley:

I can visualise you all alone,

A boy harbouring his cryptic thoughts.’

 

Wei Ying pauses, and when he speaks again there is something of a gentleness about it — an unexpected honesty — which leaves Lan Wangji’s skin prickling, the beat of his heart strange and intrusive.

 

‘I want to possess you completely–

Your jade body

And your promised heart.

It is Spring.

Vast mists cover the Five Lakes.

My dear, let me buy a red painted boat

And carry you away.’

 

There is a long silence.

 

Lan Wangji could not speak even if he wished to. A tempest is contained within his ribs, building in intensity with every second Wei Ying’s dark soft eyes hold his.

 

‘Wasn’t that written for a courtesan?’ Wen Qing asks, and, upon receiving no reply, releases a sharp breath and rises to her feet. ‘Alright, I’ve had enough of this. I’m leaving.’

 

The exasperation in her voice makes Lan Wangji look over. He feels dizzied, slow, as if drunk again, and for a moment can only blink at her in concern.

 

‘You stay here, Lan Wangji.’ She points a finger at Wei Ying. ‘And you. Do something already, this is getting painful.’

 

‘Yes, yes,’ he sighs, stretching out indolently.

 

Lan Wangji very deliberately decides not to consider what that was about. Merely returns Wen Qing’s parting nod, and looks determinedly back to his book, even if he recalls nothing of its last dozen pages.

 

Eventually, as the storm within him calms to a slow steady murmur, he regains his ability to appreciate his surroundings. The poetry, of course; the soft chirping of the birds outside; the gentle golden light of afternoon; and the occasional soft hums that Wei Ying gives as he peruses his own book.

 

He is happy, but it — hurts.

 

Why, he cannot say; and for the moment, he simply accepts it. The moment is too peaceful for pain.

 

Later, Wei Ying rolls onto his side and says: ‘Hey, Lan Zhan. I have some theories to help with your curse, do you want to hear them?’

 

The way that he smiles up at Lan Wangji makes it abundantly clear that his theories are far from serious. Regardless, he gives a small hum of assent; there is no harm in it, and Wei Ying seems to be enjoying himself.

 

‘I was thinking — what if we put a warm stone between our hands while we held them? Maybe it would melt the ice before it forms!’

 

Briefly, Lan Wangji considers raising his eyes to the ceiling, if only to see how Wei Ying might react to such an improper display. He settles for a small shake of his head. ‘Foolish.’

 

‘Aiyah, so ungrateful! Another, then. What if we immersed ourselves in a very hot spring?’

 

Lan Wangji’s mind supplies him with a very inane image of Wei Ying as he had been in the Cold Springs, sheer white material clinging to graceful shoulders. He presses his lips together, ears prickling.

 

‘Unhelpful.’

 

Wei Ying wriggles his way closer. ‘Or…if we, hmm, what if I touched you after making you blush very deeply?’

 

‘Ridiculous.’ Lan Wangji does not blush.

 

‘Ah! I know!’ He tilts his head, grin fading into a small, beautiful smile. ‘What if I ate my hottest spice and then kissed you?’

 

This is followed by a far longer pause, and a far quieter repetition of ‘Ridiculous.’

 

Wei Ying props his elbow upon the writing-desk. Touches his fingers to Lan Wangji’s ear, the contact cool against his skin, enough for it to be unusual.

 

‘Lan Zhan, you’re blushing,’ he half-sings, with a very self-satisfied expression. Lan Wangji brushes his hand away.

 

‘No.’

 

‘No? Is that so? Then why are you so red? Don’t worry, it’s a very nice colour on you—’ and he hesitates, suddenly, but only for an instant— ‘so there’s no need to be shy!’

 

Which is so patently ridiculous that Lan Wangji relies upon his expression to respond for him. He is not shy; he is an acolyte of the Gusu Lan sect, and almost nineteen years of age.

 

‘Ah, so you’re not shy either, is what I should take that face to mean?’ Wei Ying’s hand returns, fingertips sliding over his flushed ear and through his hair, curling about the back of his neck. The contact remains light and able to be easily pushed away.

 

Lan Wangji does not push it away.

 

It sends cold shivers down his spine, but — somehow, he does not mind it. Thinks he might not mind feeling more.

 

‘Should we try it out, then?’

 

Lan Wangji knows, in some small, distant part of his mind, that they would not in fact be trying anything, as Wei Ying has not recently eaten any spice to the best of his knowledge, but somehow the sight of Wei Ying’s eyes so bright and teasing and close renders such matters entirely unimportant.

 

In a moment of complete serious, Wei Ying whispers: ‘You can stop me if you want, Lan Zhan.’

 

‘Mm,’ says Lan Wangji.

 

He is not going to do that. In fact, he finds himself wanting Wei Ying to keep going with an intensity that should likely be surprising, but somehow is not.

 

The bittersweet feeling of earlier is all sweetness, now. A question answered. Reciprocated.

 

‘Aiyah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,’ Wei Ying chides, through a bright, joyful laugh. ‘You shouldn’t spoil me like this, you know?’

 

Lan Wangji kisses him.

 

For a moment, he is dizzy, rushed, a whirlwind of thoughts sweeping through his mind. Is he doing it correctly? Has he somehow made a mistake? Did Wei Ying mean something else, want something else? He feels it all with such painful clarity, Wei Ying’s lips beneath his, their soft light press.

 

Then Wei Ying surges into him and opens his mouth and yanks him close and it is stunning, blood rushing through his veins with a ferocity that makes his ears ring, makes his breaths short and gasping, makes him kiss Wei Ying as he is being kissed, as if it is the only thing that matters, as if he has wished and yearned and burned for it, night upon empty night, as if he is saying you are all that I have missed.

 

Lan Wangji thinks, very seriously, that he might die.

 

Then he remembers curse, frost, touch, in a strange incoherent jumble, and pulls swiftly back. Only for Wei Ying to make a wordless noise of complaint and grab at his neck and tug him in again, which quite effectively erases all three thoughts from existence. His hands have somehow found their way to Wei Ying’s waist, where they fist in the fabric of his robe, the urge to keep him there, keep him close, keep going keep going keep going searing through him with a desperation that is almost painful.

 

Finally, when the burning in Lan Wangji’s body has become the burning of breathlessness, they break apart, though they do not go far.

 

It takes an embarrassingly long time for Lan Wangji to collect the presence of mind to open his eyes. When he does, he is greeted by the sight of Wei Ying, staring straight back at him with a gaze gone heavy and twilit, licking frost from his own lower lip with a slow sweep of his tongue, and smiling.

 

Lan Wangji is — he is —

 

Lan Wangji is going to die.

 

‘Wei Ying,’ he says, and — he will take the way his voice sounds in that moment to his grave, so disgracefully raw and faint and unsteady — but Wei Ying hums appreciatively and pets at his cheek, as if ice does not spread from the contact, as if the idea of Lan Wangji’s skin being cursed has never so much as occurred to him.

 

‘Mm, yes, Lan Zhan?’ he asks, playful, but also soft and intimate. ‘What is it? Are you disappointed that our experiment didn’t work? Well, we’ll just have to keep trying until it does, ai, such a shame…’

 

He is leaning in again, but the cold glint upon his fingers has somewhat returned Lan Wangji’s presence of mind, so he turns his face as much as he can bear. It is not much, but Wei Ying stops regardless.

 

‘Don’t be reckless,’ says Lan Wangji, and gently pushes away his hand.

 

Wei Ying pouts shamelessly. ‘Lan Zhan, really, you worry too much! I barely even feel the cold. I promise. And anyway, you can warm me up, can’t you?’ He gives a coy smile. Lan Wangji smiles back. Wei Ying shouts.

 

‘Ai, ai, ai! You smiled! Lan Zhan, you smiled!’

 

‘No,’ says Lan Wangji, the slight lift of his lips becoming more of a curve. He loves watching the way Wei Ying’s eyes widen. Loves how his clever mouth opens, uncommonly lost for words. Loves how he laughs, sudden and bright and delighted.

 

Loves.

 

‘Lan Zhan, you shameless liar! You are so bad, so terrible, breaking the sect rules so boldly — ah, you have never been more attractive — so beautiful, Lan Zhan, adorable, let me kiss you again, please, I—’

 

‘Once more.’

 

Wei Ying complies eagerly; as he does the six times that Lan Wangji then repeats it.

 

~

 

The sunset falls softly upon the still water, suffusing a thousand lotus blooms with delicate pink light, brightening the wood of the pier to a warm orange.

 

Wei Ying’s face is still, peaceful, softened by both the honeyed light and sleep.

 

I didn’t rest for three days, I was so excited to finally see you! he had exclaimed, throwing himself into Lan Wangji’s arms, as if it was something that would please him — and in a small, self-indulgent way, it had, but his worry had far eclipsed it.

 

Wei Ying had looked just as lovely as ever, if not more. Memory could not do justice to the softness of his eyes, the sunshine of his smile, and Lan Wangji had been forced to content himself with only memory for five endless months; but the creases beneath his eyes had been deep. Perhaps Lan Wangji had not hidden his displeasure quite as well as he should have, when he had glanced over to Jiang Wanyin, as the sect heir had folded his arms with a huff.

 

Don’t look at me, he had said. I tried to make him rest.

 

Ah, you do care! Wei Ying had cooed, without loosening his grip on Lan Wangji in the least.

 

You—

 

A-Xian, A-Cheng. Jiang Yanli had offered him a sympathetic, slightly amused smile, which he had returned, eased by the slender body in his arms. Let’s take our guest inside, shall we? The soup will get cold.

 

With a loud exclamation, Wei Ying had pulled back from Lan Wangji; though he had not entirely removed contact, curling a hand around his wrist to tug him through the gates of Lotus Pier. Come on, come on! I’ve been waiting to see you try shijie’s soup for so long…

 

That dinner had been perhaps the most pleasant of Lan Wangji’s life. Reunited at last with Wei Ying, after having successfully convinced his uncle to allow him a visit — with his brother’s more eloquent assistance, and beneath the thin excuse of improving sect relations — with the prospect of spending months in his company, Lan Wangji would have found any food that passed his lips more delicious than any he had ever before tasted. It was unneeded, however; Jiang Yanli’s soup was as lovely as its maker, regardless of the slight burn of spice, which Lan Wangji was certain he detected despite Jiang Wanyin and Wei Ying’s apparent incredulity. Jiang Yanli had refused to settle the dispute, merely stating that her recipe was for her eyes only, and that she was simply glad that they were all enjoying it.

 

As soon as Lan Wangji had emptied his bowl, Wei Ying had again taken him by the wrist and dragged him through Lotus Pier — with a handful of short…detours to more secluded areas — until they had reached a small, picturesque pier, empty aside for a single cormorant perched proudly upon the railing.

 

I missed you, Lan Zhan, Wei Ying had whispered, not for the first time, sunlight glittering upon his fingers as he stroked Lan Wangji’s cheek.

 

Mm. Missed you, Lan Wangji had replied, as he had done every single time. And he had; he cannot express how much he had missed his Wei Ying. But he does not want to dwell on it — Wei Ying is here now, in his arms, and he will not waste the gift of his presence.

 

Wei Ying had pressed their foreheads together.

 

Ah! I should’ve kidnapped you from Gusu! Lan Qiren would’ve gotten over it. You know, I think we should never part again.

 

If it would please you, had been his reply, and Wei Ying had laughed at him.

 

Really, you are so good, Lan Zhan. I like you so much.

 

Lan Zhan had gently brushed the ice from his brow, and said, I love you.

 

They had sat, and talked, Wei Ying grabbing for his hands and laying gentle kisses upon his fingers, Lan Wangji disentangling them gently when the frost spread too far, smiling at Wei Ying’s pout. It had then morphed into a succession of slow blinks; and, eventually, Wei Ying had fallen asleep where he lay, sprawled out with his feet dangling off the edge.

 

Lan Wangji watches him, now, the slight rise and fall of his chest, the flutter of his hair in the gentle breeze.

 

The world has never seemed so safe, or so beautiful.

 

Lan Wangji reaches out and takes Wei Ying’s hand in his own.

 

And, as he had somehow known it would, there is no frost. No coldness. Only something soft and glowing, blooming at the touch: like sunset, like Wei Ying’s most honest smiles, like the half-recalled brush of his mother’s fingers.

 

He presses Wei Ying’s knuckles to his lips, a gentle, lingering, warm kiss.

 

‘I love you, Wei Ying,’ he says.

 

You have done so much for me, he does not.

 

Lan Wangji spends the rest of his life with him.