Lan Xichen is up past curfew because he’s hungry. It’s his own fault, since he’d skipped dinner to do paperwork, but he had deemed sleep to be more important than food and hadn’t had the time for both and his responsibilities. Except now he’s depriving himself of both sleep and food. He’s spent twenty minutes trying to fall asleep, failed, and decided to assign himself lines for breaking curfew instead of trying to sleep on an empty stomach when there’s a perfectly good kitchen full of food.
It doesn’t seem worth it to get redressed and to put his hair up when everyone is already asleep and he’ll be back within minutes, but he also can’t justify going out in just his sleep clothes. He compromises, pulling on a thick over robe, tying his ribbon back on his forehead, and quickly braiding his hair to the side so it doesn’t get in his way.
He doesn’t expect to see anyone, after all.
The kitchen is occupied when he arrives. He smells it before anything else, a heavy scent of spice that doesn’t belong anywhere in Cloud Recesses but makes his stomach growl anyway. He nudges the door open and is at once surprised and also completely unsurprised to see Wei Wuxian in the middle of the kitchen, a large pan of seasoned meat sizzling next to a smaller pan that’s so heavily spiced its bright red, along with sheets of soft dough. Wei Wuxian’s white robes are splattered with grease and streaks of spice as he flutters around the kitchen, humming to himself.
He considers going back to his room, but he’s intrigued, and also hungry. “Hello Young Master Wei.”
Wei Wuxian startles, nearly crushing the dough in his hands. He looks up and scolds, “Stop calling me that!”
He doesn’t know why he thought Wei Wuxian might be at all ashamed or contrite about this. It’s like he hasn’t met him. “Apologies, Wei Wuxian. It’s after curfew.” And the disciples aren’t supposed to be messing about in the kitchen.
“And here you are out of bed!” he says cheerfully before tapping the side of his nose. “Don’t worry Lan Xichen, I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He has the impulse to smile, suppresses it, then decides he doesn’t have to. “What are you up to? You must be very hungry to make all this.”
“Oh!” He looks around, then rubs the back of his neck. “Ah, well. It’s,” he hesitates, looking him over. “Do you want me to lie to you or can you promise not to punish anyone besides me for telling the truth?”
What an atrocious choice. He’s delighted. “As long as it’s not harming anyone, I’ll keep your secret.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him, as blindingly bright as if he were smiling at Wangji. “The food here is very healthy. Very nutritious. And possibly some of the blandest, most unappetizing food I’ve had the misfortune of eating. I can’t survive off this, I’ll go mad.”
“So you do intend to eat all of this?” He’s pretty sure Wei Wuxian isn’t physically capable of that, but then again he is a teenager.
He shakes his head. “No. I’m making it for everyone.” He pauses, “Well, all my friends. Even the food in Lanling isn’t this bad!”
“Jin Zixuan?” he asks, wondering if he’s going to have to reevaluate everything he knows about Wei Wuxian.
The horrified face he pulls reassures him that he does not. “No! What? Absolutely not, why would you – no! He’s the worst. I’ll cut off my hands before I cook for him. I’m talking about Mianmian.”
“Mianmian,” he repeats slowly, then, “Ah, Miss Luo.”
“You really have to stop being so formal with us, you sound like Uncle Qiren,” he scolds, but he’s still smiling so Lan Xichen doesn’t take it to heart. “Why are you up so late? Is something wrong?”
His stomach growls and he feels his ears warm.
Wei Wuxian laughs. He’s very good at laughing at people without actually giving the impression that he’s laughing at them in particular. “Do you want to stay? This will be done soon, I did a lot of the prep last night.”
Also after curfew and also sneaking into the kitchens, he supposes, but doesn’t say anything. “Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian waves a dismissive hand, hooking an ankle around a nearby stool to drag it over next to him. “Sit, sit, I feel like I never get the chance to talk to you when you aren’t busy being all perfect. It’s not good for you, you know.”
He considers protesting that he’s far from perfect, but that will only encourage Wei Wuxian to start listing off all the reasons he disagrees, which sounds a little bit nice but mostly mortifying, so instead he just takes his seat at the stool and asks, “You know how to cook?”
“My dad taught me,” he says brightly, putting the meat inside the dough while the first batch steams. “He worked with his mother in the kitchens until he was assigned to Uncle Jiang. Mom can’t cook at all though, if she ever offers you something don’t take it.”
“Ah,” he says. Other people, he thinks, wouldn’t talk about their father’s time as a servant. They’d downplay it or deny it. But Wei Wuxian is shameless. “Can I ask you a rude question?”
He beams. “Please! You should get to be rude sometimes, you know.”
He doesn’t know how to respond to that so he doesn’t. “Does it bother you? That your father was a servant before he was a cultivator?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer right away, and he’s frowning, but more like he’s thinking than that he’s offended. He starts setting the buns out on the steamer tray, his movements absentminded but precise. He fights the same way. “No. Why would it? Aren’t we all servants, really?”
“Are we?” he asks, blinking.
Wei Wuxian shrugs, then nods. “I serve my parents. Other people serve their sect leaders. When I’m wandering, my only purpose is to serve. We don’t accept money for cultivating, we have to earn it other ways, and the reason we’re out there is to find people who need help and give it to them. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Love is a form of servitude, isn’t it? It’s putting others before yourself because they matter to you. If you can love someone without serving them, I’ve never figured out how.” He pauses and looks Lan Xichen in the eye when he says, “To look down on servants is to believe serving is in and of itself undignified and shameful. It would be very sad, I think, to love nothing enough that you’re willing to lower yourself for it.”
Lan Xichen says nothing, and continues saying nothing until Wei Wuxian takes one of the freshly steamed buns and places it in his hands, almost too hot to touch. This explains much of Wei Wuxian’s dislike of Jin Zixuan. “You’re very wise.”
“Ah, Lan Xichen!” he cries, covering his face with his hands. “Don’t say that, you’ll give people ideas! I’m ridiculous, not wise, remember?”
“Of course,” he says gravely, “my mistake.”
Wei Wuxian laughs and nudges him into telling him funny stories of his childhood, cheerfully telling him stories of his own that Lan Xichen hopes are exaggerated. He gives the first too-warm bun from each batch to Lan Xichen and it fills him with a warmth that that has nothing to do with the hearth.
“Do you want to come with me to make deliveries?” he asks, the buns all neatly packed away. “You’re not allowed to punish anyone though.”
He should say no. It’s far past curfew, he should go back to bed and get some sleep. Surely turning a blind eye to Wei Wuxian’s mischief is different than participating in it, and he’s hardly dressed to see anyone anyway. “I would like that. Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian beams at him, tugging at his arm impatiently, and Lan Xichen just smiles and lets Wei Wuxian lead him. They go to the girls’ dormitories first. He taps lightly on the first window and it pushes open to reveal Jiang Yanli. “A-Li! Here, these are still hot.”
They’re all still hot, thanks to the warming talismans Wei Wuxian had put on everything.
“Thank you, A-Xian,” she says and then sees him and freezes. A blush rises to her cheeks and she bows. “Oh, Master Lan, I–”
“Don’t worry about him, A-Li, he’s one of us tonight,” he says confidently. “Can we make soup next week?”
Jiang Yanli hesitates, eyeing him nervously, but must decide to take Wei Wuxian at his word because she says, “Yes, of course, A-Xian,” before adjusting his hair ribbon and kissing his cheek and closing the window.
Wei Wuxian skips to the next dorm. This one he shoves the window open and sticks himself halfway inside, “A-Qing!”
He’s pushed back out, his arms pinwheeling dramatically before he falls, the delay between the two so long that it has to be on purpose. Both Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang stick their heads out of the window, grinning. Wen Qing makes grabby hands. “Wei Wuxian, if you came to annoy us without tribute, you won’t see the next sunrise.”
It’s easily the most direct and rude he’s ever heard Wen Qing be, but Wei Wuxian just laughs. He places two boxes of the baos in her hands. Luo Qingyang notices him and elbows Wen Qing in the side, jerking her chin in his direction. Wen Qing turns to him, raises an eyebrow, and slams the window shut in both of their faces.
It startles a laugh out of him and Wei Wuxian says, “She’s the worst and a terrible influence on Mianmian. I love her.”
“Had you met before this?” he asks as they head to the boys’ dormitories. “It seems as if you had.”
His face goes blank for a moment, something Lan Xichen has never seen before, and he can’t help the curl of unease at the bottom of his stomach. Then it’s gone and he’s smiling again. “Yeah, we met a couple years ago. She’s great.”
It takes Wei Wuxian a couple seconds to realize Lan Xichen isn’t following him anymore, is instead standing in the middle of the walkway and staring. “A couple years ago Wen Ruohan was still in power.” Wen Xu wasn’t necessarily kinder than his father, but he was more amenable to working with the other clans. After Wen Ruohan’s death last year, tensions had eased enough between all the clans that travel between them was possible, enough that they had Wen cultivators as guest disciples in Cloud Recesses now.
Before that, however, wandering into the Wen clan uninvited was a death sentence if caught.
“Yep,” he says, shifting the baos in his hands. “Come on, Lan Xichen, we’re not done yet.”
He’s not willing to let this go. Does his uncle know about this? “Where were your parents?”
“Oh, um, around,” he says evasively. “I was with Song Lan and Uncle Xingchen at the time, actually, but Mom already yelled at me for it if that’s what the look on your face is leading up to.”
“She didn’t yell at them? They were responsible for you,” he insists. He doesn’t know why this is bothering him so much. Clearly Wei Wuxian hadn’t gotten caught, he was here and fine after all, but he thinks of his own little brother sneaking into Wen territory and it makes him cold.
Wei Wuxian huffs, balancing the boxes on his hip. “I might have possibly gone off on my own at one point and maybe headed in the opposite direction than I’d been intending. It’s okay, it’s fine, A-Qing is a great doctor.”
Wei Wuxian grimaces, realizing he’s misspoke at the same time that Lan Xichen demands, “Why would you need a doctor?”
“These are getting cold, we should hurry!” he says cheerfully, continuing to walk forward.
Lan Xichen lets it drop, because it really isn’t any of his business, but he’s going to figure out what happened. He also has to take a moment to consider the idea that maybe Wei Wuxian’s tales of his travels aren’t exaggerated, but that’s too much for him right then so he sets it aside for later.
Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are in the same room and both try to hide when they notice him. It’s not a very good attempt, since they both trip over their robes in their haste and it makes his lips twitch into a real smile. Wei Wuxian disparages both of them obnoxiously, drops off the baos, and then goes down to Wen Ning’s room. Wen Ning takes the box with murmured thanks, bows to Lan Xichen like it makes perfect sense that he’s wandering around the grounds with Wei Wuxian in the middle of the night wearing his sleeping clothes, and then goes back to his room.
Wei Wuxian still has a box in his hands and Lan Xichen assumes it’s for himself until he says, “I have one more stop and I think you should come with me even if you don’t think you should come with me.”
He blinks, waiting to see if Wei Wuxian is going to elaborate on that at all. When he doesn’t, he says, “All right. I’ll come with you.”
Wei Wuxian hums, looking so pleased that Lan Xichen wonders if he’s made a mistake
He definitely has. He regrets agreeing when he figures out where they’re going. “Wei Wuxian, this is-”
“I know.” He reaches out to squeeze Lan Xichen’s shoulder, as if he’s the one that needs reassurance about this, which is so bewildering that he forgets to protest until they’re already there. “Uncle Qiren! I brought snacks!”
It’s far past curfew, his uncle is definitely asleep, and he’s going to be stuck doing handstands and lines like he’s a child for – well, most of the things he’s done tonight, really.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t even wait for a reply, instead shoving the door open, and Lan Xichen moves to stop him but he’s too late. Forget lines, Uncle is going to kill them. Wangji isn’t prepared for the life of an only child. He’ll never talk to anyone again.
“Be quiet,” Uncle says, but it’s more reflexive than scolding. He’s sitting at the table squinting at paperwork as low candles burn all around them.
Wei Wuxian steps inside and plops down next to Uncle, who still doesn’t look up from his paperwork. He places the basket of steamed buns between them, opening the cover, and Uncle still doesn’t look up as he takes out one and bites into it. It’s not until Uncle pulls it back and Lan Xichen sees the inside is a fiery red that he realizes it’s one of the extra spicy ones that Wei Wuxian had kept separate from the others. It had made his eyes water just to be near it, never mind eating it, but Uncle just makes a pleased sound and takes another bite.
“You like spicy food,” Lan Xichen says, realizing only after he’s said it that it came out sounding like an accusation.
Uncle startles, looking up at him and then taking a painful swallow rather than talking with his mouth full.
“Oh, I brought company,” Wei Wuxian says casually.
“Wei Wuxian!” Uncle hisses, his face bright red.
Lan Xichen would like to think it’s from the spice, but he knows it’s not. “You like spicy food,” he repeats.
Uncle’s face does something he can’t explain and then he drops the bao.
Wei Wuxian’s quick reflexes are all that save it from splattering on the on the ground. “Uncle Qiren! I worked hard on that!”
He and Uncle are just staring at one another, not speaking.
Wei Wuxian sighs and gently puts the half eaten bun back in Uncle’s hand. “Uncle Qiren, Lan Xichen is going to be taking over as clan head soon, right? He’s going to have to know these things. He skipped dinner because he had work to do, you know.” Lan Xichen hadn’t told him that. “He’s going to do things like that if you don’t tell him that actually, you keep candle stubs and do the work at night so your sect thinks you’re perfect and not, you know, mortal.”
“You shouldn’t skip meals,” Uncle says. Lan Xichen refuses to respond to that.
“Lan Xichen, Uncle Qiren does like spicy food,” Wei Wuxian says. “He also like the taste of liquor and fried meat on a stick and dark, rich tea that you can’t find anywhere outside of Yunmeng. He stays up late every night, because being Sect Leader on your own is a lot of work, and why you have to make sure you marry the type of person that’s going to be willing to help you out, even with the boring stuff.”
“I see,” he says. He doesn’t, really.
Wei Wuxian gentles his voice. “Uncle Qiren doesn’t tell you that stuff, because inside these walls he’s the clan leader and he has four thousand rules he has to follow perfectly, because if he doesn’t he thinks that no one will listen to him. I already don’t listen to him, and I’ve never known him in the walls of Cloud Recesses before, so. That’s why I know he likes spicy food.”
Lan Xichen hadn’t known the tight feeling in his chest was betrayal until it loosens.
“We’re all servants to something,” Wei Wuxian continues, again with a look on his face that isn’t somber, but isn’t carefree either. “There are lots of ways to serve.”
Uncle likes things they’re not allowed to have and does the work that’s really supposed to be for two people by the too-dim candlelight rather admit it’s too much and doesn’t say anything about any of it. Because he loves their clan too much to do anything else.
“Can I help?” he asks, surprised at the catch in his voice, at the way he has to swallow before continuing. “I’m going to be doing this myself soon. You should let me help.”
Uncle is staring at him, hand still holding the partially eaten bao, and he looks uncertain. Lan Xichen doesn’t think he’s ever seen his uncle look uncertain before. But just because he hasn’t seen it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. “You shouldn’t have to, yet. You do enough.”
Strict, demanding Uncle, who has never let them get away with anything except for all things he does. Who knows Wei Wuxian cooks in their kitchen and breaks curfew and doesn’t say anything about it. He wonders if he and Wangji have ever actually gotten away with anything in their lives, or if Uncle has just let them believe they have. “I want to. Please, Uncle.”
Another moment of staring at one another. Wei Wuxian sighs and eats one of the baos himself, waiting. Then Uncle gives a slow nod and Lan Xichen lets out a relieved breath just as Wei Wuxian bounces to his feet and says, “Great! Glad that all got worked out. See you guys tomorrow!”
“Wei Wuxian!” Uncle shouts, grabbing for him, but Wei Wuxian is too quick, hurrying outside with a cheerful wave.
Lan Xichen is grateful Uncle doesn’t say anything about not running in Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian probably could cartwheel to his room in the dark, but it seems an unnecessary risk.
“What are you working on?” he asks, taking a seat across from his uncle. Uncle hesitates again, but just sighs before shifting the financial records so they can both see, explaining how and when to replenish certain accounts and what needs careful review and what can be a less careful review, should timing be an issue.
He thinks he understands what Wei Wuxian meant, about it not being good for him to be perfect all the time. He thinks maybe Wei Wuxian hadn’t been talking about him after all. Or at least not just about him.
This probably counts as getting caught up in one of Wei Wuxian’s schemes, which Uncle had told them not to do.
It’s a rule that Lan Xichen thinks he’ll be happy to break.