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The paths of Cloud Recesses are as familiar to Lan Wangji as the backs of his own hands, each one cleared and worn into the mountain long before he was born. Walking them had always been a boon when he was younger, their shade bringing more than relief against the elements. Here, he could find solitude, here peace. For a summer, respite from a teasing smile that seemed to know him at a glance.

The secrets these mountains have kept.

He walks one of his favorites now, as he usually does on days when his duties as Chief Cultivator weigh particularly heavy. Or monotonous.

Lan Wangji hears Wei Ying’s laughter before he sees him, coming around a bend in the path to find him and Sizhui with the rabbits. They’re sitting--Sizhui’s posture perfect; Wei Ying’s decidedly not--and Sizhui smiles as he picks up a rabbit, turns it around, and deposits it in Wei Ying’s lap.

Out of which it immediately hops.

Wei Ying laughs again, and Lan Wangji pauses a moment to watch them. His throat feels suddenly tight. The first time he brought Sizhui here, there were fewer rabbits. Sizhui was a child. Wei Ying’s laugh a memory. To see the both of them here together now, happy in the sunlight, is a gift for which he is very grateful.

Something catches Wei Ying’s attention; when he turns to Lan Wangji, the smile that overtakes his features is full and immediate. “Lan Zhan!” he calls, and the tightness in Lan Wangji’s chest loosens. He continues along the path until he reaches them. “Lan Zhan, your rabbits don’t like me.”

“Maybe if Wei Ying didn’t proclaim his love of eating them.”

Sizhui covers a laugh with a cough.

Wei Ying scoffs, picking a rabbit up and holding it to his face. He wrinkles his nose at it, admonishes it for ever believing anything he says. He is ridiculous, and Lan Wangji cannot believe that he is allowed to have the feelings he has for Wei Ying. That Wei Ying reciprocates them. They will say goodbye to Sizhui and walk back to the Jingshi and Wei Ying’s lips will find his cheek or his hand will find Lan Wangji’s hand, and this is accepted. Expected.

Or Lan Wangji will lead him down a sheltered path and kiss him in the sun-dappled shade. There will be the sound of birds and waterfalls, of wind moving through the leaves. The smell of new, green life will rise from the ground where they’ve stepped off the path. Wei Ying will kiss him like he’s been waiting for Lan Wangji to pull him close since they parted that morning.

And Lan Wangji will kiss him, and kiss him. It is expected.

*

Wei Ying is distracting.

He used to distract Lan Wangji all of the time. Eighteen, and Lan Wangji hadn’t wanted to look at him, but he’d been unable to look away. His eyes had been drawn every time to the swirling skirts of Wei Ying’s robes or the swing of his hair, his laughing eyes. His mouth. No matter how hard Lan Wangji had tried, Wei Ying had been at his side or over his desk or shouting after him, following him nightly into his solitude until discipline and determination pushed him away.

And then the distraction wasn’t a bad one. Wei Ying was clever, and kind, thoughtful. Perceptive, when it suited him. A talented cultivator, a loyal friend. To see Wei Ying’s face light up at the sight of Lan Wangji had made his heart stutter in his chest. He’d carried those smiles with him, tucked them carefully at the back of his mind. They’d made all the difference some days, later.

Lan Wangji has been reading the same page for the last ten minutes. If he were to be asked directly, he honestly can’t recall what he was reading in the first place.

The accusation is, perhaps, uncalled for and unfair as Wei Ying is doing nothing more than reading and taking notes himself. And yet Lan Wangji can’t seem to pull his eyes away from the comfortable sprawl of his legs and the shadowed fall of his robes. There is ink smudged on the inside of one of his fingers; Lan Wangji marvels how it isn’t everywhere as Wei Ying lifts his hand to absently scratch at his head with the end of his brush.

His eyes are focused and his lips are parted, red where he’s worried at them. Lan Wangji knows what it is to be the focus of that attention, to be laid bare and studied by Wei Ying. There has never been anything more terrifying or exhilarating than being known by him.

Swallowing, Lan Wangji puts what he’s ostensibly been reading down and begins to tidy things away. He is aware of Wei Ying’s eyes on him, sure that he knows the real reason for his rising. Wei Ying reads him better than anyone, what used to be a curse now a blessing as he looks up at Lan Wangji with dark eyes full of mischief. Lan Wangji knows Wei Ying is aware of what he does to him--what he’s always done to him--because he’s told him, in actions if not always in so many words. He’s pressed his need into the curves of Wei Ying’s hips and shoulders, closed it around the fragile bones of his ankles and wrists. Dropped kisses like stones in a pool along the wings of his collarbones and watched the waves ripple out.

Wei Ying knows the feelings that beat in the tenderest part of him; he’s shared his own, and between them grown something unshakable.

“Are you finished?” Wei Ying asks, looking up at Lan Wangji’s outstretched hand. One corner of his mouth is curled up.

“Mn.”

The other corner of his mouth joins the first. “And what if I’m not?”

Lan Wangji looks at him, lets Wei Ying feel the weight of his regard as he takes in the smooth lines of his brow and nose before lingering on his mouth. He meets Wei Ying’s gaze. “Are you finished?”

Wei Ying licks his lips and laughs and says, “Yes, absolutely yes if you’re going to look at me like that.”

His fingers are tangled with Lan Wangji’s though Wei Ying barely uses him for leverage, and then he’s standing and they’re face to face.

“Ah Lan Zhan,” he says, his other hand on Lan Wangji’s face. He brushes back loose hair, fingers trailing along the edge of the headband. Wei Ying smiles and looks happy and healthy and whole. “If you wanted to kiss me, you should have just said.”

Lan Wangji’s own hands find Wei Ying’s waist and settle there. “Wei Ying, I would like to kiss you.”

The smile that gets him is slow as honey. It is amazing, the way their bodies fit together. Lan Wangji closes the space between them and kisses him.

*

Sleeping together takes practice. It was easy at first, in a way, the two of them too eager, too touch-starved for the other to give much care or thought to sleeping arrangements. The intimacy of sharing quarters, let alone a bed, is new to both of them. With time, they’ll fit together here, too...so he tells himself the third time Wei Ying wakes him from his sleep with restless fidgeting.

“Wei Ying,” he says. He doesn’t need to open his eyes to imagine the expression on Wei Ying’s face. “You don’t have to retire because I do.”

There’s unclear shifting beside him, and then Wei Ying’s head is on his chest. Breath ghosts across Lan Wangji’s fingers, and he wants to touch, so he does. Wei Ying wants him to. With careful fingers, he finds Wei Ying’s temple and brushes the hair back there before working his fingers into his hair. Wei Ying sighs against him.

“I know.” He presses his face to Lan Wangji’s chest. When he speaks again, his voice comes out muffled and slightly nasal. “I wanted to be near.”

Opening his eyes, Lan Wangji looks down at the top of Wei Ying’s head. There have been mornings when Lan Wangji has lingered in bed longer than he should have, afternoons where he’s delegated duties to Lan disciples, meals where he has ignored rules. He spent a year certain Wei Ying would come back and terrified he’d never see him again. Every letter received had been a reminder of the promise made; Lan Wangji had accepted each with eager fingers and heart. He’d read Wei Ying’s words, and he’d hoped. He’d written his own, and the joy with which he’d read Wei Ying’s response--Lan Zhan, my feet take me everywhere save where my heart longs most to be--had set his own heart soaring as high as the notes from Wei Ying’s flute.

And then a verdant ridge in spring, a figure in black standing alone, flute raised to their lips. The song Lan Wangji composed played, and his heart returned to him, a bird home to roost. Wei Ying had turned and smiled, and Lan Wangji’s heart was a restless thing with wings, finally settling.

His heart feels incredibly fond at the moment, full of Wei Ying. The desire to be near is something Lan Wangji understands intimately. He tugs gently on Wei Ying’s hair until he’s looking up at him, eyes huge in the dim light. He looks young and vulnerable, and Lan Wangji can’t help but remember all of the other times Wei Ying has looked young and vulnerable, all of those times when that’s exactly what he was. Lan Wangji brushes his thumb across Wei Ying’s cheek, watches the flutter of his eyelashes and the soft curve of his bottom lip. “Bring a candle. I do not mind.”

Wei Ying blinks at him, and then he’s got Lan Wangji’s wrist in his hand and he’s pressing a kiss to his palm. “You’re a genius.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. “Please let me sleep.” But he watches as Wei Ying slips from the bed to grab a candle and the book he’d taken from the library earlier in the day. He waits until Wei Ying is settled beside him, light burning low, and then closes his eyes.

He falls asleep to the sound of paper rustling and Wei Ying warm beside him.

*

The sound of Chenqing rises above the trees, and Lan Wangji follows it until he finds its source, Wei Ying a dark slash against green leaves and white water, gray stone. His back is to Lan Wangji, but Wei Ying turns as he approaches. The corners of his eyes crinkle, and Lan Wangji can feel the warmth of his smile even though his mouth is otherwise occupied.

When he lowers the dizi and the final notes fade, Lan Wangji steps close. His fingers find Wei Ying’s wrist and settle there against the shifting, living heat of him.

Wei Ying kisses him, a warm press of lips there and gone. “I knew you’d come if I played.”

There’s something in the tone of his voice, in Wei Ying’s eyes this close that gives Lan Wangji pause. Sometimes it is the years that weigh heavy; sometimes it is the lack of them. Cloud Recesses holds happiness for them both, but it also holds pain. Memories have worn the footpaths, they burnish the wood. Lan Wangji knows what it is to live and ache. He rebuilt his home from ashes, ached for three years and thirteen more. He could not go to the Cold Spring without seeing Wei Ying shivering in a cave and teasing him, and then shivering in the rain and asking Lan Wangji to let him go.

He raises Wei Ying’s hand between them, shifting his grip from the delicate bones of Wei Ying’s wrist to his fingers. Carefully, he brings Wei Ying’s knuckles to his lips. “Wei Ying is very clever,” he says, lips brushing skin, before he presses a kiss against the back of them.

Wei Ying’s eyes are wide, shining in a way they hadn’t been a moment before. His grip on Lan Wangji’s fingers is very strong. He licks his lips and says, “Lan Zhan, I feel like you’re mocking me, but uh. Honestly I don’t think I care. Are you occupied this afternoon?”

In answer, he presses another kiss to Wei Ying’s knuckles. “Only with Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying looks at him and smiles and Lan Wangji remembers a horizon of blue sky; a flute carried on the breeze; a slim, dark figure waiting.

He pulls Wei Ying close. Wei Ying’s delight rises above the trees.

*

“Lan Zhan, are you listening?”

“Mn.” He is not. Wei Ying lounges against him in the bath, head lolling on Lan Wangji’s chest. Most of his hair has been swept up in a messy bun, the ends of it escaping everywhere. He stopped really paying attention to anything but the way those dark ends curl against Wei Ying’s pale skin some time ago.

Wei Ying hums back, then keeps talking. His eyes are closed, but there’s a smile on his face as Lan Wangji lets the sound of his voice wash over him, filling quiet chambers of his heart. Wei Ying’s voice rises and falls, traversing the hills and valleys of his story--Lan Wangji registers Sizhui’s name alongside Jingyi--as he dangles his fingers in the slowly cooling water.

He’d returned to the Jingshi as the sun slipped behind the mountains, shadows lengthening around him, to find it already lit up, Wei Ying naked and soaking. The sight of him relaxing in the still steaming water had been too tempting; Lan Wangji had disrobed without comment. He’d ignored Wei Ying’s raised eyebrow and lascivious grin, though he’d kissed his upturned mouth before nudging Wei Ying until there was room behind him.

Wei Ying had laughed, bright and beautiful, as water splashed around them. He’d sighed as Lan Wangji had pulled him to his chest. “Ah Lan Zhan, you have the best ideas.”

“Tell me about your day.”

And so Wei Ying had. And Lan Wangji has listened, until--

From this angle, there isn’t much he can’t see. Wei Ying is beautiful, long limbs bent to accommodate the tub and Lan Wangji, skin flushed pink from the heat. He has none of the scars of his old life, and Lan Wangji is glad, at least, for the physical erasure of reminders. Wei Ying has suffered; let that be enough.

He’s flushed and pink and every time he shifts, every time he breathes, the water laps against his chest. Every time he moves his head, Lan Wangji is distracted by the dark hair that clings in whorls and dark lines against his skin, catching the light like fresh ink on parchment. Swallowing, Lan Wangji follows a drop of water as it traverses the length of Wei Ying’s neck, down to his chest. Down, down to the edge of the water and splay of Wei Ying’s thighs.

Lan Wangji’s mouth feels parched.

“--you think? Lan Zhan?”

He blinks to find Wei Ying’s head rolled to the side, Wei Ying looking at him with an expression that says he knows exactly what he’s caught Lan Wangji at.

“Thinking about something else, Lan Zhan?” His hand slips beneath the water, Lan Wangji watching as he trails his fingers down his thigh. He’s always been a flirt, but then he’s always been Lan Wangji’s, and so--

He stops Wei Ying’s hand with fingers around his wrist. “No.”

Wei Ying blinks at him. His lips are red, and there are strands of hair stuck to his cheek, sweat or water beaded on his forehead. “No?” he asks, smile crooked. “You weren’t thinking about something else? Or did you not want me to--”

In the time that Lan Wangji has known him, the efficacy of kissing for stopping Wei Ying’s mouth from talking has also proven the most enjoyable. Wei Ying sighs against him, mouth opening readily under Lan Wangji’s. He has been waiting to be kissed, as Lan Wangji has been waiting to kiss him. His neck arches, and his mouth is soft and hot, tongue slick. He twists his wrist in Lan Wangji’s grasp and then their hold is reversed, and Wei Ying is pressing Lan Wangji’s hand to his chest, pushing up into his touch.

Lan Wangji indulges him, indulges them both, spreading his fingers wide to trace the line of Wei Ying’s sternum, the curve of a pectoral. He finds Wei Ying’s nipple, and Wei Ying’s fingers tighten on his wrist, his mouth opens that much farther.

When Lan Wangji pulls back, Wei Ying’s eyes are heavy-lidded. He’s flushed and panting, his mouth bruised. The sight of him in his arms is almost too much for Lan Wangji to bear.

Perhaps Wei Ying feels similarly; his gaze is palpable, and Lan Wangji watches the path it takes over his own features. A caress across his lips felt during meals and meetings and always, always in private. Lan Wangji licks his lips, follows Wei Ying’s eyes, and smiles.

Wei Ying blinks before his own mouth slides into a smile that takes up all of his face. His eyes meet Lan Wangji’s, and he laughs, a soft, breathless sound. “Lan Zhan,” he says, “I can’t believe you.”

Lan Wangji can’t believe him, brilliant and beautiful and alive and here in Cloud Recesses. He kisses Wei Ying again, and Wei Ying sighs and squirms, the movement enough to make Lan Wangji breath catch in his throat. There’s a chuckle against his lips, and then Wei Ying is pulling away, sitting up and shifting until he’s tucked more firmly between Lan Wangji’s thighs, pressing back against Lan Wangji’s cock.

He gasps, holding Wei Ying to him. Beneath his palm, he can feel the racing of Wei Ying’s heart, the rise and fall of his breath, life vibrating through him. He wants to wrap himself around him, never let him go. Is all too aware of the perils that can lie down that particular path. But he’s held Wei Ying and he’s let him go, and Wei Ying has come back. Wei Ying has chosen him.

“Wei Ying,” he says, pressing his face to Wei Ying’s neck. Open-mouth kisses lead him up, up to the soft curve of bone and muscle at the corner of Wei Ying’s jaw. He sucks marks against his skin, marks that can be hidden by hair left loose and flying. These are the patterns they leave on each other that no one else gets to see.

Groaning, Wei Ying tips his head to give Lan Wangji better access. His fingers around Lan Wangji’s wrist are tight, and when he presses Lan Wangji’s hand downward, Lan Wangji goes happily.

Wei Ying is hard in his hand, hot in the cooling water. He moans when Lan Wangji touches him, muscles twitching. His free hand finds Lan Wangji’s against the side of the tub and tangles their fingers together, holding tight as Lan Wangji wraps his own fingers around Wei Ying’s cock and strokes him. Wei Ying shudders, body flexing against Lan Wangji as he turns his head to look up at him. His eyes are heavy-lidded and dark. Lan Wangji remembers a time when Wei Ying was unknowable, when meeting those eyes terrified him down to the soles of his feet. He looks now and feels seen.

The space isn’t ideal; there is a time for constriction, but with Wei Ying pressed to him, arms hooked over the sides of the tub, thighs as wide as they’ll go, all Lan Wangji wants is to take him to their bed and touch every inch of him. He is beautiful laid out even like this, his cock in Lan Wangji’s hand.

“I can’t believe you,” Wei Ying repeats. His voice is low and breathless, music to Lan Wangji’s ears. Wei Ying’s free hand comes up, and he reaches for Lan Wangji, fingers, tangling in his hair to bring their mouths together. The angle is awkward, but Wei Ying’s tongue plays sweetly against his own. When Lan Wangji thumbs the head of his cock, his mouth falls open, and Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to mouth along his jaw, down his neck to the elegant curve where it meets his shoulder. He kisses there once, twice, closed mouth things he’s thought about pressing just there ever since he realized the kisses he wanted to share with Wei Ying could be something other than bruising.

A lifetime ago.

He presses another kiss there, listening as Wei Ying sighs. He thumbs the head of his cock again, and feels Wei Ying’s thighs tense. He waits until Wei Ying inhales, opening his mouth to speak, and then he opens his mouth and sucks gentle at Wei Ying’s skin, hand stroking downward on Wei Ying’s cock.

Wei Ying swears half under his breath, his fingers gone tight around Lan Wangji’s and digging into the back of his neck.

Lan Wangji welcomes it, Wei Ying grounding him even as he coaxes Wei Ying into flying apart. Which he does, so beautifully. The water is cool around them, but Wei Ying’s chest and cock are flushed and soon Wei Ying is panting his name, body bowing against him.

“You do have the best ideas,” Wei Ying says after, face turned into Lan Wangji’s neck. A kiss, and then the sting of teeth, an apologetic sweep of tongue; Wei Ying is single-minded. He presses back against Lan Wangji’s cock. “I’m sure you must have another.”

He’s correct, Lan Wangji does.

*

Instead of the usual birds that greet Lan Wangji’s ears when he wakes, it’s the rustle of paper. He opens his eyes and turns his head to find Wei Ying’s paperman beside him. “Good morning,” he says, and the paperman blows a kiss before fluttering closer to tug at the ends of his hair.

Lan Wangji smiles, heart full. It isn’t often that Wei Ying is awake before him. Usually, Lan Wangji has to disentangle himself from Wei Ying’s arms and legs, his questing hands. He should dislike waking without him, all the years he was forced to do just that, but there is a joy to knowing that he’ll find Wei Ying just outside, waiting for him.

They’ve both done enough waiting. Lan Wangji rises, aware of the lightening sky outside and the cool damp in the air. Pulling a robe over his sleeping garments, he follows the paperman out into the morning where he finds Wei Ying with his face tilted to the sky. Lan Wangji pauses to drink in the sight of him in the pre-dawn light, a slender figure, able to bend until he was forced to break.

The paperman reaches him, and when Wei Ying turns, the smile on his face is as soft and golden as the morning.