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A Crying Shame

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Lan Wangji turned to leave with a heavy heart and so much left to say.

It had been such a nice day and for him to say goodbye now was breaking his heart.

There had been something so idyllic about the way they had found each other again on the streets of Yiling after so long apart. It was like fate had led their paths to each other once again, telling them with as much clarity as fate can have that they were meant to find each other, that they were meant to meet again. Of course that couldn’t last, even if fate was showing her hand, and they had to part once again. Wei Ying had his Wens, and Lan Wangji had responsibilities of his own back at Cloud Recesses.

That didn’t stop Lan Wangji from wishing he could stay.

He wondered if Wei Wuxian had the same weight to his shoulders watching Lan Wangji walk away as Lan Wangji had leaving Though, Lan Wangji knew Wei Ying had a different weight, a heavier weight, one less selfish, one less love struck. Wei Ying was struggling under the weight of the Wens he was keeping safe. He carried their lives on his shoulders, shoulders that were beginning to look so frail that it was a wonder he could even hold his own weight with them.

What weight did Lan Wangji have but that of unrequited love?

It felt just as heavy to him, but he didn’t know better did he?

So Lan Wangji was walking away, and Wei Ying was watching him go, an age old story told so many times already in their short lives.

But then, as Lan Wangji took his first step away from Wei Ying, a distressed cry rang out through the sickly, crooked trees that covered the expanse of the burial mounds. It was loud, the kind of thing that would have startled the wildlife if there had been anything living in that desolate place.

Lan Wangji’s first instinct was to reach for his sword, but when he turned back to Wei Ying searching for the source of the danger, he found no enemy, just Wen Yuan leaning so far forward in Wei Ying’s arms that he was close to toppling out of them completely. It took Lan Wangji a moment to realize that the boy was reaching out to him.

“Gege, don’t go!” Little Wen Yuan called.

Lan Wangji could see fat tears welling up in his wide eyes, and he felt a kind of panic well up in his chest, not used to children and not used to tears. As startled as Lan Wangji was by the display, Wei Ying seemed an equal amount calm which made him feel better.

“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying said with no small amount of resignation in his tone, experly keeping his hold on the boy. “Lan Zhan has to go. He can’t stay here.”

Wen Yuan seemed to only reach out farther towards Lan Wangji, letting out another wail. When he realized that Wei Ying wasn’t going to hand him over and Lan Wangj wasn’t going to take him, he started squirming to be let down.

Lan Wangji caught the apologetic look Wei Ying sent him and waved it away. What right did Lan Wangi have to judge the child? Did he not want the same?

Then, the boy squirmed down from Wei Ying’s grip before flinging himself at Lan Wangji’s legs, chubby, dirty fingers gripping tight to his light blue robes, creasing the material and leaving spears of dirt everywhere they pressed. Lan Wangji didn’t mind the mess since those same dirty hands were his excuse to linger even a moment longer.

“Lan Zhan, don’t let him bully you,” Wei Ying said, causing Wen Yuan wail even louder at his words. “He’ll be okay. He might cry for a little while, but he‘ll forget about it soon enough.”

Lan Wangji didn’t much like the idea of Wen Yuan forgetting about him because that would mean that maybe, after a little more time, Wei Ying might forget about him too, and that thought made Lan Wangji want to cry his own tears.

So, not wanting to leave, dreading the long flight back to Gusu only to lay down in his empty bed in his empty Jingshi and toss and turn until the sun rose only to be alone again, Lan Wangji knelt down to Wen Yuan’s height to gather him in his arms and pick him up. Indulgence wasn’t encouraged, but neither were loud noises, and it seemed like he would have to choose one over the other.

No doubt the child was getting snot all over Lan Wangji’s robes, but it was worth it for the soft look in Wei Ying’s eyes as he looked over them. Lan Wangji’s heart warmed at the way Wen Yuan tucked his head into the crook of his neck and wrapped his little hands around his shoulders. The little hitch in his breath was heartbreaking but it was better than his tears.

Wei Ying moved closer, and Lan Wangji almost wanted to clutch Wen Yuan tighter to his chest when he held his hands out to take the clinging child back. He had been prepared to leave, but now with this excuse to linger, he didn’t want to give it up so soon. He knew that once Wen Yuan was back in Wei Ying’s arms, he would have no more excuse to stay.

Luckily for him, Wen Yuan did not go to Wei Ying. Instead, he just burrowed deeper into Lan Wangji’s arms and gripped tighter at his robes.

Lan Wangji watched a look of fond exasperation flit over Wei Ying’s face, and he momentarily felt an irrational twinge of jealousy at the fact that the look wasn’t directed at him. Then, Wei Ying trailed his eyes up to meet Lan Wangji’s, and it had his breath catching in his throat because that fond look remained.

“Lan Zhan, who knew you were so soft?” Wei Ying asked with a small laugh.

If Lan Wangji was one to protest, he might have replied that he always was, Wei Ying just hadn’t noticed, but as it was, he just ignored the question and patted his hand over Wen Yuan’s stil-trembling back.

“Ah, but Lan Zhan is always soft,” Wei Ying said, quieter now but still teasing. “Why else would he be so indulgent of a troublemaker like me?”

Why else indeed.

“I’m serious Lan Zhan, go,” Wei Ying continued. “I can take him.”

But Lan Wangji didn’t want to relinquish the child and walk away. Maybe just a moment longer. That’s all he needed.

“He will cry.”

Wen Yuan’s following sniffle was very pointed and it had Wei Ying rolling his eyes.

“What am I going to do with you two?” He asked before ducking his head so that he was eye to eye with Wen Yuan whose head still lay on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

Lan Wangji had to suppress a shiver when Wei Ying’s breath ghosted over his throat. He would normally pull away from such proximity, for the way it made his heart race if nothing else, but he would allow it this once. Though, he couldn’t stop himself from jerking his hand away when Wei Ying’s hand came to rest over his on Wen Yuan’s back. He regretted pulling away immediately, missing the feeling of those fingers on his, but he wasn’t brave enough to reach back, so he just balled his hand into a fist at his side and yearned.

“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying said in a reprimanding tone.

It was curious because Lan Wangji had never heard Wei Ying at anything other than the receiving end of that kind of chastising tone, and for him to be the source now was both astonishing and amusing.

It was also thrilling, though Lan Wangji wouldn’t admit to that. Thrilling in the same way this whole moment was thrilling. Thrilling in a way that allowed Lan Wangji to gather up his unspoken fantasies of having a family, of having Wei Ying, and to let them rest on the forefront of his mind rather than the darkness of night where no one else might know.

His amusement only grew when Wen Yuan let out an angry huff against his throat and then turned his head away from Wei Ying.

“Come on, A-Yuan, don’t be like that,” Wei Ying said, rubbing his hand over Wen Yuan’s back

“But there’s a special meal today,” Wen Yuan whined. “Rich-gege is going to miss it.”

Lan Wangji never thought of Wei Ying as someone who was stern, but he was almost sure he had seen Wei Ying’s expression on his uncle’s face before.

“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying said. “I’m sure Lan Zhan doesn’t want to stay, right Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji didn’t want to lie and agree with him, but he felt like it would reveal too much to tell how he really did want to stay, so he just hummed a non-committal sound and held on just a little tighter to Wen Yuan.

Then, Wen Yuan, seemingly a master of manipulation, rubbed his cheek against Lan Wangji’s shoulder with a loud sniffle before speaking in a heartbroken little voice.

“Don’t you like us?” He asked with a hitch in his breath right in the middle of the phrase.

Is that what Wei Ying felt as well? That Lan Wangji was leaving because he didn’t want to be here? He looked up to Wei Ying’s face, almost afraid of the expression he might find there. His fears were put to bed when Wei Ying just rolled his eyes.

“Of course Lan Zhan likes us,” Wei Ying said, rubbing his hand over Wen Yuan’s back. “But he has things to do back home.”

Lan Wangji did have much to do back in Cloud Recesses, but none that felt so important that he couldn’t spare another couple of hours. Xichen would wonder where he was, but, then again, Lan Wangji hadn’t given any exact timeframe as to how long he would be gone. Surely he wouldn’t be missed beyond reckoning.

Also, Xichen might have expected something like this now that he was thinking of it. He’d had the strangest gleam in his eye when Lan Wangji had announced that he was going to be passing through Yiling. Perhaps he knew. He had always been so good at reading every emotion in the slightest twitches on Lan Wangji’s face, how could he not know about the overwhelming love he felt for Wei Ying.

“I can stay for the meal,” he offered, though he wanted much more than that. If that was all he could get away with, he would grab the opportunity in both hands and refuse to let go.

Wen Yuan perked up so fast that Lan Wangji wondered if his tears hadn’t been fake.

“Gege will stay?” He asked, little voice so full of hope that even if Lan Wangji hadn’t wanted to stay in order to be close to Wei Ying just a while longer, he still might have agreed.

“Just for the meal,” Wei Wuxian replied, poking Wen Yuan on his nose. “Then he has to leave.”

Wen Yuan gripped Lan Wangji’s robes tight again and ducked his head back down onto his shoulder. From the offended noise Wei Ying made, Lan Wangji could only assume that Wen Yuan had stuck his tongue out at him.

Wen Yuan refused to be let down on their walk back to where their little settlement was, and Lan Wangji found that he didn’t mind. Wei Ying walked beside them, chattering away some extravagant tale from his youth that Lan Wangji barely heard, too distracted by the contrast between the bounce in Wei Ying’s step and the sickly pallor to his skin.

There was a quiet simple ease to their maner. Something so soft, something that made Lan Wangji crave this close companionship. Wei Ying’s shoulder brushed his every couple of steps, and Wen Yuan kept his hands wrapped around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and it felt so much like a home that Lan Wangji had always wished for that it almost made him tremble.

True to Wen Yuan’s words, there was a meal prepared. It wasn’t extravagant by any means Lan Wangji was used to, but looking around their settlement, Lan Wangji could tell that this was most likely extravagant for them. He was used to the grandeur of his sect and the heavy weight of his money purse providing for him. What luxury could they afford with nothing but dirty hands and the cursed ground they walked on?

He briefly wondered if he could get away with leaving his money bag behind for them to use. No doubt they would refuse money directly, but if he pretended it was an accident they might take it. Though, if he knew Wei Ying, he would probably just keep it safe until next time they met.

Lan Wangji ended up sitting probably a little too close to Wei Ying with Wen Yuan in his lap as the rest of the Wens around them settled in for the meal. As much as he felt out of place, something felt so right about sitting there, helping Wen Yuan eat without getting food on his face and watching Wei Ying tell elaborate stories with grand gestures and a gleam in his eye that Lan Wangji hadn’t seen much of in what felt like years.

Thankfully, those around him, other than Wei Ying of course, respected that he would remain quiet during the meal, so he wasn’t bothered. The idea of trying to make small talk with this lively group that he didn’t know how to interact with made the palms of his hands sweat and his chest tight, so he was grateful.

Wen Yuan insisted on making Lan Wangji try at least one of everything on his plate, offering bites up to him. Lan Wangji, against everything in him, took each bit without complaint, nodding after tasting every dish to let Wen Yuan know he enjoyed them. He didn’t feel bad about taking food from the toddler’s plate because he gave Wen Yuan most of his own food, not because he didn’t enjoy it, but because he was a little too overwhelmed for a proper appetite.

As much as he seemed to be fighting it with all the strength in his little body, with every passing minute, Wen Yuan was slipping closer to sleep with every slow blink of his eyes, his belly full and the night growing late. Some secret desperate part of Lan Wangji hoped they wouldn’t flutter closed completely, hoping to delay the inevitable.

Though, he, like Wen Yuan, was also feeling weary from the late hour, nine having come and gone. He was stubbornly pretending that he wasn’t about to fall asleep because he knew the moment Wei Ying realized he was barely keeping his eyes open, he would no doubt snatch Wen Yuan away and bid him to go into town to the inn to rest.

And like he could hear Lan Wangji’s thoughts, Wei Ying chose that moment to turn to Lan Wangji, still gleaming with the tail-end of a laugh.

“Oh, it’s probably getting late for you, isn’t it, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said suddenly, either noticing the hour or the way Lan Wangji’s blinks were lasting just a little bit longer with every passing minute. “You should probably get going soon or you’re going to end up falling asleep on your sword. What a terrible way for Hanguang-jun to be killed.”

Some stubborn sleepy part of Lan Wangji’s mind wanted to refuse to leave, to beg to stay, but he was still lucid enough to nod and, however reluctantly, pass Wen Yuan over to Wei Ying.

Little fingers tightened in his robe.

“Gege, stay,” Wen Yuan said, sleepy head lolling on his shoulder.

Wei Ying gave an exasperated sigh and wrapped his hands around Wen Yuan’s middle to pull him away despite the boy’s whines. Lan Wangji almost couldn’t stand it, so he batted Wei Ying’s hands away and settled Wen Yuan against his chest again.

“Until he falls asleep,” Lan Wangji said.

He treasured Wei Ying’s fond look, even though he felt foolish for indulging so readily in Wen Yuan’s request.

“Lan Zhan, you don’t have to. He’ll be asleep soon either way, so you don’t have to worry. We can handle him crying I promise.”

But Lan Wangji didn’t know if he could handle it, so he just said, “I don’t mind.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Lying is against the rules,” he reminded.

Did he seem a dishonest person? Wei Ying was ever calling into question his words and it was disheartening at the same time Lan Wangji knew it was because of Wei Ying’s inability to accept that Lan Wangji might not hate him.

“Well, I guess you could just slip away when he goes to sleep.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji replied, because if he opened his mouth to reply he might beg Wei Ying to stop giving him excuses to leave.

As the night progressed, the Wens were loud in their celebration, growing louder with the introduction of wine into their cups, and Lan Wangji felt like more of an outsider than usual in his bright robes and silver hairpiece. The only thing keeping him from slipping away into his own mind was Wei Ying who pressed a little closer with every sip of wine and Wen Yuan who was dozing against his chest.

Every few minutes, when it seemed that Wen Yuan was well and truly asleep, Wei Ying would try to extract him from Lan Wangji’s arms, only for the boy to let out a distressed noise and curl in closer. Once, they had managed to maneuver him completely out of Lan Wangji’s grasp only for Wen Yuan to blink his eyes open and then let out a cry, reaching out so desperately for Lan Wangji that it was almost alarming.

“You two act like young parents with their first child,” the elderly woman who told Lan Wangji to call her Granny said after Lan Wangji ended up with Wen Yuan sleeping against his chest once again. “Not wanting to let him go or hear him cry.”

Her laugh was pleasant and full, and, oddly enough, it made Lan Wangji think of Xichen. Her eyes crinkled in the corners like his brother’s, too.

“Aw, but Granny, don’t we make a cute couple with our little one?” Wei Ying teased, tipping to the side to lay his head on Lan Wangji’s unoccupied shoulder.

Granny reached over and pinched Wei Ying’s cheek while Lan Wangji tried to pretend his heart wasn’t suddenly pounding in his chest.

“Of course. You’re very cute but still ridiculous.”

Lan Wangji wasn’t often called ridiculous, but he felt like maybe in this instance it was true.

Once the noise level waned and one by one the Wens trickled away into their own beds, Wei Ying pulled Lan Wangji up by the elbow and led him to where he slept.

“A-Yuan sleeps in my bed. He kept sneaking in here in the middle of the night, so I just decided to let him start here, since I always woke up with him here,” Wei Ying said by way of explanation as they walked into Wei Ying’s messy space over to where his bed sat against the wall.

“Bring him to my bed. Once we lay him down, you can get out of here.”

The only thing wrong with that plan, other than everything in Lan Wangji screaming at him to ask Wei Ying to have him stay, was the fact that Wen Yuan still refused to let him go.

“Want to sleep with Xian-gege,” Wen Yuan whined. “And Rich-gege.”

They stood there for a moment, Lan Wangji wondering what to do, Wei Ying no doubt thinking that Lan Wangji was a pushover, before the sleepy part of Lan Wangji’s brain took over and he spoke before he even realized that he was going to.

“It is very late,” he said, scalp prickling with a sudden rush of panic at what he was hinting at.

Though, most of him was tired enough to not regret it. He wanted to stay, to sleep with Wei Ying at his side, Wen Yuan in his arms, why should he deny himself now?

Wei Ying blinked over at him for a moment, not speaking. Lan Wangji hoped he understood what he meant because he might die of embarrassment if he had to explain that he was giving into Wen Yuan’s request.

“I suppose you could rest for the night and then leave before A-Yuan wakes up in the morning,” Wei Ying said, not quite meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, like Wei Ying’s words didn’t thrill him to the core.

That decided, Wei Ying pulled his outer layer off, which prompted Lan Wangji to do the same, shifting Wen Yuan from arm to arm so he could pull his arms from his sleeves. He almost regretted wearing this robe here, now stained most likely beyond saving. But, he’d been hoping to see Wei Ying, and his brother told him that the blue robes looked good on him. He thought maybe Wei Ying would think so as well, though he felt foolish basing his clothing choice on the off chance that he might encounter Wei Ying.

When Lan Wangji reached up to take his hairpiece out, he was stopped by a hand on his upper arm. Wei Ying was suddenly closer than he had been before, close enough to reach out and pull him near, close enough to wrap him in his arms. Lan Wangji refrained because he feared that if he had Wei Ying in his arms, he might never let go.

“Do you need help with that?” Wei Ying asked, soft so as not to wake Wen Yuan who was dozing against Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

Lan Wangji’s fingers were well-experienced in quickly and efficiently tugging the elaborate hairpieces from his hair. He’d been wearing them since he was young, and he didn’t much like other people’s touch on him, even his brother. He had plenty of practice tugging his hair loose. Neither a lack of mirror nor the fact that he only had one hand free would hinder him, and he could likely have it down before Wei Ying would be able to figure out how it was kept in his hair. That didn’t stop him from tilting his head so that Wei Ying could reach the pin holding it in place.

Wei Ying’s fingers were cold when they brushed the shell of one of his ears, but it brought a flush of heat to his lobes anyway. As Wei Ying worked out how to release his hairpiece, Lan Wangji let his mind wander to a daydream that he hadn’t fully let himself realize before, but was now coming into full focus with Wei Ying’s careful attention taking him apart.

What would it be like to have this every evening, for Wei Ying to take his hair down, to run his fingers through the strands, to slip Lan Wangji’s belt from around his waist and his outer robe from his shoulders? What would it be like to be able to brush the tangles from Wei Ying’s hair and slide his clothes free until they pooled on the ground leaving all of Wei Ying’s soft skin on display? What would it be like to press against him, to take him in his arms and then take him apart?

“There,” Wei Ying said as the silver hairpiece slid from its perch.

Lan Wangji was half tempted to ask Wei Ying to help him take down the rest of his hair, but before he could embarrass himself like that, Wen Yuan tugged on the collar of his robe to get his attention.

“I’m sleepy,” he mumbled, still clearly just on the cusp of sleep. “Sing me a song.”

Lan Wangji looked to Wei Ying in question and then immediately averted his eyes because Wei Ying was taking his own hair down. Those dark locks pooling around his shoulders and across his back were almost too much for Lan Wangji.

“Gege, sing,” Wen Yuan mumbled again, a little whinier, request punctuated with another tug at the collar of his robes.

“You heard him,” Wei Ying teased, slipping into his bed and patting the space beside him for Lan Wangji to climb in after him. “You’re the one who doesn’t want him to be upset.”

Such an invitation wasn’t good for Lan Wangji’s heart, and he had to take a deep breath so he didn’t blurt out something embarrassing.

Once he was settled beside Wei Ying, not close enough to touch but close enough that he could feel his warmth bleeding across the blankets to him, Lan Wangji started humming. His face flushed hot as he hummed out the tune he had written for Wei Ying, wondering if Wei Ying even remembered it. He’d been so out of it in the cave, overcome with his fever that it wouldn’t be surprising for him to have forgotten.

“Mmm,” Wei Ying murmured, voice sounding far away. “What is that song? I’ve heard it before.”

Lan Wangji might have answered him, but he was so sleepy, and Wen Yuan was warm against his chest, and Wei Ying beside him made him feel so safe and content.

Lan Wangji drifted off to Wei Ying picking up the tune where he dropped it off.

He woke the next morning with the sun like he had for as long as he could remember.

This time was different, though. This time he did not wake alone.

His heart leapt and then ached in turn when he blinked his eyes open to see Wei Ying lying beside him, mouth open in a snore, drool wetting the scrap of cloth he called a pillow under his head. Lan Wangji had dreamed more often than he would admit of waking beside Wei Ying, and now that it had been made reality, it was more beautiful than anything his sleeping mind could hope to conjure. Even with the damp smell of the cave and his clothes still covered in dirt and soot and whatever else, it still thrilled him to the very depth of his core. What he wouldn’t give to wake up beside Wei Ying every morning.

Then, his heart grew heavy once more when he remembered that this was the moment he was supposed to slip away. In the quiet of the morning, like a secret affair, like a man sneaking from a brothel, like a thief, like a heartbreak, he was supposed to gather the strength to climb from the bed, don his discarded robe, and leave Wei Ying sleeping soundly on the bed.

If he knew when Wen Yuan might wake, he might just try to stay until the very last moment that the boy stirred, but he didn’t trust himself not to lose all sense of time against the gentle rise and fall of Wei Ying’s chest.

Speaking of Wen Yuan, the boy was still where he had fallen asleep the night before, curled between them, clutching at the both of them like he couldn’t bear to let go. Lan Wangji was contemplating how to best go about uncurling the grip that little fist had on his robes when he realized that Wen Yuan was awake, blinking his sleepy eyes up at him.

For a moment, Lan Wangji just blinked back, unaware what to do. Then, like an instinct buried deep inside of him or perhaps a memory of his mother doing the same, he lifted his hand to run a gentle finger down the bridge of Wen Yuan’s little nose as he murmured, “Go back to sleep.”

Like magic, Wen Yuan’s eyes fluttered shut again, and Lan Wangji could breathe a sigh of relief. The sigh that followed was one of resignation.

Lan Wangji didn’t know if his difficulty releasing his robes from Wen Yuan’s grip was because of Wen Yuan’s determination, even in sleep, to keep him there, or his own reluctance to leave this place.

But it seemed that Lan Wangji wasn’t gentle enough because when he finally pried Wen Yuan’s hands away, the toddler’s eyes blinked open once more, and he sat up with a little whine, arms reaching out to Lan Wangji.

Wei Ying shifted on the other side of the bed, not waking, just shuffling around, so Lan Wangji plucked Wen Yuan from the bed so that he wouldn’t wake him.

“I must leave,” he said.

Although Lan Wangji knew in some measure that Wen Yuan was a child and that he wasn’t as apt to listen to reason, he did not expect the way Wen Yuan’s face scrunched up or the loud cry that he let out. He didn’t even grip onto Lan Wangji’s robes this time, he just brought his little fist up to his eyes and cried as Lan Wangji held him.

“Don’t cry,” he said, unsure as to what to do.

Wen Yuan, of course, didn’t listen, and continued to wail loud enough that Lan Wangji was afraid that he wouldn’t just wake Wei Ying but the rest of the Wens as well.

After a moment frozen in panic, Lan Wangji gathered the weeping boy close to his chest and rubbed a hand over his back, hoping to soothe him, rocking himself back and forth like he’d seen mothers do before. At first it seemed that it wasn’t working, but slowly Wen Yuan’s cries softened into hitching breaths and then into sniffles.

“Gege will stay?” Wen Yuan asked in a tiny voice cracked with tears.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji replied mainly because he was afraid that if he didn’t Wen Yuan might cry again.

At least until Wei Ying got up. He wanted to say goodbye at least.

Convinced that Lan Wangji wasn’t going to slip away, Wen Yuan let him free long enough to slip on his outer robe once more and pull his hair up. He decided not to put on his hairpiece because it was so out of place amidst the dirt and trees here.

Once he was decent, they stepped outside, and Wen Yuan had Lan Wangji walk him all around their little settlement, pointing out where Lan Wangji should walk next, rambling explanations as to what everything was as he kept one arm wrapped around Lan Wangji’s shoulders, clenched in his robes like he was afraid Lan Wangji might disappear.

As the morning progressed, slowly the other inhabitants started waking, most of them paying no mind to the two of them though they must have looked odd. Lan Wangji appreciated that because he didn’t want to have to talk with so many strangers without Wei Ying as a buffer, especially so early in the morning.

Wen Qing was the one who eventually approached them with an amused look in her eye, one eyebrow quirked in a way that made Lan Wangji feel like he was being judged.

“I can take him if you need to leave,” she said, holding her arms out for Wen Yuan.

Wen Yuan predictably ducked his head under Lan Wangji’s chin and let out a little distressed noise, so Lan Wangji just shook his head.

“Well, you should at least come sit down for breakfast and stop letting this little one boss you around so much.”

Breakfast was very modest, especially compared to their meal the night before, and Lan Wangji once again let Wen Yuan eat most of the food he was provided, not because he wasn’t hungry, but because he had a small fear that perhaps sometimes the toddler didn’t get as much food as he should.

By the time Wei Ying finally emerged from his cave looking mussed and still half asleep, they were almost done with breakfast.

“Lan Zhan!” He called out. “Weren’t you supposed to leave?”

Upon hearing this, Wen Yuan scrambled up from the table to wrap his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck and glare at Wei Ying.

“Gege stays.”

Wei Ying laughed as he plopped down beside the two, ruffling Wen Yuan’s hair as he sat.

“I was wondering why you’d left your hairpiece,” he said, turning to Lan Wangji. “I thought maybe you left it here as something to remember you by.”

Lan Wangji noticed that Wei Ying made no move to get food. No wonder he was so thin. Was he making sure that there was enough food for everyone else, or was his resentful energy stealing his appetite away. Lan Wangji was suddenly glad he’d agreed to a meal yesterday. Wei Ying had eaten well then.

“Are you going to head out after breakfast?” Wei Ying asked, leaning back on his hands.

Of course, the question had Wen Yuan clinging tighter, but Wei Ying scooted closer so that he could wrap a hand around his little back. Lan Wangji hoped that none of the Wens watching their exchange could tell how he was savoring the feeling of Wei Ying’s warm body pressed against him.

“Lan Zhan has to go sometime,” Wei Ying explained. “He stayed all night for you, but he has to get back soon.”

“I want Gege to stay,” Wen Yuan mumbled.

“I know, but Lan Zhan can’t stay,” he said, wiping some food from Wen Yuan’s cheeks.

“Why?”

Lan Wangji expected him to just keep saying that Lan Wangji had to get home so he was surprised when he changed tactics.

“Lan Zhan can’t stay because he doesn’t like me very much,” Wei Ying said, leaning in like he was sharing a secret with Wen Yuan. “I’m sure having to see me so often is very upsetting to him.”

Wei Ying glanced up to share a conspratorial look with him, but Lan Wangji didn’t want to play part in this. He also didn’t know how to tell Wei Ying that he had it wrong without revealing all of himself.

“You don’t like Xian-gege?” Wen Yuan asked, turning betrayed eyes upon Lan Wangji.

But then, did it matter?

“Don’t hate Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said with a stern look to Wei Ying.

Wei Ying didn’t seem to understand why Lan Wangji was looking at him like that because he just rolled his eyes.

“You don’t have to lie, Lan Zhan.”

Why did Wei Ying always think he was being dishonest?

“Lying is forbidden.”

“Well, maybe you don’t hate me now, but you used to.”

Lan Wangji had never much begrudged his lack of ability to communicate, but now, he wished he had Wei Ying’s ability to say whatever was on his mind. He regretted that Wei Ying could ever think that Lan Wangji hated him. Even when he was annoyed at Wei Ying and confused about his own feelings, he never hated him.

“Never hated Wei Ying.”

The skeptic look Wei Ying gave him was disheartening.

“Not even at first?”

Wen Yuan seemingly assured that Lan Wangji didn’t hate Wei Ying had gone back to his food leaving Lan Wangji to speak solely to Wei Ying.

“I was frustrated, insecure, unsure, but I never hated you.”

Wei Ying went silent.

He opened his mouth to respond, and Lan Wangji wanted to curse when he was interrupted.

“Wei Wuxian, are you ready to help us clear out the western field so that we can start planting?” One of the Wens called out, and older man, smiling despite the dirt on his face.

Wei Ying slumped down and let out a whine.

“After I had to go all the way into town yesterday? Don’t you know I’m still tired?”

The man laughed something deep and warm. He was one one who had given Wei Ying the wine at dinner the night before.

“Then send your boy to help us. He looks like a strong young man.”

Lan Wangji was of course a strong young man, and he didn’t mind helping out, so he nodded.

The man, Uncle Four if he remembered, seemed surprised that Lan Wangji agreed, but he waved him over anyway

At first, Wen Yuan refused to leave Lan Wangji’s side, helping him dig the ground, removing little stones when Lan Wangji tossed aside boulders, burying one of Lan Wangji’s shoes, previously white and now well on their way to brown, in a layer of dirt while he used the shovel.

The toddler really had a good run at keeping up with him, but after a while, his energy flagged, and he was more or less swaying on his feet in an effort to stay awake. When Wen Ning came to collect him, he didn’t even protest, too tired to remember that he was keeping Lan Wangji from leaving.

Lan Wangji wondered if Wen Yuan would cry when he woke to realize that he wasn’t there or if he would forget he had been there in the first place. Lan Wangji realized that both options left a knot in his chest.

With still more rocks to move and ground to dig, Lan Wangji decided to work at least a little more lest he leave the others he was helping in the lurch. He was so focussed on his work that he didn’t even notice Wei Ying's approach.

“Lan Zhan, A-Yuan is distracted now, so you can leave,” Wei Ying said suddenly.

Had Lan Wangji not looked up to Wei Ying’s face, he may have stood, brushed the dirt from his hands, and bid everyone farewell. But he did look up at Wei Ying’s face just in time to see a resigned smile slip away into something darker, heavier, something that Lan Wangji was trying not to call disappointment.

There was a decision forming in his head, an idea that he shouldn’t have let himself entertain, but couldn’t quite help it.

“I’m not finished helping,” he said, not lifting his hands from his task, and when that brought just a tinge of hope to Wei Ying’s eyes, he continued, “Will Wen Yuan not cry when he discovers me missing without saying goodbye?”

Wei Ying smiled then, something so sweet and almost embarrassed.

“I suppose you’re right, Lan Zhan, you’d better stay.”

Lan Wangji liked the sound of that. Staying. Just for a little while.

“He’s too good of a worker to let go now!” One of the men called out from the other side of what was becoming a proper field for planting.

That caused the rest of the workers to break into laughter and shouts of agreement.

“Yeah, Wei Wuxian, stop trying to convince him to leave. He’s a much better worker than you are anyway.”

Lan Wangji was unsure what to do in such an exchange. He was fairly certain they were joking, but he didn’t want Wei Ying to be offended if they weren’t, so he looked to Wei Ying to see what he should do.

There was a smile on Wei Ying’s face when he tossed a clump of mud at the man who had spoken.

“See if I ever rescue you again!” He said with a laugh. “Ungrateful, the lot of you!”

“Oh, just go,” Uncle Four said with a laugh. ”We’ll take plenty good care of your husband while you’re gone.”

Lan Wangji was as shocked as everyone else seemed to be by the way his hand slipped from its grip on his shovel, sending him sprawling forwards. Only his years of training keeping him from falling on his face.

He would have been mortified had it not been for Wei Ying’s steadying hand on his shoulder. The pressure was enough for him to almost forget his embarrassment.

“You had better behave,” Wei Ying said, smiling, though there was a dark blush on his cheeks. “Hanguang-jun is easily embarrassed.”

Wei Ying wandered away again with a laugh.

The rest of the day was filled with hard labor under the careful advice of the Uncles. It was the hardest work he had done in a long time, and he couldn’t help but relish in the satisfying ache of a hard day’s work.

Their evening meal that night was light, barely enough to curb his hunger, but Lan Wangji wouldn’t dare complain. He was mostly just happy that Wei Ying was eating what was on his plate, though he seemed to be giving every third bite to Wen Yuan who was seated between them.

Lan Wangji’s ears burned darker with every exchange with the Wens. They seemed to have latched on to calling him Wei Ying’s husband. Wei Ying had stopped protesting because they teased him every time he did. Lan Wangji would protest except he liked the sound of it.

“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered to him, leaning over close until his lips just barely brushed Lan Wangji’s ear. “They’re just teasing. If you want them to stop just say the word and I’ll have Wen Qing straighten them out.”

“No need,” Lan Wangji said.

By the time the meal was over and everyone heading to sleep, Lan Wangji had almost forgotten that he was supposed to leave. He didn’t remember until he lay a sleeping Wen Yuan down on the bed.

Wei Ying gave him a long look before he said, “You should probably get going, shouldn’t you?”

With Wen Yuan no longer clinging to him, he had no excuse. He couldn’t claim to not want to make Wen Yuan cry as a reason to stay forever.

But that didn’t mean he wanted to leave. He was having such a pleasant time, not just because Wei Ying was here but because the Wens were kind people who teased him without being harsh and made him feel welcome even though it was very obvious that he didn’t belong here.

“It’s late,” he said.

The smile Wei Ying gave him almost seemed shy.

“You could always slip away in the morning.”

Lan Wangji had the inexplicable urge to laugh, though he refrained.

“Oh, your ribbon is dirty,” Wei Ying said when Lan Wangji turned his back to undo his belt and remove his outer layer.

He turned to find Wei Ying lifting the end of his ribbon up with the tip of his finger. Even that small touch was enough to be significant, though Lan Wangji didn’t tell Wei Ying.

“Let me find you something to wash it with,” Wei Ying said.

Lan Wangji wanted to tell him that he didn’t mind, but Wei Ying had already jumped to his feet and left the cave before he could. Besides, he did mind at least a little bit. He didn’t care if his robes were covered in dirt, but his ribbon was different and he would like to wash it before it stained.

Wei Ying brought back a small basin with water in it.

“Hand it over,” he said, holding his hand out for the ribbon.

Lan Wangji wanted to protest, this was highly inappropriate for someone who was neither family nor his spouse, but he didn’t. Maybe it was wrong of him, but he liked the idea of Wei Ying doing something so intimate as washing his ribbon. Who else had to know?

As Wei Ying gently scrubbed the dirt spots away, he said, “I actually know what I’m doing, so don’t worry. I have washed plenty of laundry since I’ve been here.”

Lan Wangji was too distracted watching the careful motions of Wei Ying’s pretty fingers on his forehead ribbon to respond, but that didn’t seem to bother Wei Ying.

“Wen Qing made me do the laundry because I kept getting A-Yuan dirty. Also because I didn’t have anything else to do.”

Lan Wangji had only washed laundry maybe twice in his whole life and neither time went very well so he did not offer that information forward.

“Though you seem to have no problems finding work,” Wei Ying continued. “They’re going to be sad to see you go.”

Lan Wangji was going to be sad to go, though he didn’t admit that to Wei Ying as he trailed his eyes away from the ribbon to study the other man’s profile. Wei Ying was concentrating on the ribbon, so he didn’t notice Lan Wangji’s eyes taking in the way the wispy hairs that escaped from his ribbon fell over his cheekbone and the sharp cut of his jawline, visible even in the low candle light.

“There!” Wei Ying said, turning suddenly. “All clean. Now we just need to let it dry.”

Lan Wangji was feeling exposed without his ribbon, but he didn’t argue as Wei Ying found a clean place to hang it.

“It should be dry by the time you leave in the morning.”

Right. He had to leave in the morning. That shouldn’t make him want to slump his shoulders in disappointment.

When they settled into bed with Wen Yuan curled between them, Lan Wangji couldn’t help but wish that this wouldn’t end.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered into the dark of the cave. “Will you sing me your song again?”

Lan Wangji didn’t want to refuse this time, so he didn’t.

“Mmm, what’s this song called?” Wei Ying asked as Lan Wangji hummed.

Since he was preoccupied, he didn’t have to answer which was a relief because the quiet of the night and the exhaustion from the day’s work had his guard down. He might accidentally have blurted it out otherwise.

“Such a pretty tune,” Wei Ying said, sounding far away.

Lan Wangji drifted off to the sound of the song he wrote for Wei Ying echoing fauntly through the cave.

The next morning, A-Yuan was awake and already sitting up when Lan Wangji cracked his eyes open.

“Are you awake?” He whispered.

His little voice was so sweet in the mornings, especially contrasted with Wei Ying’s snores sounding through the caves.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji replied, not quite ready to sit up. He was sore from yesterday, and still tired from how late he had stayed up. “Awake.”

He should be ashamed of how quickly he had fallen out of his habits of rising with the sun and starting his day without any dawdling in bed. Two nights. Was that all it took to steal away a habit years in the making? Though, in his defence, he was going to sleep much later now, and he’d never before had a reason to linger in bed before. Now he had two, though he was sure that wouldn’t matter much to the rules of Cloud Recesses.

Then, like it wasn’t going to melt Lan Wangji’s heart, Wen Yuan lay back down against Lan Wangji’s side and tucked his head under his chin.

“Why is Xian-gege so loud when he sleeps?”

“To keep the monsters away,” he said.

One mustn’t lie, but he figured this was a better alternative than Wen Yuan being afraid of Wei Ying’s snores. He probably should have been concerned at how quick he was to go against the rules here, but he didn’t pay it much mind. Uncle would be horrified. He would probably blame Wei Ying for it, but Lan Wangji knew that it was all himself. Maybe this freedom was good for him, though, when he finally did go back to Cloud Recesses, he might be out of practice.

“Xian-gege said your sword is for fighting monsters.”

“It is, but I can’t have my sword when I sleep.”

Wen Yuan nodded like that made sense.

“I’m thirsty.”

Lan Wangji didn’t want to have to wake Wei Ying up, so he picked Wen Yuan up and headed from the cave in search of water.

Granny was the only one up and about when they made it outside, so Lan Wangji made his way over to ask her if she could show him where to get water.

When Wen Yuan saw her, he scrambled down from Lan Wangji’s arms to go sit in her lap. He probably missed her, having spent almost all of the previous day with Lan Wangji.

She provided him with a small cup of water, and after he had drank a few gulps, she poured another cup.

“Give this to your A-Die over there,” she said with a sly grin towards Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji’s heart stuttered in his chest as he stared. He knew this was just another tease, like calling him husband, but it sounded so nice.

“Who is A-Die?” Wen Yuan asked.

Granny nodded over to Lan Wangji.

“If he is Wei Wuxian’s husband then that makes him your A-Die.”

The damage was done before Lan Wangji could intervene, so he just had to sit back and take it when Wen Yuan turned to him with his bright smile and shouted, “A-Die!”

Lan Wangji refused to admit to the fluttering contentment in his chest.

“What are your intentions with Wei Wuxian?” Asked a sudden voice behind Lan Wangji, halting the light feelings in his chest.

He turned to see Wen Qing walking over to where they sat, her brother trailing behind her. Once her words registered, Lan Wangji felt himself flush hard. How had they guessed so quickly? Was he so transparent?

“I mean, it’s obvious that you are in love with him,” she continued, ignoring the horrified look her brother shot her at her lack of tact. “But what are you expecting out of him?”

Lan Wangji thought to deny it, but then he realized that he didn’t know if he could.

“I want Wei Ying to be happy,” he said, “And safe.”

Wen Qing nodded as she sat down beside Granny.

“Good,” she said. “Have you given up on wanting to take him to Cloud Recesses for punishment?”

Is that what Wei Ying had thought? He ached to know. No wonder he’d been refused if Wei Ying thought he only wanted to punish him.

“If anyone tried to lay down punishment on Wei Ying, I would stop them with every breath I have,” he said, shocked by his own intensity. “I never wanted to punish him. Only protect.”

Wen Qing nodded.

“Ah, so that idiot misunderstood? Why am I not surprised?”

Lan Wangji wanted to protest her calling Wei Ying an idiot, but he figured this wasn’t the time.

“Mn.”

Wen Yuan shifted on Lan Wangji’s lap to look up at him.

“Do you want to play, A-Die?”

Lan Wangji cut his eyes over to Wen Qing to catch her shooting him a sharp look at how Wen Yuan addressed him. He felt a sudden shame at not correcting him the first time he’d done it. Lan Wangji didn’t have any relation to Wen Yuan, and here was his family. No doubt it was a slap to their faces. A perceived slights against them and their family name.

He was stopped from giving an apology and correcting Wen Yuan by Granny, laying a hand on Wen Qing’s arm and giving her a smile.

“That’s my fault,” she said. “I was teasing.”

Wen Qing looked back to Lan Wangji with a calculating look.

She didn’t break her gaze from him as she said, “I can’t wait to see Wei Wuxian’s face when he hears A-Yuan call you that.”

Lan Wangji hadn’t even thought of that, and it made his ears warm.

Most everyone else was awake when Wei Ying wandered from his cave. Lan Wangji’s heart warmed to see him, mussed and stretching his arms over his head. That warmth turned to a thundering heartbeat when he realized that Wei Ying had his forehead ribbon in one hand, its long strands trailing behind him as he walked.

“Here Lan Zhan, you forgot this when you left this morning,” he said when he noticed where Lan Wangji was staring.

Lan Wangji assumed that Wei Ying was going to hand him the ribbon, so he was startled speechless when Wei Ying sat down behind him and looped it around his forehead to tie it on himself.

“Tell me if I tie it too tightly,” he continued, oblivious to the way every bit of Lan Wangji was singing in some amalgamation of elation and panic and longing.

He hoped the way he was holding back the tremors that threatened to overtake him wasn’t obvious.

“A-Die, why do you wear that?” Wen Yuan asked, causing Wei Ying’s hands to jerk where they were on Lan Wangji’s ribbon.

He recovered quickly, fingers returning to the task as he let out a weak laugh.

“Why are you calling him A-Die?” He asked. “I thought he was Rich-gege.”

“A-Die’s your husband, so he’s A-Die!” Wen Yuan said, proud of himself for remembering.

Wei Ying went silent, so Lan Wangji said, “Granny told him.”

He was surprised when Wei Ying tipped his head forwated to rest his forehead on Lan Wangji’s shoulder blade. Lan Wangji could feel his warmth through his robes.

“What am I going to do with you two?” He asked with a little huff of laughter. “My heart can’t handle how cute you are.”

Lan Wangji’s heart couldn’t handle Wei Ying’s warm weight pressed against him, but he didn’t dare say that out loud lest he die of shame.

That morning they spent pulling turnips from the ground for Wen Ning to take into town to sell.

Wen Yuan insisted that he be buried in the dirt beside the rest of the turnips, and Lan Wangji was helpless to deny him.

“Xian-gege said that I can grow brothers and sisters,” he said with a giggle.

Lan Wangji thought that a boy as lovely as Wen Yuan deserved as many siblings as he desired, so he made sure to bury him extra well.

As the day progressed, Lan Wangji noticed something that disturbed him. For a while, he had been suspicious that something was wrong with Wei Ying’s core. The conclusion was obvious when you put the pieces together. He didn’t use his sword or his strength or his spells. Just his flute and the resentful energy that Lan Wangji still feared would bring about Wei Ying’s end.

Watching him now, it was obvious that Wei Ying didn’t use spiritual energy at all.

He wondered if the burial mounds had somehow hurt his core or if the resentful energy was suppressing it in some way. Some terrified part of him wondered if Wen Zhuliu hadn’t destroyed it before Wen Chao threw him into the burial mounds.

He waited until they were alone to confront Wei Ying about it.

That night when they lay in the quiet of the cave with Wen Yuan sleeping soundly between them, Lan Wangji spoke.

“Wei Ying,” he said, because he couldn’t stand it any longer. If Wei Ying would just tell him what was wrong, then maybe he could help. “There is something wrong with your core.”

Wei Ying made no sound from beside him, but Lan Wangji knew he wasn’t asleep because it sounded like he was holding his breath. After a beat, Wei Ying let out all the air he was holding and shifted around to turn on his side facing towards Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji could barely make out the shape of his face in the darkness of the room.

“I should lie,” Wei Ying said, subdued in a way that was almost frightening. “I should make up some story, but I trust you Lan Zhan, and I want you to know.”

Lan Wangji nodded, and when he realized that Wei Ying wouldn’t be able to see, he reached across Wen Yuan to lay a hand over Wei Ying’s shoulder.

“I’m listening.”

Wei Ying let out a wet laugh and laid his hand over Lan Wangji’s on his shoulder.

“Something isn’t just wrong with my core,” he said after taking a shaky breath. “I don’t have a core.”

He paused to let him process those words, which Lan Wangji appreciated.

It wasn’t as much of a surprise as Wei Ying no doubt thought it would be. Lan Wangji already had his suspicions. The confirmation still made his heart clench in his chest. It made him want to rip his own core from his chest and give it to Wei Ying if it would make him stop cultivating using resentful energy, if it would make him stop looking so sickly.

“How?” Lan Wangji asked, though it wasn’t hard to guess. There was only one person with the power to destroy someone’s core.

“How did it happen?” Wei Ying asked, voice quiet and subdued. “I should just say that Wen Chao had Wen Zhuliu destroy it.”

At those words, Lan Wangji’s mind raced and his heart dropped in his chest. If not Wen Zhuliu then who? Lan Wangji couldn’t think of another way a cultivator of Wei Ying’s calibre would lose their core completely.

“Lan Zhan, you can’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you,” Wei Ying said. His hand tightened around Lan Wangji’s in a tight, desperate grip. “You have to take this secret to your grave.”

“I swear,” Lan Wangji said.

He didn’t even hesitate. If Wei Ying asked, he wouldn’t deny.

Another shaky breath brushed over Lan Wangji’s cheeks.

“I gave it away,” he whispered.

Lan Wangji felt his own core pulse in his chest, like it was crying out in sympathy.

“Why?” He asked, desperate to know in what situation Wei Ying would ever give away something so precious.

“What would you do if Zewu-jun lost his core?” Wei Ying asked. “What would you do if he wanted to die because he couldn’t cultivate anymore? If he wouldn’t get out of bed or move or talk to anyone. What lengths would you go through if your brother was dying?”

For Xichen, Lan Wangji wouldn’t hesitate. Of course not, not if it meant keeping him alive. Again, his core pulsed, and Lan Wangji wondered if he really would be able to give away his core like that.

“Jiang Wanyin lost his core?”

Wei Ying let out a wet sniffle, and Lan Wangji realized he was crying.

“He wanted his parents’ bodies back, but Wen Chao found him. By the time I rescued him, his core had already been destroyed.”

Even with Wen Yuan between them, Lan Wangji moved his hand from Wei Ying’s shoulder so he could wrap his arm around his back and pull him close. Wei Ying dug his face into Lan Wangji’s shoulder and let out a shuddering breath.

“He doesn’t know,” Wei Ying said. “He can’t know or it would destroy him. He thinks Baoshan Sanren restored it. He can’t know, please Lan Zhan.”

“I won’t tell him.”

He couldn’t imagine. He couldn’t imagine being forced to choose between his core and his brother. He couldn’t imagine being Jiang Wanyin, walking around with his brother’s core, unaware that it was there.

“Thank you, Lan Zhan.”

“Mn.”

He gripped Wei Ying tighter and hoped that told him everything he wanted to say.

Wei Ying rubbed his cheek on Lan Wangji’s shoulder as he sniffled again.

“So now you know why I don’t use my sword and why I have to cultivate the way I do. It’s all I have left,” he said. “Now you can’t hate me for it.”

“Never hated you for it,” Lan Wangji said. If Wei Ying didn’t know anything else about how Lan Wangji felt for him, he had to know this. “I was worried.”

“You’re so good Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. “Too good for the likes of me.”

“No one is too good for Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying’s huff of laughter was lost to the way he had almost completely drifted to sleep.

Wei Ying didn’t ask, but Lan Wangji hummed out the quiet melody of his song, lulling Wei Ying fully to sleep, tipping him after Wen Yuan soon to follow himself.

The next morning, Lan Wangji awoke to find Wen Yuan still deep in sleep, curled up against Wei Ying’s side with his little fists tucked under his chin. When he realized that he could get up without disturbing Wen Yuan and slip away, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep until he felt curious hands tugging on the loose strands of his hair.

When Wei Ying emerged from his cave later that morning to join them for breakfast, he didn’t even mention the fact that Lan Wangji was still here. He just settled beside Lan Wangji, bumping their shoulders together as he plucked a peach from the center of the table.

Lan Wangji knew he was going to end up giving most of the fruit to Wen Yuan, but it was nice to see that he was going to at least take a little for himself.

“I must go into town,” Lan Wangji said after they had finished their meal, before he could get dragged away to move any more rocks or harvest any more turnips.

Wei Ying’s carefree grin fell from his face as soon as Lan Wangji spoke, and it was immediately replaced with a sad, resigned look.

“Of course,” he said, trying to force a laugh but failing. “You can’t stay here forever.”

But he had misunderstood. Lan Wangji wanted to stay. He wanted to stay until Wei Ying told him to leave. In the few short days he’d spent here, he had felt more at home than most of his life at Cloud Recesses.

“To contact my brother and let him know where I am. He should know not to expect me back.”

Wei Ying blinked at him in surprise, and Lan Wangji wondered for a moment if he’d overstepped, but then a wide smile split his face in two.

“A-Yuan, your A-Die and I have to go into town,” he said. “Do you want to go with us?”

Wen Yuan cheered and latched onto Wei Ying’s arm.

Wen Wing gave them a list of things to get and a stern command not to buy anything frivolous, though Lan Wangji had his money pouch and wasn’t planning on spending any of the money she provided them for supplies.

Wei Ying was in good spirits as they walked down the path, and Lan Wangji couldn’t help but hope it was because he said that he was staying. Wen Yuan seems to match his energy, and Lan Wangji watched fondly as they chased each other around on the path, taking turns hiding behind him for protection before running off again.

After he sent his letter, they spent the afternoon shopping. Lan Wangji got potatoes for Wei Ying, a couple of wooden figurines for Wen Yuan, and supplies for those back at the Burial Mounds. It was nice. It felt like they were a family, and Lan Wangji found himself pretending that this was real. That Wei Ying and he were married, that Wen Yuan was their son, that they were happy and Wei Ying loved him back.

He felt immediately guilty, though, because it felt like taking advantage of Wei Ying’s friendship to imagine him in such a way. Wei Ying finally believed that Lan Wangji didn’t hate him, so why would he ruin it by wanting more than Wei Ying was willing to give?

That evening as they were preparing for bed, Wen Yuan sat on the floor, fluttering his little toy butterflies back and forth having them talk to each other, mimicking their voices saying they liked each other, having them trade kisses back and forth. After a while watching him do this, Wen Yuan looked up to Lan Wangji.

“Do you and Xian-gege kiss?” He asked.

If Lan Wangji were any less practiced at controlling his emotions, he might have gaped at Wen Yuan.

Wei Ying refused to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes as he let out a nervous laugh.

“Why do you ask that A-Yuan?”

Wen Yuan held out one of his little butterflies and had it place a kiss on Wei Ying’s cheek, and at that, Lan Wangji felt such a sudden bout of fondness flood his chest that it left him momentarily breathless.

“Granny said husbands are for kissing, and A-Die is your husband so do you kiss him?”

Lan Wangji was torn between being impressed by his sound logic and embarrassed that Granny was obviously trying to use Wen Yuan to meddle.

“Ah, that’s right, but me and Lan Zhan aren’t really—”

“You have to kiss!”

Lan Wangji should scold him for interrupting, but he was too busy trying not to combust at all this talk of kissing.

“A-Yuan, we really can’t,” Wei Ying continued.

He looked to Lan Wangji for help, but he was still too busy being struck dumb.

“But you like A-Die, don’t you?” Wen Yuan asked.

He really looked heart broken.

“Of course, A-Yuan, but Lan Zhan doesn’t want to kiss me.”

And then those distressed eyes were on Lan Wangji giving him no time to think about what Wei Ying had just said.

“Do you not love Xian-gege?” He asked in a heartbroken voice.

He looked on the verge of tears, so Lan Wangji decided to be impulsive for once in his life. Being impulsive was prohibited, but Lan Wangji wasn’t in Cloud Recesses, so he could allow it. Besides, he had dreamed of kissing Wei Ying for so long now that it barely counted as impulsive, this was probably the most thought through action he had ever taken.

Also, if he didn’t kiss Wei Ying now, he would either have to lie, or admit that he did in fact love Wei Ying, and neither option was particularly appealing.

He cupped Wei Ying’s face between his hands, as gently and reverently as he could with them trembling like they were, and he pressed a soft chaste kiss onto his lips before he could protest.

He didn’t give Wei Ying any time to react to the kiss, either, pulling away almost as quickly as he’d pressed in, but Wei Ying followed his lips as they retreated almost like he was chasing the kiss. If there hadn't been a toddler between them, Lan Wangji might just have pressed in again.

“We kissed,” Lan Wangji said, resisting the urge to press his fingers to his lips to savor the kiss.

His heart was beating so loud and so quick in his chest, that it almost felt like panic even as he was tingling all over.

Wen Yuan seemed satisfied because he turned back to his butterflies without another word.

Lan Wangji refused to so much as glance over to Wei Ying even though he could tell that the other man was trying to communicate something to him over Wen Yuan’s head.

He almost thought he’d avoided talking about it completely until they were settled back in bed, Wen Yuan lost in sleep between them.

“Lan Zhan, you stole my second kiss,” Wei Ying said suddenly, sounding wistful instead of accusatory.

Lan Wangji tried to keep the surprise off of his face. After Lan Wangji had kissed him on Phoenix mountain, Wei Ying had said he had plenty of experience before. Was he lying then or lying now?

“Second?”

Wei Ying let out a soft laugh.

“What? Did you think I’d never been kissed before?”

Like usual, he’d misunderstood.

“But you said before you’ve kissed many maidens.”

Wei Ying cocked his head in confusion for a moment before remembering what Lan Wangji was talking about.

“Ah, I was joking before, of course. I’ve only ever been kissed once before,” he said before leaning in close to whisper. “Don’t tell anyone, but my first kiss was that very day, and I don’t know the identity of the culprit who stole it.”

“Mn.”

He hoped he sounded casual even though every part of him was screaming both at the proximity and what Wei Ying was saying.

Wei Ying leaned back away with another laugh. “Though, I bet that was Lan Zhan’s first kiss.”

“Second,” Lan Wangji said, heart pounding in his chest at how close he was to admitting to Wei Ying exactly who stole his first kiss.

Something in him wanted to just blurt out the whole thing and see how Wei Ying would react. Though, if he admitted to that, he might just admit to everything, and that was frightening enough that Lan Wangji kept his lips sealed.

“What?” Wei Ying asked.

“That was my second kiss as well.”

Wei Ying sat up on his elbow, ignoring the way Wen Yuan shifted, almost jolted from sleep by the sudden movement. He stared at Lan Wangji for a moment, and when Lan Wangji didn’t elaborate, he spoke.

“Who was the first?”

Lan Wangji felt like he had revealed enough for the evening, so he shut his eyes and didn’t respond, settling under the thin blanket with Wen Yuan pressed against his side.

“Lan Zhan, I know you aren’t asleep,” Wei Ying accused, shaking him slightly by the shoulder. “Tell me, who was it?”

Lan Wangji didn’t move as that would defeat the purpose, but he desperately fought back the way his lip threatened to quirk up in the corner in a smile. No doubt Wei Ying would notice immediately.

The laugh Wei Ying let out was fond and soft.

“Lan Zhan, sometimes you are too cute,” he said, reaching over to tuck one of the loose strands of hair on Lan Wangji’s forehead behind his ear.

It was equal parts thrilling and comforting. He wanted Wei Ying to keep brushing his fingers through his hair until he fell asleep. Maybe if he didn’t respond, Wei Ying wouldn’t stop.

“Ah! Your ears are turning pink,” Wei Ying exclaimed, trailing his fingers over the shell of Lan Wangji’s ear. He let out a quiet laugh and continued, “Is this how you blush? You should wear your hair away from your ears so I can tell when you are embarrassed.”

Lan Wangji wanted to protest or tell Wei Ying to be quiet, but he was still pretending to be asleep, so he refrained, enjoying instead the way Wei Ying’s hands returned to brush through his hair. The motions were comforting and gentle, and Lan Wangji could feel himself drifting off under the ministrations.

Days passed. So many, that Lan Wangji stopped keeping track. He spent his days working and playing with Wen Yuan and getting to know Wei Ying more than he ever thought he’d get the chance to. Those feelings of being out of place had faded as he found his place more and more among that small group.

When the invitation came for Wei Ying’s nephew’s one month celebration, Lan Wangji refused to let Wei Ying go alone.

“What if it’s a trap, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying protested. “I don’t want you getting hurt. You should go separate.”

“What if it’s a trap,” Lan Wangji returned. “Don’t want Wei Ying hurt. We should go together.”

Wei Ying stared at him with a dark, serious look on his face. Lan Wangji felt naked under his careful consideration as Wei Ying’s eyes bored into him. It seemed like forever before he looked away.

“Alright, we can go together.”

Wen Yuan latched onto Lan Wangji’s thigh with a bright smile.

“I want to go with you,” Wen Yuan said.

He and Wei Ying exchanged a glance that spoke so much. Did they risk taking Wen Yuan with them? Did they leave him here?

“I will protect him,” Lan Wangji said, not breaking eye contact.

Wei Ying nodded.

“And I will protect you both,” he said with so much conviction that Lan Wangji could almost feel it.

If they hadn’t been in public, Lan Wangji might have kissed him then.

“And you’ll all protect each other,” Wen Qing cut in. “We get it. Now you should leave before you miss the celebration because you were too busy whispering sweet promises into each other’s ears.”

Lan Wangji felt the proper response was to gather them onto his sword and take off.

Wen Yuan seemed to agree, if his delighted shout was anything to go by.

The flight wasn’t long. Wen Yuan loved being so high up, and at times it was almost difficult keeping him still. They kept their eyes out for any danger, but no one was waiting in the air to intercept them.

They arrived early, before the celebration was set to begin, but once they landed, they were shown to the new parents very quickly, with many a wary, curious eye on them.

Wei Ying waited until they were standing right in front of the couple to throw himself into Jiang Yanli’s arms.

“Shijie!” He called, ignoring the distressed noise from Jin Zixuan who was hovering by his wife’s side holding their son.

Lan Wangji thought the baby seemed very fat, but maybe that was normal. He hadn’t seen many babies in his lifetime.

The attention well and truly on Wei Ying, Lan Wangji waited with Wen Yuan as Jiang Yanli plucked her child from Jin Zixuan’s arms to pass over to Wei Ying. He wondered if the baby was heavy. He certainly looked heavy, though, compared to Wen Yuan who was a constant weight in his arms, the baby was probably very light.

Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli were lost in conversation as Wei Ying cooed over his nephew. Jin Zixuan seemed to be the only one who cared that Lan Wangji was there.

Seeing as he was holding Wen Yuan, Lan Wangji did not return his salute.

Wen Yuan peered over at Jin Zixuan from where his head lay on Lan Wangji’s shoulder as Jin Zixuan peered right back. Wen Yuan had a finger in his mouth, but seeing as his hands weren’t covered in the corrupted soil of the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji didn’t pull it away. Besides, Wen Yuan was almost asleep anyway, and he might jolt back awake if Lan Wangji were to remind him not to chew on his fingers.

“And who might this little one be?” Jiang Yanli asked, stepping over to place one of her thin, clean hands on the worn material of the back on Wen Yuan’s robe.

The contrast was jarring not only because the stark difference in both the quality and cleanliness of their robes, but also because the only other woman whose hand was neither wrinkle with age or covered in sunspots who held Wen Yuan was Wen Qing, and her hand was neither this clean nor her movements as delicate.

Wei Ying shifted beside him, and when his free arm came to wrap around Lan Wangji’s waist, he hoped that no one could see the way his ears warmed at the sensation. One glance over to Wei Ying, still holding his chubby squirming nephew in his arm, and Lan Wangji realized all too suddenly that he liked how it looked. He’d often dreamed of having a family with Wei Ying, but this was more than dreaming, this was showing him exactly what it would look like. He craved that more than he would ever admit.

He was jostled from his thoughts how he often was, by Wei Ying saying something that caused his heart to race.

“This is A-Yuan, our son!”

Though Lan Wangji knew Wei Ying was joking, that didn’t stop the thrill that filled him at Wei Ying’s sudden declaration. He’d learned not to read so much into the careless things Wei Ying said, but this one ached a little too sweetly for him to brush it away completely.

After Wei Ying spoke, Jiang Yanli made very deliberate eye contact with Lan Wangji that told of years of having Wei Ying’s nonsense in close proximity. He thought that maybe he and she might get along well. She seemed a pleasant sort, and they already had their mutual love and exasperation for Wei Ying in common.

Jin Zixuan spoke up from where he stood, voice hesitant. “Yours?”

Lan Wangji was in the habit of correcting Wei Ying’s bold lies, but, though this might have been his wishful thinking and a projection of every dream he had of raising Wen Yuan with Wei Ying, what Wei Ying said wasn’t necessarily a lie, so he didn’t say anything. Also, he didn’t like Jin Zixuan as much as he liked those in their little community in Yiling, so he didn’t care whether or not Wei Ying lied to him.

“Of course, I gave birth to him! Can’t you tell?” Wei Ying said with a cheery voice.

Jiang Yanli smiled behind her hand even as Jin Zixuan gaped like a koi fish, glancing down to where Wei Ying rested his hand on his middle, poking it out to make it appear rounder.

“You can do that?” Jin Zixuan asked incredulously, taking a half step back like Wei Ying might infect him.

Never let it be said that the heir to the Jin Sect was a genius, though, having studied with him at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had never been under the assumption that Jin Zixuan was in possession of a scholar’s mind.

Wei Ying’s smile grew so large that Lan Wangji worried it might tear at the edges so he interjected before he could continue his lie.

“He did not.”

Only when Jin Zixuan turned his wide, disbelieving eyes to him did he realize what might be assumed next.

“The kid is yours?”

If anything, he sounded more shocked at that than the idea that Wei Ying had given birth, and Lan Wangji wasn’t sure how to take that.

Wen Yuan chose that very moment to speak, ruining any protest that Lan Wangji might have given.

“A-Die, can I see the baby?” He asked in a timid voice, tugging on the collar of Lan Wangji’s robes to get his attention.

Wei Ying laughed loud and bright as he held his nephew up for Wen Yuan to see.

“Do you want to hold him, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asked.

Lan Wangji had never held a baby before, and he didn’t normally like to try new things in front of so many things, but he figured he wouldn’t mind this time.

They were interrupted before he could answer by the sound of the doors bursting open.

They turned to find who Lan Wangji recognized as Jin Zixuan’s cousin, wheezing and panting, face blotchy with exertion.

“You!” He shouted, pointing a shaky finger at Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji thrust Wen Yuan into Jiang Yanli’s arms and stepped slightly in front of Wei Ying, placing a hand on Bichen’s hilt in case it was needed.

Wei Ying was still holding Jin Ling, so Jin Zixuan stepped up as well to place himself between his cousin and his infant son.

“Cousin!” He shouted. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I’m dying, Zixuan!” He wailed. “That scourge has cursed me!”

Wei Ying leaned close to Lan Wangji’s ear to whisper, “Who is this?”

Lan Wangji recognized him, but he didn’t care to remember his name so he shrugged.

“You say he has cursed you, where’s your proof, Zixun?” Jin Zixuan said.

Lan Wangji was pleasantly surprised that the Jin heir seemed to be on Wei Ying’s side, though he assumed that was more for Jiang Yanli’s sake than Wei Ying’s.

When Jin Zixun parted his robes at his chest, Lan Wangji wanted to turn his nose up at the mess of pockmarked, rotting flesh.

The hundred holes curse.

Wei Ying stepped forward after placing Jin Ling into Jin Zixuan’s arms.

“Ah, but had I cursed you, I would be marked as well,” he said, addressing Jin Zixun. “Should I bare myself to you in order to prove my innocence? As the Yiling Patriarch, surely I have no shame left.”

He then called over his shoulder.

“Shield your eyes, Shijie, I am going to disrobe!”

“No you’re not!” Lan Wangji called, the sound of his voice echoed by Jin Zixuan shouting the same.

Lan Wangji spoke up instead to save himself and the rest from Wei Ying stripping.

“Wei Ying has no such curse mark.”

And then all eyes were on him.

“And how would you know?” Jin Zixun asked with a disdainful sneer that made Lan Wangji want to silence him.

Lan Wangji hadn’t seen Wei Ying naked. He didn’t have proof like that. He knew because he knew Wei Ying. He didn’t even remember this man’s name, so what reason would he have to curse him? Besides, if Wei Ying really had a problem with that man, he woi;ldn’t have been quiet about it. Wei Ying was many things but subtle was not one of them.

“A gentleman never kisses and tells, right Lan Zhan?” Answered, shooting a wink to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji might have been embarrassed if not for the horrified looks from most of the others in the room. He wasn’t sure what it said about himself that he liked that they thought that about him and Wei Ying.

“Don’t try to deny it,” Jin Zixun said, pulling his robes back together so that he could draw his sword. “Just remove the spell!”

There was a desperate edge to his voice and a manic shine to his eyes that made Lan Wangji want to pull Wei Ying back behind him.

“Zixun, Wei Wuxian is my guest. You cannot just barge in here and start throwing around baseless accusations.”

“How can you betray your family like this?”

“Wei Wuxian is my wife’s brother, so he is my family now too, now.”

Jin Zixuan made a complicated horrified face after he said that, but he didn’t take it back.

Apparently, that was the final straw for Jin Zixun because with a shout, he leapt towards Wei Ying with his sword drawn. He only seemed to grow more angry when his sword met Lan Wangji’s, and he let out another shout.

“If he won’t remove the curse, then he must die!” He shouted.

Lan Wangji silenced him because his voice was grating, especially so close. Jin Zixun stumbled back a couple of steps in surprise, and let out a string of enraged, unintelligible mumbles behind his closed lips

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t me,” Wei Ying said. “I don’t even know who you are.”

That seemed to be exactly the wrong thing to say because Jin Zixun’s eyes all but flamed red as he lunged again, only to be blocked once more by Lan Wangji’s sword.

The curse must have been very advanced indeed because Jin Zixun was already out of breath, his movements slowing, his sword wavering in his hand. It was almost nothing for Lan Wangji to disarm him and knock him from his feet.

Once he was on the ground, he seemed to be unable to get back to his feet, and Jin Zixuan called for the guards to help. Once they arrived, he had them take a still heaving, still angry Jin Zixun scrambling for his sword.

“Take him to the physician,” Jin Zixuan said. “See if anything can be done.”

Once he had been dragged away screaming through the spell still silencing him, Jiang Yanli turned to the rest of him.

“Well, I’d say it’s about time for lunch, wouldn’t you?”

They dined privately with Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan. Lan Wangji helped Wen Yuan pick his way through all the extravagant options that the boy had never seen before as Wei Ying once again held his nephew in his arms.

Lan Wangji was barely paying attention to their conversation, but de definitely heard when Jiang Yanli said, “Should we be expecting a wedding announcement from you two anytime soon?”

Lan Wangji’s heart started beating wildly in his chest. Was she just teasing like the Wens did or did she really think they were together?

Wei Ying scoffed.

“Don’t be silly, Shijie, Lan Zhan doesn’t want to marry me,” he said casually.

But Lan Wangji did.

“I do,” he said.

The words slipped out without Lan Wangji’s permission, but he couldn’t find it within himself to regret it, even when Wei Ying froze so completely that his cup fell from his hand.

The rest of the table seemed to freeze as well, waiting on Wei Ying’s reaction. Lan Wangji could scarcely breathe as he waited for Wei Ying to say something, anything.

Wei Ying scrambling to his feet was sudden and startling, and it might have made Lan Wangji afraid had Wei Ying not grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to his feet as well.

“Please excuse us for a moment,” Wei Ying said, pulling Lan Wangji behind him.

Lan Wangji should probably be nervous, but the frantic beat of his heart came more from the grip Wei Ying had yet to loosen in his arm rather than the truth he’d let slip.

Wei Ying didn’t stop walking until they were around the corner. He turned to Lan Wangji, grip tight, hand shaking.

“Did you mean that?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji replied without hesitation. He refused to take it back now.

In an instant, Wei Ying let go of Lan Wangji’s arm to begin frantically pacing, running his trembling hands through his hair.

“Lan Zhan, why didn’t you tell me?” He demanded.

Lan Wangji wanted nothing more than to gather Wei Ying’s shaky hands in his own to try and calm his nerves, but he knew Wei Ying needed to be moving to think this through.

“It was obvious.”

Wei Ying threw his hands in the air, still not looking over to Lan Wangji.

“Obvious?” He asked. “No it wasn’t. You never said.”

How Wei Ying had missed it, Lan Wangji didn’t know. It seemed that everyone around them knew.

“Still obvious.”

“How?”

Did Wei Ying really need him to spell it out? If that was what it took, though, he would.

“I stayed in Yiling for Wei Ying,” he said.

What else could that have meant? He uprooted his whole life to stay there. What did Wei Ying think, that he was still lingering because he didn’t want Wen Yuan to cry?

“You stayed for A-Yuan!” Wei Ying shouted, sounding just shy of hysterical.

Lan Wangji went on. “They call me your husband.”

Wei Ying let out a hysterical bark of laughter.

“Uncle Four started that and you know he’s always joking!”

“I kissed you,” Lan Wangji continued and then, since this was apparently the time for confessions, “Twice.”

“Only because A-Yuan made us.” Wei Ying then froze in his pacing to stare over at Lan Wangji with wide, searching eyes. “Wait. What do you mean twice?”

“Phoenix Mountain.”

“That was you?” Wei Ying asked in a screech that could no doubt be heard by the rest of those still dining in the other room.

Instead of letting Wei Ying get sidetracked, Lan Wangji continued.

“I let you tie my ribbon in place.”

If Wei Ying still wouldn’t believe him, he really didn’t know what else he could do.

“So?” Wei Ying said.

“Do you not remember what it means? Who is permitted to touch it?”

Wei Ying had studied at Cloud Recesses, and though he hadn’t completed his time there, surely he had known.

Hearing this, Wei Ying paused in his pacing to stare ahead, trying to piece together everything he was hearing.

“But…” He looked so distraught that Lan Wangji wanted to gather him into his arms, though, at the moment, that would no doubt cause him even more strife. ”But you hate me.”

“I never hated you.”

“That doesn’t mean you love me, though.”

“Does.”

“Yeah but…” Wei Ying trailed off to stare at Lan Wangji with a distraught look on his face.

Lan Wangji wanted to tell him, needed to tell him. The time for discretion was over, the time for hiding his feelings was done.

“Wei Ying, I love you,” Lan Wangji said, stepping forward to take one of Wei Ying’s hands in his own. “Everyone else seems to know, so you should as well.”

“You really love me?”

“I do.”

“Not like a friend?”

“Yes like a friend,” Lan Wangji said, “but also as a partner, a lover, a soulmate,” If Wei Ying didn’t start believing him soon, Lan Wangji might just go insane.

Wei Ying’s voice was small, disbelieving and timid in a hopeful way when he spoke again.

“You said you want to marry me?”

“I would have married you when we were children at Cloud Recesses if I could have.”

And then, as suddenly as an arrow fired from a bow, tears started dripping down Wei Ying’s cheeks. Lan Wangji didn’t even hesitate before wrapping his arms around Wei Ying and pulling him close to his chest.

“Why would you love someone like me?”

“Not someone like you. I love you. Only you,” he said. “You good and kind and smart and caring and selfless.”

Wei Ying squeezed Lan Wangji’s hands with his own and gave a teary laugh.

“I don’t even have a core,” he said, searching Lan Wangji’s eyes like they would hold the answers he needed.

Lan Wangji tried his hardest to let them speak for him.

“I would give you mine if that would make you believe me,” he said, stepping closer so that they were pressed together.

“No!” Wei Ying exclaimed. “Lan Zhan, don’t ever say that. I could never take that from you. You need your core more than I ever would. You deserve it more.”

He still didn’t get it. How could Wei Ying still think himself undeserving when Lan Wangji was the one who was barely worthy to be holding Wei Ying’s hands like he was.

“You deserve the world,” he said with as much sincerity as he had in him. “I would give you anything if it would make you happy.”

A beat. A pause wherein Lan Wangji couldn’t hear anything over the beating of his own heart before Wei Ying spoke again.

“There is one thing that would make me happy.”

“Tell me, and I will make it happen.”

Whether Wei Ying wanted the sky or the sea or all the gold in the world.

“Kiss me, please.”

He was helpless to deny.

Lan Wangji cupped Wei Ying’s face in his hands, heart beating wildly in his chest but hands steady. He tilted Wei Ying’s head to lean in close, basking in the flush over the bridge of Wei Ying’s nose and the way his eyes fluttered shut in anticipation. He paused for a moment to just devour the look on Wei Ying’s face as he waited to be kissed, breathless at the beauty he found.

When he finally pressed his lips to Wei Ying’s it was unlike either of the kisses they had shared previously. It wasn’t the hungry heat of their stolen kiss on Phoenix Mountain and neither was it the chaste, dry smack of lips that they shared to appease Wen Yuan.

Lan Wangji let himself savor the feel of Wei Ying’s lips, plump, warm, parted just slightly in surprise or anticipation. His heart thrilled at the bitter sting of alcohol he could just barely taste lingering on Wei Ying’s mouth, sweeter than anything he had tasted before.

Wei Ying pressed back eagerly, savoring Lan Wangji just as deeply, just as desperately. In both of their previous kisses, Wei Ying hadn’t responded. The first because Lan Wangji had surprised him and then taken control immediately, Wei Ying, unsure as to whose tongue slipped past his lips, whose hands pinned his wrists above his head, had remained in a state of struggle, a state of shock. That kiss, Lan Wangji had taken for himself, uncaring as to whether or not Wei Ying was an active participant.

The second kiss, their most recent kiss, had happened so quickly that Wei YIng hadn’t had time to press back. Over and done with likely before he had even realized he was being kissed.

Neither of those kisses could have prepared him for this.

Lan Wangji never wanted to part from this moment, from Wei Ying’s lips. He wanted to stay here forever. He wanted to drown here under Wei Ying’s attention.

Wei Ying kissed back as fiercely as Lan Wangji pressed in. He wrapped his arms around Lan Wangji’s shoulders and pulled them close until it seemed like every bit of them was pressed together. His lips moved like they were desperate for Lan Wangji, like they needed this kiss to survive.

How could Lan Wangji ever have thought he could live without this? Wei Ying in his arms now pressing back against him was more precious to Lan Wangji than the very air he breathed.

When Lan Wangji bit down on Wei Ying’s lower lip, Wei Ying let out a truly sinful noise, and Lan Wangji took the opportunity of Wei Ying’s now open mouth to slip his tongue inside, needing to be as close as he could.

Wei Ying let out another needy noise and pressed in harder, almost bruising in his intensity.

Lan Wangji choked back a whine when Wei Ying pulled back, just enough to breath, their lips still brushing with every exhale, every tremble.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispered. “I love you too.”

Lan Wangji surged forward, catching Wei Ying in another kiss that spoke of years of longing. Wei Ying answered with his own longing, pulling Lan Wangji closer to him even though there was nowhere closer for him to get.

As they kissed, Lan Wangji reached up to loosen his forehead ribbon, and he didn’t break away until it was in his hand.

“Wei Ying,” he breathed, pulling away enough to look Wei Ying in his eyes, breathless from the kiss and breathless from the adoration he found looking back at him.

Wei Ying looked confused when Lan Wangji pulled one of his arms from around his neck, but once he caught sight of the ribbon in Lan Wangji’s hand, his breath caught in his throat.

“Do you know what this means?” Lan Wangji asked, poising the ribbon over Wei Ying’s wrist but not yet wrapping it around.

Wei Ying nodded, tears once again lending a shine to his eyes as he laughed a giddy little thing.

“May I?” Lan Wangji asked.

He wanted this but only if Wei Ying wanted the same.

“Of course, Lan Zhan,” he breathed, pressing his wrist farther into Lan Wangji’s grip. “Please.”

Lan Wangji’s hands were trembling as he wrapped the ribbon so deliberately around the rabbiting of Wei Ying’s pulse. His own eyes swelled with tears, but he didn’t bother wiping them away when they dripped down his cheeks.

Wei Ying gave a wet laugh and reached up to catch Lan Wangji’s tears with his hands, wiping them away as they fell.

“Lan Zhan, I never let myself hope,” he said. “I dreamed, but I didn’t think you would ever—”

He cut off when Lan Wangji pressed a kiss to the ribbon over his wrist before pressing forward to kiss him on the lips again.

“I’m so happy, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said when they pulled back for breath.

Lan Wangji smiled against Wei Ying’s lips.

“Happy,” he said into the kiss, because it was true. He couldn’t remember a time where he’d been happier.

After a moment, Wei Ying pulled back just a little.

“We should probably head back before someone comes looking for us,” he whispered.

Lan Wangji didn’t want to pull away, but he did anyway after one last kiss to Wei Ying’s lips.

As they made their way back, Wei Ying reached out and tangled his fingers with Lan Wangji’s giving his hand a squeeze. Everyone pretended not to notice when they walked back in, which Lan Wangji appreciated. No doubt it was immediately obvious what they’d been up to, and he didn’t know if he could stand any knowing looks.

“To answer your question, Shijie,” Wei Ying said as they settled back at the table. He had yet to let go of Lan Wangji’s hand, and the giddy part of Lan Wangji’s brain hoped he never would. “You should be hearing an announcement very soon.

She laughed loud enough that it startled Jin Ling in her arms to tears.

“Why is A-Die’s ribbon on your arm?” Wen Yuan asked, scrambling up into Wei Ying’s lap.

“This means that your A-Die and I are getting married,” he said, sharing a loving glance with Lan Wangji.

Was it bad that Lan Wangji never wanted to look away from him? Probably, but Lan Wangji had been trying his whole life to be good, maybe a little bad was okay.

“What’s married?” Wen Yuan asked.

Jin Zixuan answered from where he sat, looking a little flustered, no doubt from their swift exit and then re-entry into the room looking so obviously rumpled from the kisses they had exchanged.

“It means they are going to be husbands,” he said.

Wen Yuan looked up at Wei Ying and then over to Lan Wangji.

“They already are husbands,” he said.

Jiang Yanli gave them a curious look before answering. She probably thought Wen Yuan didn’t know what husband meant.

“Well, it means they love each other,” she said, and then amended, “and they kiss.”

Wen Yuan scrunched his nose up in confusion.

“They already love each other and kiss,” he said. “I know. I saw them.”

Lan Wangji refused to meet Jiang Yanli’s amused look as Wei Ying laughed and hugged Wen Yuan to his chest.

“It means we’re going to be a family,” Wei Ying said.

Lan Wangji liked the sound of that.