Sandalwood smoke curls up from the incense burner on the table, rich, familiar, mingled with the sharpness of pine from the breeze through the window to become the scent that is home. Lan Wangji sits still and quiet, hair loosed from his guan and spilling over relaxed shoulders. Only his eyes move, and his hands, turning crisp white pages with measured care as his eyes travel over the characters.
The book is the work of a new poet from Yunping, anonymous, capitalizing on an air of mystery to help sell their work. It's not the mystery than drew Lan Wangji to continue reading. First, the book is from Sizhui, still traveling with Wen Qionglin to parts of the world remote, where sect cultivators rarely go. Second, the poems are...
Sizhui knows him well, put thought into the gift; Lan Wangji trusts his taste and his care. The poems are...
The first poem is in a classical style, rich with all the proper references and perfection of form. This would be pleasing enough, but four poems in, Lan Wangji sees it for what it is. A kind of proof, a banner set on the first page to say See? I know what I am doing. I know the rules, now watch me break them, and it reminds him keenly of Wei Ying, that combination of elevation and disregard. The corner of his mouth turns softly up in a smile, though there is no one in the Jingshi to see it today. Wei Ying is spending the day with some of the juniors, down in Caiyi town, teaching the little Lans how to have fun with life.
He finishes the fourth poem, sits with it for a moment and lets his eyes fall nearly shut. The poem is about sunlight on water, describing in clever, impish verse the golden glow through the green of lotus leaves, the pleasure of lying back in a gently rocking boat and listening to the dragonflies hum in the shade. He thinks, perhaps, it was about something else, too, that the boat might be a lover and the sunlight might be the affection between lover and beloved. Later, he will read it to Wei Ying and ask what he thinks. The ambiguity of meanings is something Wei Ying especially appreciates.
A bird comes to sing in the tree outside the window, and Lan Wangji turns to the next page.
Afternoon brings hints of warmth to the mountainside. Sunlight pools between the trees as Lan Wangji walks down to the rabbit meadow, one hand tucked neatly in the small of his back, the other at his side, holding a basket. He takes his time, there is no need to hurry past the small white flowers blooming in the grass, no need to rush and frighten the songbirds in the bush of unripe berries. For this one lovely day, he has nowhere else he needs to be. It's a rarity in his life, one he would once have been uncomfortable with, but he has learned to enjoy the taste of freedom, to shape empty time to please himself. The stones of the path crunch satisfyingly beneath his feet. Having no obligations is sweet relief.
The rabbit meadow is warm and the kind of living, green quiet he loves. There's a smooth grey stone where it is his habit to sit, and he settles himself there now, flicking back his sleeves to keep them out of the way, the basket set beside him. He does not call or otherwise break the stillness at all, but rather becomes a part of it, a feature of the landscape, as if he grew there like the trees. He does not need to call, the rabbits come on their own, in ones and twos up the hill and out of the bamboo.
Most of them are white, but over the years since they came to the back hill, they've bred with the wild rabbits, and some have patches of soft brown or charcoal between their ears or on their round rumps. They look like little patches of snow and stones and earth, like part of the mountain the way he is part of the mountain.
The rabbits gather around his knees. A few snuggle onto the hems of his robes, white on white, and he reaches to pet them with light fingers, every movement patient and slow. When they've settled, he opens the basket, takes out covered bowls of chopped cabbage, curly intricate leaves of palest green, dark bok choy with its stately white stems, purple amaranth leaves and shepherd's purse, all still fresh. He cut them himself just before coming here, another small part of the ritual that is his visits to the meadow.
He feeds the rabbits from his hands. There is no pushing in the meadow, the rabbits are well fed, these are treats, not meals. Everyone knows they will get a turn. Lan Wangji knows which rabbit favors which vegetable. What he will eat tonight, cooked, they eat now.
When every rabbit has had its fill and the bowls are empty, there is a nudge at Lan Wangji's elbow, a polite bid for attention. He lifts the oldest rabbit in the meadow gently with both hands to support her. She's grown large on peace and safety, nearly blind with comfortable age. He sets her in his lap and she snuggles against him, nose twitching and ears lying long and soft along her back.
He strokes her gently, sinking his fingertips into her plush fur, white as snow and soft as a dream.
When Lan Wangji returns from the rabbit meadow, the Jingshi is quiet, empty still. He allows himself a moment to miss Sizhui, and then directs his thoughts to looking forward to his eventual return. The knowledge he will return is enough. And Wei Ying will be home tonight, has not been away long enough to miss, but any amount of time is long enough that Lan Wangji will be happy to have him back.
He has grown to accept space and distance, but closing distance remains an unmitigated pleasure.
The shadows have moved across the floor, there is no longer sunlight over his desk where the book of poetry waits for him. He turns, instead, to the guqin, pausing to light a stick of incense.
Music answers something inside him he has always found difficult to express in other ways, the profound depths within him are not easy to plumb, less easy still to unearth with his tongue into the world. Some people can do it, like the poet from Yunping, but for Lan Wangji, words are the shape of things, words define edges, but music...
Whether it is Bichen in his hands, or the guqin, or even—perhaps especially—Wei Ying, Lan Wangji can speak in a way that is all depth and no limit.
He thinks of Wei Ying, and downy rabbit fur, and sunlight filtered through lotus leaves, and plays until the incense burns to nothing.
As he leans forward to light another, there's a knock at the door, much too small and too early to be Wei Ying and the disciples returning from Caiyi.
"You may enter," Lan Wangji says, but the door stays shut. Frowning with thought rather than displeasure, he rises and opens the door, then looks— down.
"Hanguang-jun, m-may I come in?" says a little voice from the level of his waist. Lan Hua's headband is slightly crooked, her round face smudged with dirt. She looks up at him with eyes the color of dark honey and sniffles loudly. There is no rule in Cloud Recesses that she can't come in, so he steps back. It wouldn't be the first time she's sought out the sanctuary of the Jingshi, and he's happy to have her. Sometimes, she reminds him of himself, solemn and small, easily overwhelmed by the other children.
Everyone needs somewhere to go.
"You may come in, A-Hua," he says, in the gentle voice he reserves for rabbits and children. "I am going to practice until this stick of incense burns down."
A-Hua nods gravely. "Practice is very important," she intones, so serious he feels his face ease into something Wei Ying would call a smile. "Then will you read to me?"
"Very well, I will read to you."
Lan Wangji gets her a cushion, but she says with the same careful enunciation, "I watch," and she does, watching and listening with rapt attention for, at least, most of the length of the incense stick before wandering off to look at the things on his desk. She does not touch, and he does not stop playing until the last wisp of smoke has coiled up to the ceiling.
A-Hua yawns as he reads her the first poem in the book. It is important for children, like poets, to understand the rules of form before they break them, to learn the outlines of things before life fills them in with the shades and colors of experience. He reads her all four of the poems he's read so far, savoring the nuances of them, feeling out new meanings he didn't see the first time. A-Hua yawns again as she asks him what lotuses look like, and he nearly yawns in response as he answers.
Usually, at this time of late afternoon, he is answering correspondences from his position as Chief Cultivator, but today... today there is something utterly decadent, rebelliously self-indulgent, about lying back on his bed with A-Hua on his chest. The top of her head bumps up under his chin as she wriggles around to get comfortable, and then he puts one arm around her and she goes peacefully limp under the comforting weight, asleep in minutes.
Lan Wangji does not usually sleep during the day. There is a time for waking and a time for sleeping, and he's always been regimented about both. Not like Wei Ying, who can sleep anywhere and at any time like a cat.
And yet, Lan Wangji is tired; and yet, Lan Wangji is comfortable.
And yet, Lan Wangji drifts, mist-light, into sleep.
The door to the Jingshi opens, Lan Wangji rising from a dream he has already forgotten, to a voice ringing bell-bright before it is quickly silenced. "Ah, Lan Zhan, you won't believe the—"
He opens his eyes to Wei Ying standing in the doorway before the backdrop of a sky painted lavender and pink with sunset. His hand is clasped to his mouth, but can't hide the delighted grin that crinkles up his eyes. Even backlit, Lan Wangji sees that grin, knows its shape and its warmth and its taste.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying starts again, much quiet this time. "Sleeping already? No, no, don't get up! You stay right there. Oh my poor Lan Zhan, are they working you so hard that when you get a day off, you sleep through it?"
"I did not..."
"Shh, don't talk, you'll wake the baby. Is that A-Hua? I'll take her home, you stay right there." He crosses the floor, feet silent on the smooth wooden boards, and bends over them to press his lips to Lan Wangji's forehead, warm and dry just above the cloud on his brow. His hair tumbles down around Lan Wangji's face, bringing with it the smell of the woods at evening, cool and clean, and faintly fried-oil-and-spice scent of something Wei Ying must have gotten to eat at the market in Caiyi, and under all that the smell that is Wei Ying himself, sweat and magic.
Then he's scooping A-Hua gently into his arms, reassuring her when she stirs. She loves him as much as she loves Lan Wangji, and lets him carry her out, her arms around his neck.
Lan Wangji does what he is told, lies still and watches them go. Perhaps he dozes off again. Perhaps he merely thinks, floats at the borders of half-lost dreams of dragonflies and rabbits and the streets of a far-off city where a temple used to stand until Wei Ying is back.
For once, he talks first. "It is good to see you, Wei Ying," he said, and this time is rewarded with a smile that has no eclipse, no hand to hide its brilliance.
"You, too, Lan Zhan. What a sight to come home to! I thought my heart might melt right out of my chest." He takes a little drawstring bag from inside his hanfu, and a small stoppered bottle from the bag. "But this is perfect, I have just the thing, I bought us a present today—don't worry, the kids weren't looking—so now turn over on your stomach and take your shirt off."
Lan Wangji does as he is told, already moving even before Wei Ying has finished speaking. The evening air is cool on his skin, pleasant on his scarred back. Wei Ying sheds his outer robe and comes to the bed, his weight shifting the mattress as he sits beside Lan Wangji. With gentle hands, he sweeps the hair over Lan Wangji's shoulders, then bends to kiss the back of his neck. "Good boy," he murmurs, and the kiss and the words send a thrill over his skin, down his spine. He sighs, soft, letting go of any lingering tension. There's a bit of a crick in his neck from being a child's pillow.
When Wei Ying pulls the top from the little bottle with his teeth, the air suffuses with summer wildflowers, the warm smells of lowland fields complex and honey-sweet. Wei Ying often rubs his back, he has a salve from the healers that keeps the scars supple, keeps them from stiffening and pulling tight. This is not like that, not the smell of medicinal herbs. This is a pure-pleasure scent, meant to ease the mind as well as the muscles.
He thinks he could put names to the flowers, if he tried, but then Wei Ying's hands are on his back, his palms hot and his fingers unerring as they find all the sore places, thumbs on either side of his neck, digging in, releasing tension with gentle circles. Sliding down, oil-smooth, to press the heels of his hands between Lan Wangji's shoulder blades, down and down, fingers splayed across his ribs until Lan Wangji sighs again so deep he might be sinking, sinking into his own bed.
And all the while Wei Ying is talking, his voice a blur of sensation, telling him things he will remember later but does not hold tight to now. Words a tide drawn over him, so that all his senses are filled with Wei Ying. He's talking about his day in town, the harmless trouble he got up to with the juniors, he's talking just to talk, just for Lan Wangji to listen. In the end, as his hands must grow tired and begin to slow, he says only, "Good boy, Lan Zhan, ah, sweetheart, you're so good to me. I like being good to you, too, did you know? You're so nice to be good to, you're so nice to come home to. Does that feel good, like that, yes? Good. Lie still, just like that, we'll have supper soon, and then I'll take you back to bed and we'll be good to each other some more. Won't that be lovely, sweetheart?"
And it is, and he does, and they do.