Wei Ying is keeping something from him.
It is not a new phenomenon, nothing that takes Lan Wangji by surprise, for Wei Ying is Wei Ying. But it pains Lan Wangji all the same.
He stands outside the Jingshi, observing the quiet of the morning, feeling the warmth of the sun upon his face. Wei Ying has awoken and wandered out to join him. Yawning, hair mussed, dressed in little but his inner robes and yet stepping outside anyway.
Lan Wangji should scold him. Bid him get properly dressed before he sets foot outdoors, even into the private garden surrounding the Jingshi. He should remind Wei Ying of the importance of decency and propriety, for none should see Wei Ying so dishevelled.
(It is a private thing. Intimate. A sight he treasures, along with the rare vision of Wei Ying taking down his hair. Brushing it out, humming to himself, entirely unguarded and beautiful in a way seen only by those closest to him.)
Wei Ying should not come outside underdressed. It is against the principles of the Lan Clan.
But Lan Wangji says nothing. For Wei Ying, though he rubs sleepily at his eyes, looks tired, ill-rested. There is a subtle downturn to his lips, a faraway look in his eyes, even as he raises his face to the mid-morning sun.
He has not slept well. He does not need to say it for Lan Wangji to know.
“Mm, Lan Zhan,” he says. Blinking sleepily – Lan Wangji swallows at the sight. Restrains himself from reaching out to draw him in close, to let Wei Ying rest his tired head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Lan Wangji often has these impulses. Not unseemly – there is nothing unseemly about what he feels for Wei Ying – but not necessary, here and now. Not when Wei Ying has just returned to Gusu. Not when the balance between them – changed, re-shaped, reborn anew – is still so delicate.
“You rose at five?” Wei Ying asks. Lan Wangji nods – of course he did – and Wei Ying gives him one of his playful pouts. “So early? Even though you went night hunting just last night? Hanguang-Jun, Hanguang-Jun. So diligent.”
There is a teasing lilt to his lips, but he is ever contradictory, and there is something like concern there as well. Lan Wangji returned far later than usual, and slept little as a result.
He has a Golden Core. He does not need as much sleep as Wei Ying, who is without one. The thought rocks him every time it occurs – he knows the truth, but cannot reconcile it, not yet. It is… still raw, somehow.
(Wei Ying did not tell him. Perhaps never would.)
But Lan Wangji turns his attention back to the matter at hand. Dwelling on it during one of the rare, blissful moments he shares with Wei Ying alone would be a waste.
“I rise at the same time as always. I have duties to attend,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying rubs at his hair, mussing it further. Stepping up beside Lan Wangji, rubbing at his arms absent-mindedly. Cold. No wonder, given how little he is wearing.
“Was it water spirits, as I predicted?”
Lan Wangji nods. Wei Ying smiles.
“I told you, Lan Zhan,” he says, wagging a finger in Lan Wangji’s face. “I grew up in Yunmeng. I know all there is to know about water spirits.”
He taps his nose, a remnant of his mischievous boyhood days, for all Wei Ying has changed. Obviously pleased to be right, despite his claims of certainty that he would be so. But his pleasure does little to quell the concern sitting in Lan Wangji’s gut.
Wei Ying, despite peppering Lan Wangji and the disciples with questions about the situation in a neighbouring town, despite bouncing theories off Lan Wangji half of the afternoon and pacing about the Jingshi, full of curiosity and knowledge, lecturing and hypothesising alike… did not come on the hunt.
He did not come. It worried Lan Wangji. Worries Lan Wangji now.
“Sizhui used one of your talismans,” Lan Wangji says. “It served him well.”
Wei Ying’s whole face warms, as Lan Wangji hoped it would. “My inventions always work. He’s a smart boy – as long as he drew the spell lines correctly, the effect is practically guaranteed. I had a lot of time to work on them, you know, though I’m surprised the great Hanguang-Jun allowed the Yiling Patriarch’s methods to be taught to his impressionable young students.”
“The young disciples could learn a lot from you,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying shakes his head. Jokes, but Lan Wangji recognises the twist to his lips. “Lan Zhan is too modest. You’re a better teacher than I am. Look at Sizhui. The only things he learned from me are – well, that’s not important.” A flash of his eyes – cheeky. “But imagine what Grand Master Lan would say if he saw me teaching them my tricks. And I’m busy, besides.”
Busy, indeed. He returned to Cloud Recesses a week ago. Has not left the Jingshi since.
Lan Wangji does not want to push him. Wei Ying is Wei Ying, as unpredictable in this as in everything else. Wandering all over the country for almost a year, the most adventurous and active of spirits, then shutting himself up in the Jingshi in solitude on his return to Cloud Recesses.
Tired, perhaps. In need of a deeper sort of rest than the sleep recently denied him. Lan Wangji tries not to read into it, but… he worries.
He studies Wei Ying. Considers, for Wei Ying often talks without saying anything at all, but other times every word he says is laced with deeper meaning. If Wei Ying has a question, it is not one he is likely to voice aloud. But Lan Wangji considers, and answers it anyway.
“Wei Ying. The Lan Clan of Gusu welcomes your teachings.”
It has long been so. Not something they have talked about, though Wei Ying has seen the Lan disciples use his inventions with his own eyes. Because Lan Wangji took them all – every scrap and piece that he could find – and studied them for days on end. Fingers tracing over that familiar messy handwriting, the scrawled notes all tangled and mixed in together. An insight into the dizzying intellect of a man who was gone, Lan Wangji piecing together all the mad impulses and strange twists of thought that made Wei Ying so brilliant, so unlike anyone else. He took them into the classroom, despite the disapproval of the elders, and their protests slowly faded as they saw that brilliance come to life.
Wei Ying was dead. But through his inventions, Lan Wangji could hold onto a piece of him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying complains, nudging him with his shoulder. “It’s too early for you to look so serious.”
Lan Wangji smiles. Just a little. One of the smiles he reserves for Wei Ying and Wei Ying alone. “It is mid-morning,” he reminds him. “But I will endeavour not to be, since you have asked.”
Wei Ying startles. His eyes snap to Lan Wangji’s face, more alert all of a sudden. But his smile, slow and mischievous, is softened by the mess of his hair. Not so sharp.
“I’ll be asking for all kind of things if you’re going to be like that,” Wei Ying says. “A proper horse, to start with, rather than that stubborn donkey. A horse with a solid golden saddle.”
He is teasing – testing, too.
“Frivolous,” Lan Wangji says. Then, softly, watching Wei Ying, “But so it will be.”
Wei Ying’s eyes dart. And there is it – he withdraws. Joking, even as he steps decidedly away. “Ah, Lan Zhan, who’d have thought you were such a soft touch?”
He makes to go back into the Jingshi. Where he should be, given his state of dress, but –
Wei Ying stops. Watches, perfectly still, as Lan Wangji closes the distance. Reaches out to set his hand on Wei Ying’s arm. Trailing down the length of it – an indulgence – and Wei Ying just… watches.
He is so strange. So unpredictable, his eyes dark and unreadable, his mobile mouth still. Watching and watching with those deep, soulful eyes, and Lan Wangji leans in closer still. Kisses him. A small, soft thing pressed to the corner of Wei Ying’s mouth.
Wei Ying’s eyes are shut when Lan Wangji pulls back. Flutter open slowly in a way that never fails to steal the breath from Lan Wangji’s lungs. Wei Ying’s eyes are so beautiful. Lan Wangji will never tire of them. Will never be finished in their study, either, for they are too changeable, too opaque.
Much like Wei Ying himself. For he will allow Lan Wangji to kiss him. Allow him to touch, and caress, and hold as long as he dares. He allows Lan Wangji’s fingers to comb through his hair, Lan Wangji’s hand at his waist, Lan Wangji's thumb running along the breadth of his knuckles. But Wei Ying will not accept affections spoken aloud, even in the vaguest fashion.
He is confusing, infuriating. Lan Wangji loves him with everything he is.
“I must go about my duties,” Lan Wangji tells him, not without regret.
He has already lingered too long. Came back to the Jingshi after taking his early morning classes only to hover outside the door. Enjoying the sun. Enjoying the knowledge that Wei Ying sleeps inside, warm and safe. Waiting – hoping – to see him before Lan Wangji must fulfill his duties as Chief Cultivator.
Being late is inexcusable. But he bends the rules for Wei Ying. Bends them for himself, so that he may be here when Wei Ying wakes. May see him at least once, press a kiss to his lips here in the quiet of his mother’s garden.
Wei Ying’s eyes search his face. He huffs a breath, smiling one of his strange little smiles – guarded, distant, despite the curve of his lips.
Troubled. Lan Wangji knows it, just as surely as he knows Wei Ying will not tell him if he asks.
He kisses him again – he cannot help it. But Wei Ying allows this as well.
“Go inside. Dress,” Lan Wangji tells him. Reminds him, for somehow he feels he needs to. “I will return for dinner.”
“Dinner, is that what you call that rabbit food?” comes Wei Ying’s response. He slips out of the gentle grip Lan Wangji has on his arm. Heads back towards the Jingshi. Still talking, though mostly to himself. “I don’t know how Lan Zhan got so strong on it. I can already feel myself wasting away.”
It is an exaggeration. But Lan Wangji’s eyes trace his physique as he goes, checking all the same. When Wei Ying lived in the Burial Mounds, he was so thin that Lan Wangji startled at the sight of him. But Wei Ying uttered not a word of complaint, even as they sat down to eat at the Yiling Inn. Hungry, so hungry, but not willing to show his need. Eating slowly, what little he ate at all.
Wei Ying only complains when he is not actually distressed. But Lan Wangji cannot help but look him over, just in case.
Wei Ying wanders back into the house with a wave over his shoulder. From the way he walks, Lan Wangji can see his thoughts are miles away. He is paying little attention to where he is going, or what he is doing.
Lan Wangji lets him go. Wei Ying is troubled, he can see that. But he knows Wei Ying. Wei Ying will never tell him what weighs on his mind.
Wei Ying seems… unhappy.
He hides it well, but Lan Wangji knows him. Knows to look past his words and smiles, and see how he acts. Wei Ying did not come on the night hunt. Wei Ying has not left the Jingshi in the week he has been here, except for the rare occasions Lan Wangji coaxes him out for a walk. Wei Ying is not sleeping well. Is distracted, vague, more forgetful than usual.
Unhappy. And if Lan Wangji were to ask him why, Wei Ying would throw his considerable energy and talent towards acting as merry as possible in order to prove Lan Wangji wrong. All smiles and bluster that would never quite reach his eyes.
So Lan Wangji does not ask. He waits.
- - -
A few nights later, Lan Wangji returns to the Jingshi to find Wei Ying pacing. Feet bare, hair pulled up only in the loosest sense of the word. Judging by the state of his boots – by the door in perfect parallel, as Lan Wangji himself arranged them – he has not set foot outside, even as far as the patio.
He looks up to greet Lan Wangji. Smiles, but it is a faded thing. Goes back to pacing the Jingshi, limbs full of energy. A caged tiger, but the cage is one of his own making.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “Take a walk with me.”
Wei Ying waves his hand. “It’s too cold, Lan Zhan.” As though the weather has ever stopped him before. “Have you finished your duties? You should rest.”
“Walking clears the mind,” Lan Wangji says. “Come with me.”
A pause. One of Wei Ying’s searching looks, as if deciding if that was order or plea – orders Wei Ying refuses out of habit, pleas Wei Ying refuses out of some instinct Lan Wangji cannot put a name to.
Lan Wangji holds firm. Invitation, suggestion – that is what he offers. Wei Ying relents.
“Lan Zhan, so stubborn,” he sighs. Stubborn, coming from him. “We’ll miss curfew if you’re not careful.”
A curfew Lan Wangji, as Chief Cultivator, would gladly excuse to dispel some of Wei Ying’s restless energy.
Wei Ying dresses. Outer robes and boots on, hair vaguely tidied, though not as neat as he should be according to principle. Lan Wangji says nothing.
They walk a winding, circuitous path. Lan Wangji leads, choosing the route for its views and for the exertion required, because Wei Ying’s energy is an irrepressible thing, much as Wei Ying himself may lock it up. He chooses steep inclines and sharp descents, paths that require Wei Ying’s attention, more so as the sun begins to set and light grows difficult.
Lan Wangji has walked these paths all his life. He knows the way. But Wei Ying only lived here for a time and, despite the mischief he made, it takes longer than that to uncover Cloud Recesses’ secrets.
Slowly, Wei Ying comes out of himself, out of whatever thoughts are plaguing his mind. He looks around, marvelling at the mountain’s beauty. Lan Wangji can see it shining in his eyes – trees, waterfalls, the occasional rabbit darting this way and that.
“What’s that over there, Lan Zhan?” he says. Keen gaze spotting a well-hidden path along a rocky cliff-face.
“A path up to the mouth of the waterfall.”
“Ah, I suppose it’s getting too late to take it now. Is it a long walk?”
Lan Wangji inclines his head – yes. “Another day.”
He leads Wei Ying down to the river. And despite his complaints of cold, Wei Ying strips off his boots and socks and plunges his feet into the running water. Smiles up at Lan Wangji, so bright and warm, and Lan Wangji’s breath stills.
(Lan Wangji first kissed Wei Ying on one of these walks. When Wei Ying had just returned to Gusu, and they walked together beneath the light of the moon. Wei Ying had turned to Lan Wangji. Smiled, so beautiful Lan Wangji ached with it. Reached for him, and Wei Ying startled and stilled. Let Lan Wangji kiss him. Let Lan Wangji hold him as long as he dared which was not, in truth, very long.)
Wei Ying is calmer on their return to the Jingshi. Talks most of the way back up – reminisces about their academy days, segueing in that funny way of his into poems he has been reading, shifting next to paths he will walk in the daylight – and the strange, fractured energy within him seems to settle.
They eat. Lan Wangji presents him with Emperor’s Smile. It never fails to make Wei Ying’s face light up, though it is part of their nightly routine.
“I’ve travelled all over the country, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying enthuses. “And nothing can match it.”
He downs his cup in one go. Lan Wangji pours him another, simple and familiar as ever. An easy, unspoken rhythm.
Soon broken. Because there are new things, too. As they ready for bed, and Wei Ying lets down his hair, it is Lan Wangji who takes up the brush.
Wei Ying went silent, the first time they did this. When Lan Wangji asked may I, with no demand or expectation, only request. Surprising Wei Ying all the same. There was something like a tremble in his hand as he handed Lan Wangji the brush. Lan Wangji’s fingers trembled when he took it, too, for voicing his desires is not in his nature. But asking is getting easier with practice.
It is more familiar now, though Lan Wangji has no intention of taking it for granted. The quiet intimacy of this moment, Wei Ying allowing him so close, allowing him to touch. To run his fingers through Wei Ying’s unruly hair, brushing against the long line of his neck, the curves of his ears.
He is so warm. Lan Wangji is close enough that he can hear every soft breath, feel the rise and fall of Wei Ying’s chest. Wei Ying, here and real and alive.
Sixteen years. Sixteen long, aching years.
Lan Wangji meets his eyes in the mirror. Has to look away, going back to brushing Wei Ying’s hair. Swallowing, unable to speak.
Wei Ying is here. Here, and alive, and with him. It is a revelation every time he thinks it.
“Ah, you don’t have to be so gentle, Lan Zhan, my hair isn’t like yours. It won’t break,” Wei Ying tells him. A poor recipient of such attention, squirming already, because even now he is incapable of sitting still.
He drove Lan Wangji mad during their lectures, always so distracting. Lan Wangji could not stop looking, could not stop listening, could not stop thinking of him, though he had never had a problem with self-discipline before. And Wei Ying chased him. It drove him mad, at the time.
How he regretted it, when Wei Ying pushed him away. Did not trust him, no matter what Lan Wangji did. Threw himself from the edge of a cliff and asked Lan Wangi – desperate, clinging, even as blood dripped down his arm and his wounds screamed agony – to let him go. Because Wei Ying thought Lan Wangji could.
“Just yank the brush through,” Wei Ying tells him, “it doesn’t matter.”
Lan Wangji does no such thing. Works the knots out carefully, despite Wei Ying’s impatience. He smooths the brush through Wei Ying’s hair, gentle, attentive. Every snag and tangle he unravels with quiet patience, so that Wei Ying feels not so much as a twinge.
He looks up, when he can manage it. Meets Wei Ying’s eyes in the mirror again – still tired. Still not sleeping well. Always beautiful, the handsomest man Lan Wangji has ever known, but… tired.
Lan Wangji sets down the brush. Kneels beside the stool on which Wei Ying sits, and Wei Ying startles.
“Ah, ah, Lan Zhan! What are you doing?” Wei Ying’s hands flutter out instinctively to try and force Lan Wangji back up again, but he does not move.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “You are not sleeping well. Will you take some herbs?”
Better to ask – Lan Wangji has learned that the hard way. Come back, he said when they were younger. Come back to Gusu. Order and plea alike. Always, always refused.
“Lan Zhan, you worry too much. Don’t kneel before me, I’m not your master. The great Hanguang-Jun should never kneel.”
Lan Wangji does not relent. This is, perhaps, the most scandalised he has ever seen Wei Ying, certainly the most scandalised Wei Ying has ever been by him. But Lan Wangji kneels as a mark of his affection, not in penance or supplication. (And yet both of those things he would give in an instant, if Wei Ying asked. Lan Wangji knows what it is to lose him – his dignity and honour are nothing when weighed against that score.)
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying complains. Tugging at Lan Wangji’s shoulders, trying to prod him back upright. “You’ll dirty your robes.”
“You are not sleeping, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying’s eyes lower. As much of an admission as Lan Wangji can expect from him.
He thinks, for a moment, that Wei Ying will brush it off. His eyes come up again, unreadable, darting over Lan Wangji’s face. Weighing him, testing him. Testing the balance of all that they are, of how far they have come.
Then Wei Ying’s mouth twists. Bitter, just a little. But he gives in. “Just some dreams, Lan Zhan. Nothing to worry about.”
“I will bring you some herbs,” Lan Wangji says, taking the chance. Wei Ying does not protest – does not agree, either. But he does not refuse outright, and that is progress in and of itself.
Lan Wangji stands. Goes about readying himself for bed, taking down his elaborate hair piece, untangling his hair. Stripping off his many outer layers, carefully, thoughtfully. Wei Ying’s robes lie in a dark pile on the floor, and Lan Wangji picks them up too.
“I’ll get them later,” Wei Ying objects. Lan Wangji deals with them anyway.
He pulls out the sleeping mat. Leaving his bed to Wei Ying, already anticipating the nightly argument.
“Lan Zhan, I’ve been on the road for months. I can sleep anywhere. I’ve slept on far worse surfaces than your floors. Let me take the mat.”
Lan Wangji ignores him, as he always does. Wei Ying will not sleep on the floor. Wei Ying is Lan Wangji’s guest, and if he were not… if he were not, they would share the bed. Lie side by side.
They are not married. This thing between them is new. Wei Ying accepts Lan Wangji’s kisses, but there are some boundaries that must be broached slowly.
Lan Wangji would give him everything, heart, home and bed, without a moment’s thought. No hesitation, no need to deliberate. But Wei Ying is different. A wary, wild creature beneath all his brilliant smiles. The most outgoing person Lan Wangji knows, and yet by the same token the most guarded. There are parts of Wei Ying that are slow to trust. Parts of him that are not so easily won.
Time – Lan Wangji can give him that. They have that, now.
“Good night, Wei Ying,” he says, and closes his eyes.
- - -
Loving Wei Ying is all in the waiting.
It has always been so, since the day they met. Waiting for Wei Ying’s next act of disobedience in the lectures. Waiting for Wei Ying to call Lan Wangji’s name as Lan Wangji strides through the countryside, thinking, foolishly, that he will travel alone. Waiting for Wei Ying to come back – from the cell in Nightless City, from his traceless disappearance during the Sunshot Campaign, from the Yiling Burial Mounds. From the dark misery that took him, little by little, piece by piece.
When Wei Wuxian, the fearsome Yiling Patriarch, fell from the cliff at Nightless City, there was no point waiting any longer. Wei Wuxian, Yiling Patriarch, Wei Ying – dead. Dead.
Still, Lan Wangji waited. It is his nature. He waited long after all hope was gone. Called and called, though he never received an answer. Went on without him, even when it seemed insurmountable, the hardest thing Lan Wangji has ever had to do.
But Wei Ying came back. As much himself as ever, clever eyes in that striking, handsome face. Sharp mind, swift tongue, and Lan Wangji’s memories of his smiles paled in comparison to reality. Watching joy spread and take like wildfire across Wei Ying’s face, first the corners of his lips, then the flash of his teeth, then the crinkle of his eyes.
Wei Ying came back.
Lan Wangji wakes at five, as he always does. Readies himself for the day in quiet efficiency, loathe to disturb Wei Ying’s sleep. For Wei Ying is sleeping – mouth slack, brows furrowed in a way Lan Wangji would dearly like to smooth out, but sleeping.
In Lan Wangji’s bed. Alone, with Lan Wangji taking his rest on a mat nearby. But in Lan Wangji’s own bed, sheets warm with the heat of his body.
Lan Wangji nips that thought in the bud before it can wander elsewhere. Goes to teach his classes for, Chief Cultivator or not, the instruction of youth is a worthy cause. (And one he enjoys, besides.)
He comes back mid-morning, around the time Wei Ying wakes. To wait in the garden. To wait for his Wei Ying once more.
Life is cruel, but it can be kind, too. He does not wait long, this time around.
“Now why is His Excellency the Chief Cultivator hanging around outside my door?” comes a teasing voice behind him.
Lan Wangji turns. Wei Ying is dressed, more or less. Leaning against the door he just opened, looking decidedly more awake than he did last time.
(A pity. He is… sweet, when he is sleepy.)
“Good morning, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying approaches. Feet covered only by socks, though his outer robes are done up and his hair in some semblance of respectability.
“Tell me, Lan Zhan, what’s the latest news of the cultivation world?” he says. Energetic, eyes shining with interest. “It’s getting to that time of year – will the Lan Clan be hosting lectures soon? It’s been a disruptive time, and Jin Guangyao’s fall must have caused widespread effect… but people can’t object to sending their precious sons and daughters to Gusu, surely. Not with the great Hanguang-Jun as Chief Cultivator…” Then, without an obvious segue, “Is the Jin Clan still in good standing? They’re so rich they can probably just buy back favour, of course, but a scandal is a scandal. And my own nephew is a Jin, you know.”
Lan Wangji considers this. Wei Ying is bouncing about, pacing, thoughts going this way and that as is so often his way. Lan Wangji settles for one question at a time – Wei Ying, after all, has answered one of his own, if inadvertently.
Wei Ying has been little connected to the world of cultivation, in all the long months he was away.
“The lectures begin soon,” he affirms. “Jin Ling is rising to the task of leading his Clan, with some assistance. I have been mentoring him.”
Wei Ying’s restless, ever-energetic form falls suddenly still. He looks at Lan Wangji, surprised, silent. As stunned as though Lan Wangji struck him, though Lan Wangji cannot think of what he said that was so extraordinary.
Then Wei Ying smiles, and all other thought flies from Lan Wangji’s head. A weakness, but not one he begrudges, when Wei Ying is so beautiful. (When Lan Wangji has seen despair on that face, and there was a time Lan Wangji thought he would never see Wei Ying smile again.)
“Of course Lan Zhan would mentor him,” Wei Ying says. “I hope he’s grateful. Don’t tell me he’s been acting up – I may not have known him for long, but that boy’s temperament is too much like…”
Wei Ying trails off. His smile fades like the setting of the sun, taking all his warmth with it.
Wei Ying is so changeable, so unpredictable, that sometimes Lan Wangji cannot hope to understand him. Yet by the same token he knows him better than anyone, understands the very heart of him, with a simplicity easy as breathing. His face carries none of the regret that comes with thinking of Jin Zixuan, none of the longing grief when he thinks of his sister.
He can only be thinking of Jiang Wanyin.
Lan Wangji is not a man quick to draw conclusions. But it is possible that Wei Ying encountered Jiang Wanyin during his travels. There is a particular heaviness to Wei Ying that seems new, a new sadness, a new regret. If they met, they did not part on good terms.
“Lan Zhan is so good,” Wei Ying says, but Lan Wangji listens instead to the downturn of Wei Ying’s mouth.
He reaches for him slowly, carefully. Wei Ying startles, as he always does when Lan Wangji’s hand lands upon his waist, but he does not object. Lan Wangji’s other hand comes up, equally slow, to brush Wei Ying’s hair back from his face.
Wei Ying just watches him. A man of action in every other respect, impossibly fast, eternally in motion, rendered still and cautious in moments such as these. Expressive face hard to read, eyes searching Lan Wangji’s face as though looking for an answer to a question Lan Wangji does not know.
“Mentoring Jin Ling was the right thing to do,” Lan Wangji says simply, in lieu of all the other things he could say. Peaceable, simple, as he brushes his fingers along Wei Ying’s cheekbones, listens to Wei Ying’s inhalation of breath.
Jin Ling, for all his flaws, is only a boy. Lan Wangji offered his hand and was more than a little surprised when Jin Ling took it so readily, sending him endless letters to which Lan Wangji has patiently replied.
It was only right. Yet Wei Ying looks at Lan Wangji as though he has performed some miracle.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again. Something almost pleading in his eyes that Lan Wangji is helpless to resist. Wei Ying leans in close, but never close enough, as though he is not sure how to ask for what he wants. (As if he does not know what he wants.)
Lan Wangji kisses him. Long and lingering. One hand light on Wei Ying’s waist, the other tipping his chin so that their lips may meet in perfect harmony. Wei Ying lets him. And after a moment, his arm wraps around Lan Wangji’s back, his fingers playing with the ends of Lan Wangji’s long hair.
Lan Wangji loves him. It fills every part of him, every nook and cranny and crevice, every breath and beat of his heart. There will never be another. Just Wei Ying. Only Wei Ying.
Wei Ying shifts, and Lan Wangji takes it as his cue to pull back. Not to push too far, or ask too much. Wei Ying is still quiet (dazed, perhaps, and the thought sends a heat through Lan Wangji that he quickly quells). It is enough that Wei Ying is accepting Lan Wangji’s kisses – peaceful, surprisingly malleable given his temperament.
But he is unhappy. Secluding himself, locked away in Lan Wangji’s home with only Lan Wangji for company, and though such a scenario would make Lan Wangji happy it is not the same for Wei Ying. Wei Ying is an inherently social creature – busy, talkative, filled with a seemingly boundless energy and zest for life that not even the worst kind of suffering has managed to stamp out of him.
But he is still unhappy.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, for it bubbles out of him. A lack of restraint – something he always lacks where Wei Ying is concerned. There are a thousand questions he wants to ask. He settles on the most important one. “Are you well?”
Wei Ying’s face flickers, then shutters entirely. Lan Wangji has pushed too far – too personal, too direct – and Wei Ying retreats with alarming speed. He slips from Lan Wangji’s fingers like a bird taking flight, and Lan Wangji is left with nothing but air and the memory of his warmth.
“Lan Zhan, who’d have thought you’d grow up to be so fussy? It’s a little insulting, you know, asking a man these sorts of questions,” Wei Ying chides, wagging his fingers. Back to grinning and teasing – and hiding. A mask snapping back into place with swift finality. “Of course I’m fine. A man like me is always fine. I’m not a child needing to be looked after. Could it be that Lan Zhan is mistaking me for one of his students? Surely not – you’ve fought me enough yourself to know I’m made of stronger stuff.”
Lan Wangji has already lost this battle. Wei Ying is gone – he reaches for him anyway, a habit too long-standing to break. “Wei Ying. We may speak of anything, between us.”
He speaks too little too late, as always. Never quick enough where Wei Ying is concerned.
Wei Ying steps away. Too much himself – loud and irrepressible and brash. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone funny in your old age – and you’re older than me now, Lan Zhan, have you thought of that? But it’s nearly lunchtime, when are you – Lan Zhan! You’re late! My reputation is only just starting to recover, imagine the retribution from your uncle if he hears I ran you late. I’ll be thrown out of Cloud Recesses and not even you will be able to prevent it.”
Slowly, Lan Wangji lets his hands drop. Wishing he had not spoken. Wishing he could step back in time to mere moments ago when Wei Ying was watching him with those thoughtful eyes, allowing Lan Wangji to hold him.
He is not so approachable, now. Drawn up to his full height, exuding personality like a physical force. All the vulnerable parts of him hidden far, far away.
“My uncle will not throw you out.”
“Ahh – Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. Giving him a strange look. “Your uncle’s never been a fan of mine. Do you remember how he was when we were younger?”
Lan Wangji inclines his head. But the past is irrelevant, no matter what Wei Ying thinks. “He would not do it. I would go with you.”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “You shouldn’t say things like that, Lan Zhan. Hanguang-Jun is very noble, but some things are sacred. Don’t you know those are the sort of declarations you make to a lady?”
It is an idle remark. Teasing.
It still cuts deep.
Don’t you know those are the sort of declarations you make to a lady? As if Wei Ying does not know how Lan Wangji loves him. As if he does not know that Lan Wangji is sincere, in this and in everything, his devotion to Wei Ying complete. As if… as if Wei Ying does not want it.
Lan Wangji lowers his gaze. Stares at the ground, unsure how to reply. Cannot reply. Because he thought they had an understanding, he thought Wei Ying understood, and now he is being told otherwise.
Wei Ying has always had a fondness for women. A particular talent for drawing their attention. Lan Wangji is different.
(Lan Wangji should stay. Should talk about it, because it was such a little thing, a joke Wei Ying has made a hundred times before. But that was before Lan Wangji kissed him. And Lan Wangji has never been good with hurt, where Wei Ying is concerned.)
He swallows. Turns away, hand clasped behind his back but posture too rigid for anything resembling elegance. He walks out of the garden, back into the cultivation world.
Wei Ying calls his name, just once. But he does not follow.
- - -
There are few people in the world who understand Lan Wangji.
It bothered him when he was a boy. He could not make friends. Could not understand the games the other children played, and by the same token they could not understand his. As a youth he was respected by his peers for his skill and discipline – one of the two Jades of Lan – but not liked. He did not have friends. Did not need them.
Adult life has not changed much. People still do not understand him. It does not bother him anymore, but nor does it make him special as every misunderstood youth has opined at one time or another. It just is.
With Wei Ying, it is… different. Because Wei Ying is everything, tumbled his way into Lan Wangji’s life, a bright and shining light. The centre of Lan Wangji’s world, even before Lan Wangji knew it himself.
And yet he remembers Wei Ying’s surprise on the stairs of Carp Tower, that Lan Wangji would stand beside him. Surprise. For he did not understand Lan Wangji’s loyalty. Did not know just how deep Lan Wangji’s love ran.
Lan Wangji thought he had made himself clear in all the time that followed.
He is reading too much into it. It was a flippant remark, off-hand, Wei Ying’s usual teasing and prodding all in one. Wei Ying is good at such talk. Making fun of Lan Wangji’s mode of speech, perhaps, or indicating in some opaque way that he would like to be courted in a different fashion. They are both men – the rules of engagement are not as clear, and perhaps Wei Ying would prefer a different approach.
But there is no plan, no game, no artifice – just Lan Wangji, and if that is not right he does not know any other way to be.
Wei Ying’s reply feels like dismissal. Like a misunderstanding of the very heart of Lan Wangji. It stings in a way difficult to quantify, difficult to understand even within the privacy of Lan Wangji’s mind.
(It feels a lot like Wei Ying does not want him. An insecurity he obsessed over when they were younger, when he began to understand what he really felt. When he was caught in the first throes of love and jealousy came along with it. When he would agonise as youth do, for even he was not immune, as to whether Wei Ying reciprocated his admiration. Childish feelings he thought he was done with, all rushing back at one idle remark.)
He loves Wei Ying. His heart knows Wei Ying and Wei Ying alone. But when he says it aloud, Wei Ying…
Lan Wangji spends his day in near total silence. Performs his duties as Chief Cultivator, and speaks when he must, but not a word more.
His brother would know how to cheer him. How to soothe the hurt with little but a smile and a gentle reminder about Lan Wangji’s temperament, or an insight into Wei Ying’s. His brother has always been good at that, always a calm and kind perspective when Lan Wangji’s mind gets stuck on a particular path.
But his brother is in seclusion.
Lan Wangji returns to the Jingshi at the same time as always. Climbs the steps, and does not allow himself to hesitate before he opens the door.
The Jingshi is in utter chaos.
He goes still. If he were a lesser man, his jaw would be gaping open. His life’s possessions have been upended and strewn across the floor in no particular order. Drawers and cupboards hanging open, his books wobbling in piles rather than in the bookshelf where they belong, even his wardrobe in disarray.
He stares. Seriously considers turning right around and going to sleep elsewhere, but then Wei Ying half falls his way out of the next room, painting his face with his most winning smile. “Ah, Lan Zhan! You’re early, I –”
He trips over a tea set with an alarming clatter and the all-too-familiar sound of ceramics breaking. Lan Wangji closes his eyes. Breathes in.
“Sorry, sorry! I can fix that, Lan Zhan, I swear,” Wei Ying says all in a hurry. Leaning down to try and pick up the broken handle of the teapot without revealing whatever he is hiding behind his back.
“Wei Ying.” It is part question, part statement. Delivered flat and impassive.
Wei Ying picks his way across the debris with considerable agility. Comes to a stop in front of Lan Wangji, bouncing on his heels. The sparkle in his eyes is reminiscent of their academy days.
“Before you say anything, Lan Zhan, let me explain. I had this idea, but I couldn’t find any paper, and then I couldn’t find where I’d left my brush, then I thought about using a different surface to work on anyway and – ah I made a mess. Have mercy on me, Hanguang-Jun.”
He bows at the waist, peeking up at Lan Wangji with those mischievous eyes.
Lan Wangji loves him. So deeply, so dearly. But he cannot look at him all the same.
(Not fair. Not rational. But he is not a perfect man, and he does not know what to do with all the love he bears Wei Ying. Does not know how to speak when his hurt is so petty, and so says nothing at all.)
He steps into the Jingshi without a word. Brushes past Wei Ying, picking his way across the floor. Wondering for the hundredth time what Wei Ying wants from him.
Wei Ying does not let his silence go. He chases after him – a strange, delicate chase as they weave in and out of all of Lan Wangji’s worldly possessions (and he is often told he lacks them, but seeing them all laid out on his floor he thinks he could afford to be more minimalistic).
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! I’ll tidy it all up again, I swear. I didn’t think you’d be early – ah, not early, I guess time got away from me. But step outside for ten minutes and I’ll have it all cleaned up again like nothing ever happened.”
Lan Wangji does not reply. Bends to pick up the broken ceramics – fortunately just the handle off a teapot. He arranges both teapot and broken handle carefully on the tray with the rest of the set.
“Lan Zhan, don’t be angry with me…”
Lan Wangji picks up the tray. Finds a clear spot on a table and places the tea set down carefully. It is a beautiful set, bought for him by his brother – well-kept, but not one of his mother’s heirlooms. That tea set rarely comes out of its cupboard, locked carefully inside. (She decorated the cups, painted them. He thought they were beautiful, as a boy. Sees them now with their wonky stems and mismatched shapes and still finds them so.)
“Not angry, then,” Wei Ying says. Slower, more reflective. He catches Lan Wangji’s arm. Holds him in place. “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji keeps his gaze lowered. Does not cast off Wei Ying’s hand, or withdraw, or do anything else.
“Lan Zhan, won’t you look at me?”
Wei Ying turns him slowly so they are facing each other properly. Reaches up, tipping Lan Wangji’s chin with his finger – it is Lan Wangji’s turn to startle. To meet Wei Ying’s eyes at last, and Wei Ying smiles at him.
“That’s better,” he says. “I have a present for you.”
Lan Wangji says nothing. Wei Ying pulls his other hand out from behind his back with a flourish. Grins, excited and… nervous.
“I made this for you. Surprise! It’s not perfect, I couldn’t find all of the things I needed, but – well. Here you are.”
It is a wooden disc. Lan Wangji takes it almost in spite of himself. Carved into the wood is the shape of a rabbit – delicate, surprisingly detailed, for Lan Wangji has little by way of carving tools. A rabbit, and beneath it, Lan Wangji’s name – Lan Zhan.
Warmth floods through him. He runs his thumb over the shape of it. A gift from Wei Ying.
“A smile! A smile from the great Hanguang-Jun. I’ve discovered the secret – it’s rabbits.” Wei Ying smirks, but his cockiness belies the softness in his eyes.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. Softer. The confused hurt that has been plaguing him all day melting away as though it were never there. (A gift from Wei Ying, made by Wei Ying’s own hand.)
“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan, your secret is safe with me.” Wei Ying taps his nose. Grinning, so obviously pleased with himself, despite the mess he has made of Lan Wangji’s home. Searching Lan Wangji’s face, smile softening when he sees he is forgiven.
Lan Wangji wants to kiss him again. Wants to drown in Wei Ying’s dark, clever eyes. Wants to hold onto Wei Ying and never let go – but that is what he wants. A want he thought they shared, despite Wei Ying’s skittishness, his strange turns of mood, the way he watches Lan Wangji, curious, wondering.
Lan Wangji stares down at his rabbit carving. Runs his thumb over the characters of his name. Uncertain.
But Wei Ying smiles. And when Lan Wangji leans in for a kiss, Wei Ying lets him.
They tidy his things together. Wei Ying objects, but Lan Wangji will have none of it.
“Lan Zhan, you don’t need to do it. I’m a terrible guest, let me –”
Guest. A guest. Impermanent.
“My home is always open to you,” Lan Wangji says. Then, pointedly, “Now you know where everything is.”
Wei Ying may treat Lan Wangji’s possessions as his own. They would be his own, if Lan Wangji had his way.
“Hanguang-Jun is too forbearing,” Wei Ying says. And he is teasing, but there is something underneath it, some undercurrent Lan Wangji cannot put a name to. “But I really can fix the teapot, I promise. You’ll never even know it was broken. I broke all sorts of things as a child and Madam Yu never found out.”
This, Lan Wangji can believe. Wei Ying’s ingenuity can fix almost any broken thing – and he tries, always, even when it is hopeless. He knew the world’s injustices before Lan Wangji did. Fought them anyway, resisted anyway. Died for it. Too bright, too brilliant, to be allowed to live. The world does not want fixing, and people are not so easily mended.
(Lan Wangji sets the wooden carving beside his mat when he lies down to sleep. Runs his fingers over the characters of his name, over and over. His intimate name, carved by Wei Ying’s careful hand. And Wei Ying smiles when he sees where Lan Wangji has put it – small, quiet, considering. Does not tease, even though Lan Wangji is so obvious. Instead he sits at the table, tinkering with the teapot.
He hums the song Lan Wangji wrote for him. The last thing Lan Wangji hears as he drifts off to sleep.)
- - -
Wei Ying leaves the Jingshi the next day. Venturing out alone for the first time since his arrival.
He greets Lan Wangji mid-morning, as is their routine, though today he is chattering about the waterfall path Lan Wangji showed him, asking questions – how long it will take, if he will need supplies, if he will be able to pass or if there are wards along the way.
“I want to stretch my legs,” is his only explanation for this change in his behaviour. “I can break most wards, but I don’t think your uncle will approve.”
A cheeky smile. Lan Wangji goes soft.
“There are wards,” he affirms. “But you need not break them. All of Cloud Recesses is open to you.”
Wei Ying looks momentarily surprised. Studies Lan Wangji’s face, as though Lan Wangji is a mystery he is unravelling, though Lan Wangji is nothing of the sort. Any question Wei Ying has, Lan Wangji will answer. Any request, Lan Wangji will grant. His home, his heart, all his worldly possessions – they are all Wei Ying’s. Yet Wei Ying is surprised every time, as if he does not understand. And ever contrary, he pulls away when Lan Wangji tries to give voice to what he feels.
Wei Ying is a difficult man. Lan Wangji loves him.
Wei Ying’s walks become a new part of their routine. Lan Wangji rises early, takes his classes, and returns to greet Wei Ying when he wakes. Wei Ying is up and dressed, peppering Lan Wangji with questions about the secrets of the mountain, and Lan Wangji answers them candidly. There are no secrets from Wei Ying, no places he may not wander.
(Wei Ying, though, is as elusive as ever. He is having nightmares, though he pretends otherwise. Lan Wangji wakes one night to find Wei Ying sitting up in bed, soaked with sweat, staring blankly into the distance. It takes a few calls of his name before Wei Ying responds. And when he finally looks at Lan Wangji, his eyes are hollow, his smile forced.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry I woke you. Can’t sleep,” he murmurs, as if Lan Wangji does not see the terror still written across his face.)
But Wei Ying walks, now, without Lan Wangji’s prompting. Leaves the Jingshi, if not the mountain. He changes, and Lan Wangji follows along behind him as best he can.
“There is a pond to the north of the mountain that harbours a rare species of frog,” he tells Wei Ying. “It is difficult to find.”
Wei Ying’s eyes light up at the challenge, as Lan Wangji knew they would. He farewells Lan Wangji earlier than usual, mind set on this new goal, bustling off into the distance with a wave of his hand.
There is a spring in his step, a swagger. Yet he still looks so tired, when he thinks Lan Wangji is not looking. Retreats into the Jingshi when Sizhui comes calling – after teasing, and laughing, and making a great show of good spirits – but it is he who leaves first. Sociable, charming, affectionate Wei Ying, retreating into solitude, not quick enough to hide the way his features sag as he shuts the Jingshi doors behind him.
Lan Wangji worries, for all the good it does them both.
He remembers when they were boys and Wei Ying would chase him about, heedless of Lan Wangji’s irritation. He would babble his innermost thoughts and secrets without provocation, uncaring of Lan Wangji’s disregard, no matter how many times Lan Wangji told him to let him be.
How quickly that changed. How quickly the coin flipped, and Lan Wangji chased and chased but could not catch him. Has never caught him, not really, even after everything that has happened.
When Sizhui leaves, Lan Wangji follows Wei Ying inside. Takes him gently by the waist and kisses him. Murmurs his name, with all the reverence and adoration of which that name is worthy. Beloved Wei Ying. Inimitable Wei Ying.
Wei Ying lets him. But he pulls away after.
“I’m hungry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. Not meeting his eyes. And when he moves, Lan Wangji releases him without question.
- - -
Wei Ying takes to bringing things home from his walks.
“Hm? Oh! Sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says as Lan Wangji sets his dinner down in front of him. On the table, where it should be, and Wei Ying’s odd clutter of possessions decidedly should not.
Wei Ying sets down his current project and hastily clears space. Shooting Lan Wangji a look that says he is expecting a reprimand, though Lan Wangji offers none. In front of Wei Ying is an odd assortment of rocks and sticks, all in various stages of modification. Ever resourceful, Wei Ying has pulled together a makeshift toolkit from his search of Lan Wangji’s home, and uses everything at his disposal to produce his strange and innovative inventions.
He is making a bracelet, this time. Carved from rocks and bits of wood painstakingly rounded out, engraved with spells of protection. He talks about it a lot – tells Lan Wangji about his spell work, brags about his success given his lack of proper tools (a fact Lan Wangji intends to remedy), chatters about Cloud Recesses, and the magic inherent in the mountain, and the secret spaces he has found.
He does not say who the bracelet is for. It is the one aspect of the subject on which he is cagey. He talks around it, a feat which should be impossible given the amount of everything else Wei Ying says, but Wei Ying is Wei Ying. Lan Wangji lets it lie.
“Did you ever see my impersonators in Yiling?” Wei Ying says idly, playing with his newest bead. No obvious segue – Wei Ying seldom needs one. “They sold all sorts of inventions in my name – terrible things. None of them even worked. Tried to charge me when I wanted a look, too.”
“Silence at the dinner table,” Lan Wangji reminds him. Fond, teasing in a way entirely of their own. Wei Ying is using the dining table as a crafting bench – he has already broken so many principles it hardly matters if he speaks as well.
Wei Ying just snorts. Reaches across the table and plucks tofu right out of Lan Wangji’s bowl. Fails to get a rise, and pouts.
“Lan Zhan. You can’t just let me walk all over you. It’s no way for the Chief Cultivator to behave,” he huffs, as unpredictable as ever. Stealing from Lan Wangji’s bowl then telling him off for allowing it.
And, ever a contrarian, he still complains when Lan Wangji raps him across the knuckles when he tries it again.
Wei Ying gets distracted by his work mid-dinner, as Lan Wangji knew he would. His whole face comes alive as an idea occurs to him and, mouth still full of food, he grabs again at his tools. Talks around his mouthful as he explains what he is doing, and is so distracted that he fails to notice Lan Wangji slipping extra tofu into his bowl.
(Rocks and sticks are not the only things Wei Ying brings back from his walks. He leaves little flowers hidden in Lan Wangji’s things, sometimes. Tucked away in the folds of his robes, or on the table by his guqin, or bundled up with the pillow Lan Wangji puts away during the daytime, along with the mat on which he sleeps. Wei Ying teases Lan Wangji when he finds them. Claims ignorance, insisting some young disciple must be sneaking in, and the flowers might very well be gifts for Wei Ying instead. But Lan Wangji knows. Preserves the best of them, and keeps the others up his sleeve until they fade away.)
“Eat your dinner, Wei Ying,” he reminds him gently.
“Just a moment,” Wei Ying mutters, brows furrowed in concentration.
Lan Wangji lets him be. Too relieved that Wei Ying is busy and active again to concern himself with the complete lack of decorum. Indulgent, but only because Wei Ying is worth indulging.
Wei Ying’s strange little collection only grows as the days go on. Lan Wangji finds all manner of things inside the Jingshi and, after a few pointed looks, Wei Ying moves the bulk of them to just outside the door. Interesting-shaped rocks and dead wood and a variety of plants which Wei Ying has no apparent use for, but keeps bringing back anyway.
Lan Wangji does not mind, so long as the floor remains clear. The small pieces of nature remind him, oddly, of Sizhui. When the boy was so very young and would rush up to Lan Wangji as fast as the principles allowed, nothing more notable than a leaf in hand but all the enthusiasm in the world for his find.
Look, Hanguang-Jun, isn’t it pretty? It’s so red!
Sizhui’s teachers tried to scold him for bothering Hanguang-Jun with something so small, but Lan Wangji never let them. Would kneel down and trace the leaf’s pattern, explaining the turning of the seasons. Watching the boy’s face come alive with wonder and fascination.
He hopes this new habit brings Wei Ying a similar sort of joy.
- - -
Their routine, comfortable as it is, must by necessity be interrupted. Lan Wangji’s duties are what they are. Though Wei Ying is free to do as he wills, Lan Wangji is not so.
“Wei Ying,” he says one morning.
It is earlier than usual, and Lan Wangji waits not in the garden but at the door of the Jingshi. Wei Ying has only just woken up. Still lies in bed, hair tousled, blinking sleepily up at Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji aches for him. To stroke his hand across Wei Ying’s cheek. To kiss those soft, perfect lips, slip into the warmth of Wei Ying’s sheets and breathe in the smell of his skin. Kiss him to wakefulness, then plenty more besides.
Wei Ying is so sweet, when he is sleepy. Unguarded. Lan Wangji stays at the door.
“Mmm, Lan Zhan. Is it that time already?” Wei Ying yawns. Nuzzling his head into the pillow, and Lan Wangji’s heart thuds almost painfully in his chest.
“Forgive my intrusion,” Lan Wangji says – Wei Ying just blinks at his formality. “I must travel to Caiyi.”
He did not want to go without saying goodbye. Without seeing Wei Ying at least once before his duties carry him away.
“Caiyi?” Wei Ying repeats, brows furrowing. Vague when he has just woken up. “Oh!”
He sits up in bed. Rubs at his face, pushing his loose, unruly hair out of his eyes. There are creases on his cheeks from his pillow, and Lan Wangji loves him so much it is almost painful.
“You’ll bring me back some more Emperor’s Smile, won’t you?” Wei Ying says. “I’ve almost run out.”
Yes, because despite the size of Lan Wangji’s stash, Wei Ying has been drinking a lot. Another thing Lan Wangji has quietly worried about. Another thing that he could not ask about without Wei Ying withdrawing from him.
“Come with me,” Lan Wangji tries.
Wei Ying’s face closes off. He settles back down in bed. Rolls over so Lan Wangji cannot see his face.
“Mm, it’s so far,” he complains, pulling his blankets tighter around himself. “Lan Zhan is so cruel. I have plans today, and since you’re going into town anyway, it seems unnecessary for us both to make the journey.”
Lan Wangji is quiet a long moment. Unsure. Because Wei Ying – sociable, charming, gregarious Wei Ying – has spent so much of their relationship dragging Lan Wangji places, and Lan Wangji has never learned the trick in reverse. Never had to, when Wei Ying has always thrived on the company of people.
In the end he says nothing. Steps fully into the Jingshi, over to the bed. Sinking down onto it without fear, now, that he will embarrass himself over Wei Ying’s beauty. Wei Ying is still unhappy, and it puts any other thoughts out of Lan Wangji’s mind.
“Can I bring you anything else?” he asks quietly. Hesitates, then settles his hand on the curve of Wei Ying’s shoulder. Tense, but Wei Ying does not shrug him off.
“Mm.” Wei Ying peeks back at him. Slowly, Lan Wangji feels him relax in his grip. “Spices. There’s never enough heat in the food here, Lan Zhan. It gets very boring.”
Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Drawing supplies? Tools?”
Wei Ying startles. As though Lan Wangji taking note of how he spends his time is, in some way, unexpected.
“No need, Lan Zhan. I’ve gotten very good at making do with odd things. I had to all the time in the Burial Mounds. We couldn’t exactly afford anything fancy.”
Wei Ying’s voice is light, but the statement anything but. Lan Wangji studies him. Squeezes his shoulder, stroking down the length of Wei Ying’s arm.
“Until this evening.”
He stands. Makes to go, but Wei Ying’s hand darts back towards him. Gripping him firmly by the wrist, and Lan Wangji looks down at him. Awaiting a request, though one does not come.
“Lan Zhan,” is all Wei Ying says. Then he just looks at him, as though expecting Lan Wangji to understand. Brow furrowed. Biting, in a distracted way, at his own lips, and beginning to squirm the longer Lan Wangji studies him.
He wants something, but is unwilling to ask for it. It takes a moment for Lan Wangji to understand. And when he does…
He swallows. Leans down, and presses a kiss to Wei Ying’s lips.
Wei Ying’s eyes flutter shut. When Lan Wangji pulls back, Wei Ying lets out the smallest of hums. Opens his eyes again, staring up at Lan Wangji. Unutterably, unbearably handsome, all striking features and those long, long limbs. Dressed in nothing but his sleep clothes, lying warm and willing in Lan Wangji’s bed, and –
Lan Wangji swallows again. It is time for him to go. But he kisses Wei Ying again – helpless, enchanted – before he does.
He returns late that evening, many hours after the sun has set. He carries with him Emperor’s Smile and spices, just as Wei Ying asked, as well as drawing supplies and a selection of tools, as Lan Wangji himself suggested.
Wei Ying is resourceful. But he does not always have to be so. Not here, not now.
Wei Ying looks startled by them all the same. Startled as he always is by such simple displays of affection, by receiving things unasked for. Wei Ying pesters Lan Wangji often enough for trivialities – more wine being the most obvious example – but he never asks for things he needs. Wheedles and whines for all manner of silly indulgences, but spends not a crumb on things that actually matter.
Lan Wangji will never understand it. But Wei Ying is Wei Ying. And despite his reluctance to accept them, Wei Ying puts his gifts to good use, making quick progress now he is not battling his tools as well as the beads themselves.
(He watches Lan Wangji when he thinks Lan Wangji is not looking. As though he is trying to figure him out. As though there is something confusing about him.)
- - -
Wei Ying finishes his bracelet, but it takes him twice as long to perfect it.
He spends hours agonising over it. Muttering to himself. Even discarding beads entirely and starting over, their flaws invisible to Lan Wangji’s untrained eye but Wei Ying’s desire for perfection a constant force. He handles every bead with utmost care, for though they are made of things plucked freely from the mountain, he treats them as though they are the finest jewels.
He looks sad, sometimes. Stares at the beads, running his fingers over their textured edges, his eyes distant. A movement from Lan Wangji will break the spell – Wei Ying will smile and laugh and chatter – but left to his own devices, he is still unhappy.
He is improving. Slowly, with no rhyme or reason that Lan Wangji can discern, just as he cannot make out why Wei Ying withdrew into himself in the first place, but he is improving. Wei Ying still tells him nothing. Still skitters away when Lan Wangji asks questions, or makes promises, or expresses his affection in even the simplest of ways.
But Wei Ying still lets Lan Wangji kiss him. Longer now. Wei Ying’s face cupped in Lan Wangji’s hands, their chests flush. And he lets Lan Wangji’s fingers close around his waist. Lets them trail up his spine. Lets Lan Wangji press his face into Wei Ying’s unruly hair. Lets Lan Wangji hold him, even if not for very long.
“There, Lan Zhan, what do you think?” Wei Ying says, dangling his bracelet in front of Lan Wangji’s face. “A good gift, right?”
Wei Ying leans over his shoulder, startlingly close. His hair, thick and coarse, brushes Lan Wangji’s arm. Lan Wangji breathes him in – force of habit. Takes his hands off the strings of his guqin and allows Wei Ying to drape the bracelet over his fingers, uncharacteristically careful.
It is an honour, Lan Wangji knows, that Wei Ying is allowing him to hold this. An honour entirely unspoken, but one he does not take lightly.
He examines it thoughtfully. Admiring every intricately carved bead, every line of spell work. Transformed from rocks and sticks and dead wood into a thing of beauty in Wei Ying’s hands. The bracelet practically glows with Wei Ying’s talent.
“Don’t say ‘boring’,” Wei Ying cuts in cheekily, right as Lan Wangji opens his mouth.
Lan Wangji turns his head. This close he may see the faint lines about Wei Ying’s face from smiling, the tiniest of freckles and faintest of scars. All the little imperfections only seen when one is so very, very close.
Lan Wangji loves every one of them. Would spend a lifetime in their study, and consider it a life well spent.
“Wei Ying,” he chides, though there is no heat behind it. Wei Ying’s eyes crinkle in reply. “It is very fine.”
Wei Ying nods, pleased with himself. “All my work is good, I keep telling you.”
Lan Wangji raises the bracelet up to the light, where it drapes delicately from his fingers. Says, while he senses a chance, “Who is it for?”
A moment of quiet. Lan Wangji waits.
“Jin Ling,” Wei Ying says. Quieter, now. But he answers.
Something within Lan Wangji loosens. He hands it back, careful. “It is an excellent gift.”
“I owe him one. I made him one already, for his one-month celebration, but… he never got it.”
Another moment of quiet. Qiongqi Way. Lan Wangji dares a glance at Wei Ying, and Wei Ying rallies quickly, but Lan Wangji knows his thoughts – they are written all over Wei Ying’s face.
“Anyway, I can’t have him saying his uncle never gave him anything,” Wei Ying continues, with a smile that does not reach his eyes. “I’ll make one for Sizhui too, but Jing Ling is first. If he’ll – if he’ll have it.”
It is a small stutter. The slightest hesitation. But Lan Wangji knows.
“It is an excellent gift,” he repeats. “He will.”
Wei Ying’s mouth twists. Disbelieving. But he covers it quickly with another smile.
Lan Wangji cannot help it. He reaches out for him. Cups Wei Ying’s face in his hand, only for Wei Ying to flinch back. Freeze, then laugh an awkward little laugh, not meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“Lan Zhan, you’re too much sometimes,” he murmurs.
Lan Wangji studies him. Studies him close, because he cannot always fathom Wei Ying’s mind, but Wei Ying’s face is a canvas, and Lan Wangji knows all its colours.
“You think he will not accept it?” he asks.
Wei Ying flinches. A small thing, barely perceptible if Lan Wangji were not looking for it, for Wei Ying guards his hurts well. Enough of a flinch for Lan Wangji to know he is right.
“You know teenagers,” Wei Ying says. He stands. Moves away, taking the bracelet with him. “They’re all so ungrateful.”
Lan Wangji considers. “Jin Ling is young. But he knows the truth now.”
“Yes, well,” Wei Ying says. Setting the bracelet carefully, oh so carefully, onto a table. His back to Lan Wangji, his shoulders rigid. “The truth isn’t always enough.”
Lan Wangji reads between the lines. Takes a guess. “Jiang Wanyin.”
Wei Ying flinches again. And that is answer enough.
“Don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying mutters. Paces over to the window, looking out. “Jiang Cheng just says things to upset people, you can’t let him bother you.”
Lan Wangji considers this. It is a piece of advice that Wei Ying has clearly not taken for himself. But it seems Lan Wangi was right from the start.
Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin met, during the time Wei Ying was away. Did not part on good terms. Spoke of Jin Ling, perhaps, and if there is anything Lan Wangji knows about Jiang Wanyin, it is that he is good at saying the things that will hurt Wei Ying the most.
That is why, then. Why Wei Ying came back, and shut himself away.
Lan Wangji stands. Wei Ying stiffens, but he does not retreat when Lan Wangji comes to stand beside him, so Lan Wangji reaches for him. Turns him gently, so that Lan Wangji may see his face.
“Wei Ying,” he murmurs. Raising his hand, brushing it over Wei Ying’s cheek.
Wei Ying recoils. Recoils.
“Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t do these things,” he says. All force and too much energy. Vibrating, all of a sudden, with something Lan Wangji cannot name. “People will get the wrong idea. How will you explain it to your future wife?”
Lan Wangji goes still. Hand still extended in mid-air, useless. “Wife.”
“Of course! You’ll need a wife someday, Lan Zhan, if you’re going to have a family.”
Wei Ying smiles (smiles), an odd rictus thing. Armoured, untouchable. Pushing Lan Wangji thoroughly and entirely away.
Wife, he said. Wife.
The hurt is immediate – an instinctive, trained response. It rears up in an ugly, wounded jealousy, in a pang of misunderstood pride. As it did when they were young, as it has always done, because Wei Ying is every one of Lan Wangji’s weaknesses.
But Lan Wangji is not a boy anymore. Not easily distracted, this time around, despite old insecurity rearing its head.
(Wei Ying still gives him flowers. Still kisses him. Still cares for him, even if he is prickly now. Even if he possesses a similar talent to Jiang Wanyin, knows just where to strike to make Lan Wangji go away.)
Lan Wangji looks closer. And the hurt fades, because while he may not understand, he still knows Wei Ying. Knows the curve of those lips, and the set of those brows, and the depths of those clever, shining eyes.
Wei Ying is afraid. Lan Wangji cannot be hurt, when he sees that Wei Ying is afraid.
“Wei Ying,” he says. Stops. Considers, because this is always the hardest part.
Wei Ying will not tell him, if Lan Wangji asks. Not what happened, or what troubles him, or why he jerked away. Maddeningly consistent in this one aspect of his character, for Wei Ying has always hidden his hurts deep.
(Carved his Golden Core from his body in days of endless agony. Gave up his life, his sword, his talent, and endured the scorn and mockery without a word of explanation. Never told Lan Wangji, even after they reunited. Never told Lan Wangji, even when he was on the brink of collapse. Never told him, even when Lan Wangji would have done anything to help him, to be allowed to help him.)
Lan Wangi will never know just where Wei Ying is hurting. But he knows that he is. And perhaps that is knowledge enough.
“Wei Ying,” he says again, but his voice breaks off, gaze lowering.
It is difficult. Lan Wangji is a man of action, and Wei Ying shies away whenever Lan Wangji says too much. Cannot accept Lan Wangji’s affections when spoken aloud. But there is a difference, Lan Wangji knows, between what Wei Ying wants and what he needs. And maybe Wei Ying needs this. Maybe Lan Wangji has been mistaken all along.
Wei Ying will never ask. But Lan Wangji may still answer.
“Only Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. “For me. There is only Wei Ying.”
When Lan Wangji composes himself enough to look up, it is to the sight of Wei Ying’s frozen face. So still, so quiet. Wei Ying swallows. Swallows again, still silent.
Lan Wangji takes his chance. Reaches for him, and this time, Wei Ying does not pull away. This time, Wei Ying lets him.
He drops his head to Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and Lan Wangji arms circle around him, the breath still in his lungs. Careful, so careful, even as he holds Wei Ying tighter, pressing his hand to the back of Wei Ying’s hair. Careful not to cage him, or push him, or hold him too tight. Wei Ying chokes out a laugh. And slowly, his arms wrap around Lan Wangji too.
“I know,” he murmurs. Quiet, pained. A moment of honesty, words only Lan Wangji will ever hear. A confession (perhaps even to himself). “I know.”
Lan Wangji breathes out. Buries his face in Wei Ying’s hair. Holds him tighter as Wei Ying’s shoulders shake – part laughter, part something else entirely.
Wei Ying is a defender, a protector, the kind of man who would sacrifice anything for anyone. Bold and brash and ready to face the world, take on any challenge, fight any fight.
He does not know how to let people love him. Does not know how to let Lan Wangji love him.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji murmurs. Beloved, impossible, irreplaceable Wei Ying.
It is Wei Ying who pulls away first, as he always does. Twitchy, evasive, talking too loud as he teases Lan Wangji, as is so often his way.
“Lan Zhan, you’re such a sap,” he complains. Wiping roughly at his cheeks. “I don’t know how you can say such things with a straight face.”
He withdraws. Skitters away so abruptly that Lan Wangji aches with the loss of him. Leaving, always leaving.
But not forever.
That night, Lan Wangji brushes out Wei Ying's hair again, and Wei Ying watches him in the mirror. Still and quiet, eyes tracing Lan Wangji’s reflection. And when Lan Wangji sets the brush down, Wei Ying catches his wrist. Says nothing, even as Lan Wangji makes a noise of question, running his thumb over Lan Wangji’s skin.
Wei Ying kisses him. Brief, soft, stealing the breath from Lan Wangji's lungs. Moves away again just as quickly with a tweak of Lan Wangji’s headband. Mischievous, fickle, impossible to catch.
(Guarded. Wild. Mistrustful of even the gentlest of hands.)
Lan Wangji loves him. Will always love him. Will let Wei Ying go when he asks. Will wait in unending devotion until Wei Ying comes back into his arms.
Lan Wangji is patient. And Wei Ying is well worth the waiting.