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the leftovers

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Even on dry land, summers in Lotus Pier felt like swimming. The heat was thick, the humidity thicker: midafternoon air tasted like underbrewed tea and the barest hints of a storm. Wei Wuxian’s shidi would beg him, running sword drills in that air, for a break to dip their heads in the lotus lakes. Wei Wuxian would let them, eventually. But first he’d ask, laughing, what the difference was, really.

Summers in the Cloud Recesses, from what Wei Wuxian can tell, have a way of submerging you, too. But mostly in the nights, when the fog comes down to envelop the mountain. Sometimes they return from night-hunts, and all Wei Wuxian can make out in the dark are the puffs of his breath in the rapidly cooling air.  

But if Wei Wuxian wakes some mornings shivering and clammy, the way you might from the grip of a long nightmare, it doesn’t bother him. By mid-morning, the sun burns off the watery dawn light, and the fog recedes into mild, pleasant dry heat. And if when the sun goes down again he needs to be held to sleep to keep warm – well. Obviously that’s no hardship.

So in other words, different. But not bad-different. Wei Wuxian, if pressed, cannot think of anything on this mountain that’s bad-different.

Then last week, Wei Wuxian woke to blaring sunlight, a sheen of sweat, and the hazy certainty that he was back in Lotus Pier. And thus began Gusu’s first heat wave in over twenty years. This is how Wei Wuxian finds himself here, ensconced in the shade of his favorite tree, arranging cubes of watermelon and watching three of his favorite people suffer.

It’s the first qin lesson Wei Wuxian has seen conducted outside. Lan Qiren would probably object, if he had the energy to come looking for them. But the past week has been a crash course in trial and error for Gusu Lan. Lotus Pier’s buildings were airy, meant to shade from the sun and let the breeze in. The Cloud Recesses was built for long winters and cold nights. Its structures hold tight to heat with both hands.

So after about a quarter shichen of sweating onto their strings, Lan Wangji had Sizhui and Jingyi gather their instruments, and moved their lesson from the Lanshi to the back hill, where at least they’d have the fresh air in their favor. And Wei Wuxian figured he might as well keep them company.

He pops one of the watermelon cubes into his mouth and nestles against the raised roots. Lan Wangji glances his way every few minutes. They’ve already learned the hard way, since his return, that Mo Xuanyu’s body is more sensitive to the sun than Wei Wuxian’s own was. But sprawled under the canopy of leaves in the bathwater haze of the afternoon, he’s comfortable. His robes aren’t yet drenched with sweat. The breeze is playing across his face. It seems, finally, like there’s one thing this body won’t have to learn.

“Hang in there, Jingyi,” Wei Wuxian calls, as Jingyi’s eyes threaten to droop shut. To which Jingyi groans, wrenches himself awake, and repositions himself over his guqin.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t mean to laugh. It just spills out of him. “Lan Zhan, ah,” he says. “Take pity on your juniors, won’t you? Take a break, come eat some watermelon.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t look up, but Wei Wuxian can see his brow crinkle. He’s not sweating. Hanguang-jun doesn’t sweat. But the side of him facing the sunlight is just a little pinker than the other. “Too sticky,” he says. There’s a hint of regret in his even voice. “We will eat when we finish.”

“It’s alright, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says bravely. Wei Wuxian’s trying not to look at him dead-on lest he start giggling again. Poor little A-Yuan is turning red as a pepper. “It’s not that bad.”

“Rule number 112,” Jingyi agrees. “Patience in the face of adversity is… something.”

Miraculously, Lan Wangji lets that go.

“My poor brave Lans,” Wei Wuxian croons. “I would come fan you all, but I don’t have enough hands.”

“Do not exert yourself,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian juts out his lower lip. You get sunstroke just the once and you never live it down, apparently. “You should go on ahead to the Cold Spring. We’ll join you soon.”

Wei Wuxian settles back, his head thumping lightly against the tree. The Cold Springs do sound nice, for once. But it doesn’t feel right, leaving his poor Lans to suffer at the hands of their own diligence like this. Even if he can’t sprout an extra arm to pat down all of their brows, there has to be something he can do.

He glances down to the platters he’s set out in front of him: the carefully-cut fruit on one end, the watermelon rinds preserved on the other. And then he remembers.

Wei Wuxian transfers the fruit to one platter, sweeps the rinds onto the other, and bounces to his feet. The cubes of watermelon, he leaves under the tree. The rinds he takes with him.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, “I’ll meet you back home for dinner. Bring these two with you! They worked hard.”

“Wait,” Jingyi calls. “Where are you going?”

Without looking back, Wei Wuxian lazily waves his free hand. “I’m leaving the watermelon! Eat it when you’re done!”

He makes his way back up the hill, humming in some vague harmony with the cicadas. He comes upon a rabbit every so often. Usually, without Lan Wangji or Sizhui’s calming presence by his side, they dart away from him. But even they look sluggish in the heat. Most of them sleepily watch him go by.

The door to the kitchens stands fully open, clearly trying to draw in a cross-breeze. It hasn’t been very successful – the air, when Wei Wuxian steps in, is boiling. But it’s too early, at least, for the stoves to be lit. It keeps the room just on one side of bearable.

The kitchen itself is empty, save for one figure busily chopping a small mountain of green onions. “Yan-guniang,” Wei Wuxian says, ducking his head as he sets his rinds on a counter. “Sorry to bother you.”

Wei Wuxian has come to recognize most of the kitchen staff by sight, at least, but at this point, he may know Yan Yi best. When Lan Wangji cooks for him – and if it’s not a surprise, Wei Wuxian will always come keep him company – he always starts early in the afternoon, so as not to get in the way of the staff’s dinner rush. More often than not, though, Yan Yi is already there. She seems to prefer the quiet while she preps her ingredients. But she never seems fazed at their company.

She’s maybe the age that Wei Wuxian was at the end of his first life, with a soft voice and an unshakable focus for her work. But she has a rare, quiet humor that reminds Wei Wuxian of his husband. He’s always honored when she lets it slip.

“Wei-gongzi.” Yan Yi looks up just long enough to smile. “Will Hanguang-jun be joining you?”

He glances around, taking stock of his supplies: he’ll need to chop up the rinds, first, as well as a few carrots from the basket by the counter. Then some ginger root.  Maybe some of Yan Yi’s green onions if she’s willing to spare some. Shijie would have used pork, but tofu should be almost as good. And since Wei Wuxian came to the Cloud Recesses, there has always been a line of sauces by the stoves. It won’t be Shijie’s. But it’ll be good.

“It’s just me today,” he chirps. “Will I be in your way if I make something?”

Yan Yi’s eyes narrow, just a fraction. “Something from Yunmeng?” she asks, too casually.

Wei Wuxian holds up both hands, the picture of innocence. “Something Hanguang-jun will like, I promise. There’s no spice. You can try it yourself.”

She watches him a moment, as if trying to gauge his metric of ‘no spice.’ After a beat, she says, dubiously, “Wei-gongzi knows his husband best.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, fetching his own knife. “But you’d still like to try it.”

To that, Yan Yi only smiles and goes back to her chopping.

He makes quick work of the carrots, tofu, and ginger root, and Yan Yi graciously does section off a portion of the green onions for him. The rinds are slower work as he separates the thin white edge from the thick green shell, but eventually, he has his pile of ingredients ready. He mixes the sauce into a bowl, tests a drop, and sets it by the pan with the savory-saltiness still tingling against his jaw.

He pulls out a talisman to light the stove with a quick, murmured apology to Yan Yi – the kitchen will be a furnace in no time. Her smile goes a little wry, like she’s used to it. Maybe Yan Yi is from somewhere warm, too.

Once the oil starts to sizzle, Wei Wuxian transfers the vegetables and tofu to the pan with a single sweep of his knife. Then, draping the sauce evenly across his mixture, he begins to stir.

The rinds were a point of contention, that first boiling summer in Lotus Pier. It didn’t surprise Wei Wuxian, at first: there was a line, he knew from the start, of what was too much to take, and it was never where Jiang-shushu seemed to think it was. But he learned, confusingly, as time went on, that scarcity wasn’t the problem. Watermelons were everywhere in Lotus Pier. Everywhere he looked, whether in the kitchens or the disciple halls, there were lines of them, healthy and green and as big as he was, ready to be smashed open like fireworks.

But when he’d finish the last of the sweet pink fruit – when he’d start in on the rind – that’s when Yu-furen would snap. Put that down, Wei Ying. They’ll say we’re not feeding you .

And then he realized, even more confusingly, that Yu-furen didn’t want them for anything else. When the meal was finished, they’d be cleared away with the dishes.

Shijie was the one who noticed the question written all over his face. She so often was. A-Xian , she said. You can have as much watermelon as you want. You don’t have to eat the rinds.

Wei Wuxian had blinked. Don’t have to?

Right , Shijie had said. She always spoke slowly, that first year. Not like he didn’t understand. Like she was giving him time to think. Those are leftovers. We don’t eat them .

It’s been too long to remember exactly what he was feeling. But trying to remember it now, Wei Wuxian has a good enough idea. It would have been hard to conceive of them – at a few different times in his life, now – that there were parts of food that weren’t meant to be eaten.

He doesn’t know if Shijie saw all that play out over his face, either. She was so young, too. But whatever she saw, she asked, Do you want to eat them? And he nodded so vigorously that she laughed.

By lunchtime the next day, she had a recipe.

The oil pops impatiently, drawing his attention back to the pan. He gives it a firm stir, ladling up some sauce from the bottom to redistribute it.

Shijie had always been able to tell when something was finished cooking by smell. Wei Wuxian usually looks to color, first. He’s joked, a few times, about how pale Gusu cuisine is, but it’s true: when he makes Lan Wangji his favorites, it finishes in shades of greens and whites. Yunmeng dishes are rust and red, rich as tilled earth. Tonight, Wei Wuxian’s stir-fry is an array. Orange from the carrots, green from the onions, the rest drenched in a warm golden-brown.

Wei Wuxian takes a pair of chopsticks and lifts one of the watermelon rinds to test it. He pops it in his mouth, suddenly ravenous. It gives easily between his teeth.

“It smells good.”

Wei Wuxian dips to extinguish the stove with a burst of spiritual energy, then whirls around smiling to where Lan Wangji is waiting in the doorway. His baby hairs are a little damp against his forehead – maybe the great Hanguang-jun sweats a little after all – but he looks at ease, standing there.

“This was supposed to be a surprise,” Wei Wuxian chides.

Lan Wangji’s own mouth curves, too. “I saw you take the watermelon rinds.” At the slight tilt of Wei Wuxian’s head, he adds, “You told me once they taste good stir-fried.”

The rush of heat to Wei Wuxian’s face has nothing to do with the last gasp of steam from the stove. “Aiya. You really do remember every bit of foolishness out of my mouth, don’t you.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t answer that – just looks at him. But then again. Lan Wangji tries not to answer obvious questions.

“Yan-guniang,” he greets.

“Hanguang-jun.” Yan Yi bows, but not before Wei Wuxian catches her mouth twitch. “Will you be taking two servings of rice?”

“Four, if that’s alright,” Lan Wangji says. “Sizhui and Jingyi will join us.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” she says – and a little stutteringly, she steps aside to let him fill the bowls himself. He was the one who set the rule when they returned to the Cloud Recesses. If they were cooking for themselves, they would serve themselves, too.

Wei Wuxian transfers his stir-fry to the serving dish. And when Yan Yi falls alongside him, he almost forgets what he promised.

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian sweeps aside grandly, clearing her path to the pan. “Go ahead.”

She lifts a piece of carrot to her mouth and takes a bite, her face gently shuttered as she chews. She waits just long enough for Wei Wuxian to worry. And just when he can no longer stand it, she says, “Wei-gongzi was right. Hanguang-jun will like it.”

Wei Wuxian beams. “I’m grateful for Yan-guniang’s expert opinion.”

Lan Wangji straightens, the four bowls of rice loaded onto a tray, and Wei Wuxian lifts the dish of stir-fry in turn. “We’ll take our leave, then, Yan-guniang,” Lan Wangji says. “Thank you for your hard work.”

She goes a little pink, pleased. “Enjoy your meal, Hanguang-jun. Wei-gongzi.”

Wei Wuxian grins over his shoulder. And they leave the oppressive heat of the kitchen and step into the falling afternoon.

The air has finally mellowed a little, now that the sun is lower. It doesn’t feel quite as thick when Wei Wuxian breathes it in. Night falls late in Gusu summers – sometimes it’s not even wholly dark by the time the Lan sect goes to sleep. But though there’s a while until sunset, there’s a faint hint of orange in the cast of the sun.

“I teased Lan-er-gege about stir-fried watermelon so long ago,” Wei Wuxian says. “Did you ever try?”

He shakes his head. “I wanted to wait for you.”

“Lan Zhan .” Honestly, the nerve of Lan Wangji, doing this when Wei Wuxian doesn’t have a free hand to hide his face with. “Didn’t you tell me not to exert myself in this heat?”

Lan Wangji watches him, lashes low. “Is this exertion?”

“Your husband is delicate, Hanguang-jun,” Wei Wuxian huffs. “Just hearing your voice is exertion. Anyway, I’m surprised you took me seriously, back then. I was such a horrible child, wasn’t I?”

“Not horrible,” Lan Wangji corrects.

“Alright, alright, not horrible,” Wei Wuxian says. He’s not sure he agrees with Lan Wangji’s assessment. But that’s the child Lan Wangji fell in love with. So perhaps he’s biased. “But you didn’t think I was trying to trick you?”

Lan Wangji considers that. “It wouldn’t have been out of character,” he says, at length. Wei Wuxian cackles. “But you spoke as if you truly liked it.”

Wei Wuxian smiles so much some days, he wonders if those lines will etch into his face, like the afterimage of a bright burst. “Of course I was. Shijie came up with this recipe, you know. Although it’s not so unusual anymore. Wen Ning and I saw an inn serving stir-fried watermelon rinds in Yiling, once. Isn’t it interesting how people who have nothing in common, will never meet each other once, can come up with the same idea?”

Lan Wangji faces forward, limned by the afternoon sun. And he doesn’t say anything. But after a year of marriage, Wei Wuxian thinks he knows his silences, now. There’s the silence when a conversation is over. And there’s the silence that’s waiting. Waiting like the way Lan Wangji watches Wei Wuxian wake up in stages on slow mornings, or the way he sits by his empty bowl at dinner until Wei Wuxian has finished every bite of his own. Like it’s all he wants to do.

So Wei Wuxian keeps talking.

“There was a watermelon seller in Yiling,” he says. “The—well, you know, the first time. I wish I got his name. I guess you don’t think of adults having names at that age, right? They’re just Mom, Dad, the watermelon seller—anyway. He’d always tell people, when he sold to them, save your rinds. There’s a kid around here who likes them. He even kept them in his stall for whenever I came by. He said he always felt a little better when he saw me smiling.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth thins, a little, and a rush of fondness wells in Wei Wuxian. Lan Zhan, ah . Lan Wangji must be imagining, as he so often does, some scenario where they’d met sooner, fixed everything.  He doesn’t think it’s quite as bad as his husband is imagining, really. But he understands. Sometimes he thinks of Lan Wangji, kneeling at a darkened house on a winter night, and he wishes he’d been there kneeling too.

“Anyway,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jiang-shushu took me in, and I didn’t understand why everyone in Lotus Pier kept letting the rinds go to waste. So Shijie made this.”

“You still liked them,” Lan Wangji says.

“I still do,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’ll see, Lan Zhan. It’s so refreshing, even though it’s served hot.”

“You never,” Lan Wangji starts. Then stops. Wei Wuxian blinks over at him. It’s unusual for Lan Wangji to stumble over his words. “It’s not unpleasant?”

Wei Wuxian softens. At times like this, Lan Wangji’s words only skim his meaning. Not because he doesn’t have the language, but because he has too much of it. Because when he asks didn’t it taste like being hungry and tired and smiling , he wants to say it right.

It might have. It’s one of the many things Wei Wuxian doesn’t remember. But if he wasn’t ready to leave it there on that street in Yiling – if it was worth letting Shijie take it for him, turn it into something delicious – then probably not.

Wei Wuxian smiles, hefts the dish higher in his arms. “No,” he says. “I think that if you taste something good, you always remember how good it was, no matter what else is happening.”

Lan Wangji looks at him with the kind of unbearable softness he still can’t believe, some days. And they keep walking.

It’s not much further to home. But Wei Wuxian is almost surprised when the Jingshi comes into view. It doesn’t feel like they’ve been walking very long at all.

The lamps inside aren’t lit, but through the windows, the Jingshi looks rich and yellow in the afternoon light. Wei Wuxian can faintly hear Sizhui and Jingyi’s mingled voices. Jingyi’s cadence, Sizhui’s laughter.

Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji as best he can with his foot. “Wait,” he says, to Lan Wangji’s raised eyebrow. “You should have the first taste. Before we let two growing boys loose on this.”

For a moment, he expects there to be a rule against this. Do not eat before others . And there may well be. But Wei Wuxian is good at tempting his husband to make exceptions.

Lan Wangji sets down the trays of rice bowls on the front steps. And fetching a pair of chopsticks, he lifts one of the golden brown rinds to his mouth.

He chews quietly, thoughtfully, long enough that Wei Wuxian starts to laugh. Yan Yi’s sense of humor really isn’t that different than his.

Lan Wangji finally smiles back at him. “It’s very good.”

Wei Wuxian tips into his space. And when he kisses him, he tastes salt and heat and water. A long-ago street. A bowl in waiting hands.