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1.

Lan Wangji finds out much later than he should have. Afterwards, he wonders if anything would have been different if he’d stayed. If he’d been a dutiful younger brother to Xichen — to the Emperor — for five, long years, not somebody who needed to be tethered down. If, instead of being an unfilial son, he had been someone who had accrued enough good will to speak up at last. He hopes he would have had the courage to say no. He does not like to think about being there, being aware, and saying yes all the same. But wondering is of no use, and he cannot bring himself to regret the five years he has spent being decidedly undutiful, circling across the countryside, twisting and looping around Yiling, never quite entering the city. The closest he ever got was a cliff-edge view, scrambling shale rocks and the grey, stormy sky.

The sky is always grey in Yiling now, but its townspeople walk unbowed, unafraid, even with what little they have. People whisper about what the Yiling Patriarch has done in order to protect them. What the Yiling Patriarch did to make them turn to him in the first place. Ghosts quelled and monsters destroyed, the cries of the villagers finally finding a listening ear. What he looks like now, more demon than human, they say, red-eyed and taller than any man should be. Lan Zhan tries not to listen. They have said a lot of things, in the last five years.

He thinks about that, too, sometimes. Thinks about walking through Yiling, walking up to the shimmering shroud that surrounds the Burial Mounds, pressing his hands to Wei Ying’s wards and asking — begging, if needs be — to be let in. But there is always chaos somewhere else, always a tale of tragedy, a pleading letter with shaky handwriting, a rumour on the wind. There is always something to be done, something that, for just a little while, lets Lan Wangji be useful again. Lets Lan Wangji be something other than the person who watched Wei Ying walk away.

He visits home occasionally. Whenever the long loops of his travels take him close enough to Gusu Lan and the Imperial Palace that it would be an unforgivable offence not to. Stays for a few days, watches the sadness in Xichen’s eyes, ignores the polite edifice surrounding Meng Yao’s barbs, and leaves. What is there left for him in Cloud Recesses, with his uncle in his grave, his brother pulled in six different directions at once, the sects jostling at each other for power after the devastation of the war? He has what is important: the precepts he has learnt to treat as living, breathing guidelines. Not a life with no regrets, not ever again, but at least he can ensure there will be no more.

He does not immediately realise anything is different when he returns. The guards nod at his jade token and allow him to pass, he retreats to the jingshi and calls for a bath to wash off the dust of the road. It is not even wholly unusual to find Xichen there, waiting, his hands neatly folded behind his back. He looks oddly human, oddly small. The last few times Lan Wangji has been home he has only seen Xichen in his formal capacity as Emperor, only seen him smothered in the heavy robes and jewellery that the title infers.

“Your Imperial Majesty.” Lan Wangji sinks to the floor, bowing until his head touches the ground.

“Wangji. We are alone.”

Lan Wangji does not move.

“Didi.” There is something strange in his brother’s voice. Lan Wangji does not think anybody else would have heard it. Something stiff, below the lilt, an underpinning of tension. He rises, slowly, sitting back on his heels. He is right, it is there in Xichen’s face too, the slight downturn at the corners of his mouth. He says nothing, stares impassively back at Xichen.

“It has been a long time.”

Lan Wangji nods. He cannot say anything. He will not lie, and say he is sorry for his absence. He is sorry for this, for the silence between them, the slow unspooling of communication in the months after their uncle died, in the months after Wei Ying —

“Wangji, please. Rise. Sit.” Xichen gestures at the cushion next to the table, and Lan Wangji makes his way over, sits stiff-backed opposite Xichen. “I wanted to write to you. I wanted you to have more time. There has been much unrest. The influence of the Burial Mounds grows ever greater.”

Lan Wangji nods. He has noticed that, at least. More scuffles. More whispers, if such a thing were possible, about Yiling. About Wei Ying.

“People are nervous, Wangji, but they don’t want another war. It has been suggested we try a more diplomatic route.” Xichen is being careful with his language, but it is clear this is his preference, perhaps even his suggestion. He is a gentler Emperor than their Uncle ever was, but he is good at making suggestions that people listen to. “You knew him, did you not? During his time at the Cloud Recesses?”

Lan Wangji starts. “Wei Wuxian?”

“Yes.”

“I did.”

Xichen was already the heir, already separate from the others, even from the children of nobility. He had seen so little of that blissful, infuriating stretch of time.

“What was he like?”

Ah. Lan Wangji is being sent as an envoy, a use at last for all his travel. It is not what he wants, but, perhaps, in this small way, if he can find a way to broker peace, perhaps that will be of service to Wei Ying. Even if they can never speak again, after this, it will have been worth it.

“Good.” Lan Wangji says. “Intelligent. Unafraid. Curious.”

Xichen smiles, the first true smile Lan Wangji has seen in years. It brightens his whole face, smudges his graceful mask and makes it alive again.

“So it would not be too bad?”

Lan Wangji frowns in mute incomprehension.

“To be married to him, Wangji. We want to propose an alliance.”

 

2.

Meng Yao is proposing they send a diplomatic envoy as an initial overture. It’s clear exactly who he’s proposing from the way he sidles up to the Emperor, the way he makes his face flat and open as he bows. Jiang Cheng thinks Meng Yao can get to fuck. Wei Wuxian will kick him out of the Burial Mounds in eight seconds flat even if the Emperor does send him. Wei Wuxian won’t even let Jiang Cheng go up, just lets him stroll up and down the wards and shout himself hoarse. Tells him to keep himself safe, that he shouldn’t associate with him anymore, like he’s given Jiang Cheng any choice in the matter.

He can see Meng Yao gearing up for another assault, the Jin delegation squirming in anticipatory glee, the Stygian Tiger Seal and all its fabled power dancing before their eyes. It’s stupid of them, but then Jin Guangshan has not made his friends by being wise. Meng Yao may be Jin Guangshan’s bastard, but Jiang Cheng is pretty sure his loyalties have sidled sideways into the Emperor’s lap: he knows where he has found favour, and he knows where the power is, even if the Jins have started to hope otherwise, these last few months. Jiang Cheng would look forward to the Jin disappointment with a sort of grim delight, if he wasn’t worried about the lengths they might go to. He sort of does still, anyway.

It’s all bullshit, Jiang Cheng knows. If the Seal really had all that power, Wei Wuxian wouldn’t look like he does, thin and haunted. Lotus Pier wouldn’t still be half its original size, the outbuildings still little more than temporary shacks. There is only so much power in safety. A shield cannot feed you, cannot keep you warm or clothed or wealthy.

Other people are nudging each other now — Jiang Cheng thinks he sees Sect Leader Ouyang take a tiny step forward — and he sighs, heavily, loud enough that the Emperor turns to look at him.

Jiang Cheng bows, deeply, feeling the sweat prickle at the back of his neck. He can be good at this. He is good at this, the rest of the time. It’s different when it’s about Wei Wuxian.

“Sandu Shengshou.” It’s almost too respectful, the weight of the title, and Jiang Cheng hears what the Emperor is not saying. Remember yourself. Remember what you carry, in this room. “Did you have a suggestion?”

“Wei Wuxian is no longer of the Jiang clan —” Jin Guangshan begins, but the Emperor holds up a hand, and he falls silent.

“Your Imperial Majesty.” Jiang Cheng bows again, for good measure. He doesn’t like the way Meng Yao is looking at him. “I agree that we should make diplomatic overtures. But any treaty is temporary, a flimsy guarantee.” Perhaps that’s unfair to Wei Wuxian, but then again — “A marriage, however…”

The Emperor smiles. Behind him, Jiang Cheng can hear the beginnings of whispered consternation.

“And did you have anybody in mind, Jiang-zongzhu?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. It is enough that the Jin Sect has nobody suitable to offer. There is a long silence, the leaders of the minor sects eyeing each other edgily. It will be a play for power, whoever offers. It will be worth it, if they are accepted, but if they are not — memories are long, after the Sunshot Campaign. Nobody wants to be seen as the next Qishan Wen.

“Wasn’t His Highness classmates with the Yiling Patriarch, at the Cloud Recesses?”

Jiang Cheng whips his head round, although he recognises the voice immediately. Nie Huaisang yelps, and hides behind his fan. Steps forwards on shaking legs, and bows.

“Forgive me, Your Imperial Majesty, I should not have spoken, I really don’t know why I spoke.”

“Please continue.”

“Oh, I really don’t know! I only thought — Wei Wuxian might be more likely to agree if it was somebody he knew. Somebody he respected. But, of course, I don’t mean to suggest —!” He squeaks, and retreats, shaking his head, and Jiang Cheng clenches his fists, his nails biting into the calloused flesh of his palms. It is difficult to remember that Wei Wuxian, his needling, his teasing, his sheer delight at getting a reaction from Lan Wangji. And the way Lan Wangji had stopped pushing him away. Kept running towards him, at the end. Until the end. Of course, Lan Wangji isn’t actually here. Like that makes him better, Jiang Cheng thinks with a sudden spike of temper, like giving up his responsibilities to wander the country like some sort of ridiculous nomad makes him better than Jiang Cheng, toiling to put his sect back together from the ground up.

“Thank you,” the Emperor says, and Jiang Cheng watches the strange, slow play of light in his eyes, and knows that it is settled.

 

3.

Xichen leaves him, ostensibly to be alone with his thoughts, but Lan Wangji can hear the guards outside the jingshi, the clink of metal as they bow to the Emperor as he walks past. He will not be allowed to flee. He would not, anyway, not now he knows this is their solution. He does not deserve Wei Ying, but at least he knows that. Who else would they pick? Someone greedy for Wei Ying’s power, someone who doesn’t know the way his giggles hiccup back on themselves when he’s done something he thinks is hilarious, someone who doesn’t know the way his nose scrunches up when he eats the food here, the way the shade dapples on his face as he curls up beneath a tree. Anyone else, anyone else at all, would be unworthy, too. He dares not think beyond that, think of all that is tied up in the word marriage. Dares not think of what Wei Ying will say. They have not asked him yet, at least. They do not offer him up to Lan Wangji, and ask Lan Wangji to pretend to make that choice. Wei Ying could still say no. (And he could still say yes, and what would that yes mean, tied as it is to whatever flimsy assurances his brother is prepared to offer up?)

He hears the footsteps first, stomping, scuffing against the ground. The knock — sharp, assertive, the doors trembling — is not Xichen’s, nor any of the Lan disciples that Lan Wangji knows.

“Enter,” he calls, and blinks as Jiang Wanyin steps forwards into the jingshi.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Jiang Wanyin says, clipped. When he bows it is stiff, exactly the right depth. Lan Wangji has not moved. They are to be brothers, of a kind, if Wei Ying —

“He’s told you?”

“Mn.”

“And?”

Jiang Wanyin sounds frustrated. Lan Wangji looks back at him. What does Jiang Wanyin want?

“What do you think? Are you willing to marry him?” Jiang Wanyin prompts. He sounds frustrated, but then Jiang Wanyin always sounds frustrated. There is something underneath it, Lan Wangji thinks, but Jiang Wanyin has always been hard for him to read. There is so much going on on the surface, so much immediacy of emotion, that it is difficult to know where to start.

“I am.”

“Good. That’s — good.”

“Would it make a difference, if I were not?”

He hadn’t asked Xichen this. His xiongzhang had not presented it as a choice. His fondness for Wei Ying was a bonus, not a requirement.

“Yes. Yes, of course. Do you think my — do you think Wei Wuxian would marry you if you were not?”

Lan Wangji says nothing.

“You do.”

“I do not know if Wei Ying will marry me at all.”

Jiang Wanyin sighs, heavily, rubs at his eyes. He looks tired, but, then again, they all do. It has been a long five years.

“We’ll find out soon enough. I leave tomorrow. I wanted — to make sure, before I left.”

“You will go?” Lan Wangji can hear the surprise colouring his voice, but Jiang Wanyin scowls at him.

“Who else? We send anybody else up there and he’ll assume the worst, immediately. And he’s still — I can’t let — it has to go right. To go well. The Jiang Sect will not allow it to go otherwise.”

Lan Wangji nods. Jiang Wanyin still feels responsible for Wei Ying then, at least enough to do this. One last thing for both of them, perhaps. One final attempt to make amends. Jiang Wanyin is still scowling, and Lan Wangji thinks he is waiting for him to speak, but he has nothing else to say. There is nothing to be said until he has heard Wei Ying’s answer, and anything he might have said, himself, had he been allowed to go himself, were they just two people with no power at all, cannot be said to Wei Ying’s sect brother. Eventually, Jiang Wanyin huffs, gives another brief bow, and leaves.

Jiang Wanyin is gone for a month. Lan Wangji meditates for hours on end and allows his brother to fold him into his advisory circle. Seeks out his old classes and offers his help. Traces the old paths and misses the sound of laughter, achingly and endlessly. His wandering days are done, that much is clear. There is comfort in slipping back into the old routines, and yet it grates at him, how easy he finds it to become this person again. He does his best not to think about how long it is taking Jiang Wanyin to return, a task made significantly more difficult by the fact that everybody around him is talking of little else. There has been no word, and Lan Wangji has lost count of the number of times he has reminded disciples and servants alike that there is no gossiping permitted in the Cloud Recesses.

“In Caiyi they’re saying that Jiang-zongzhu was swallowed up by an enormous spirit-tornado, and carried up to the Yiling Patriarch and never seen again —” one boy whispers to his friend. His friend scoffs, and for a moment Lan Wangji has hope for the next generation, but then the friend is learning forward conspiratorially.

“Well, I heard from a peddler who had just come from Yiling that Jiang Wanyin tried to get through the barrier and when he forced himself through on the other side he was a skeleton, so —”

Lan Wangji swoops in, and both juniors squeak in terror. Lan Wangji sentences them to lines, and they look suitably relieved to get away with so minor a punishment. He thinks Wei Ying might quite enjoy the image of a spirit tornado.

Even Xichen is getting twitchy, and Meng Yao is looking distinctly nervous, his bows getting lower with every passing day. Lan Wangji is the only person who seems sure nothing has happened to Jiang Wanyin — or, if it has, that it was not by Wei Ying’s hand.

Xichen has just received the first officious letter from Sect Leader Yao offering aid in locating Jiang Wanyin when the man himself arrives. A servant skids into the receiving hall, half-toppling into the bow and looking up at Xichen with wide, terrified eyes.

“Your Imperial Majesty, Jiang-zongzhu has returned,” he says, and then gulps. “He brings with him the Yiling Patriarch.” Another deep breath, and Lan Wangji barely hears his next words over the pounding of his own heart in his ears, drowning in it. “And the Ghost General.”

Xichen’s expression does not waver. Lan Wangji cannot begin to imagine what his own face is doing, and stares steadily into the mid-distance in the hope that that will mitigate whatever the fall of his mouth is telegraphing to Xichen.

“We will receive them,” Xichen says gently, turning to Lan Wangji. “Wangji, do you wish to be here when they arrive?”

He does, he does, he does, he cannot bear anybody to see Wei Ying before him, hates the ungrateful terror in the servant’s eyes, is wildly jealous of whichever guard first spotted the bobbing sway of his head. And yet, he is so unprepared. Unadorned, wearing the plain robes he has become accustomed to. Perhaps it is better like this, no show of power or threat. Perhaps —

“Wangji?”

“I will stay.”

Wei Ying enters first. He bows, quickly, and his eyes do not leave Xichen’s face. The Ghost General and Jiang Wanyin flank him, skittish, their own gazes swiftly skirting the room. Wei Ying rises before he is asked to, and rocks back on his heels, one hand on Chenqing. Behind him, a guard draws his sword. Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes, and Wei Ying laughs, does not turn around.

“Aiya, what a way to greet me! There is no need for that. Am I not here to get married?”

“Wei Wuxian.” Xichen inclines his head. “You accept, then?” He looks behind Wei Ying to Jiang Wanyin who is frowning, his fists clenched at his sides. Wei Ying shrugs.

“Ahh, well, I haven’t decided just yet, O Son of Heaven.” A smirk, the black-and-red bleed of him inviting the obvious comparison. We, of course, came from hell, Lan Zhan remembers. He wonders how much that is still true. How much of Wei Ying remains there.

Xichen raises an eyebrow, smiles placidly. Wei Ying has not looked in Lan Wangji’s direction once, but Lan Wangji cannot look away from him. He looks terrible, quite frankly. Gaunt and drawn, his eyes bloodshot, dark shadows encircling them. Hollowed out, his lips thin where they’re pressed together. He and Wen Ning could be brothers like this, hair falling tangled and lank around their pale faces.

Jiang Wanyin coughs, and steps forward.

“Your Imperial Majesty. Wei Wuxian is the first disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.” The is is sharp in the sentence, Jiang Wanyin biting at it. “He was ranked fourth on the list of his generation’s young masters. He brings with him enormous power. His inventions and scholarship — already famed throughout the cultivation world — would belong to Gusu Lan, and to the Emperor, were he to marry His Royal Highness. He —”

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Ying hisses. Unfortunately, the chamber’s acoustics mean that his words echo loudly, and Jiang Wanyin scowls, stomps on the edge of his foot.

“Wei Wuxian,” he continues “brings with him the ceded territory of the Burial Mounds and the town of Yiling, to come under Gusu Lan’s administration.” Wei Ying shakes his head, but Jiang Wanyin ignores him. “He is, additionally, a war hero. During the Sunshot Campaign —”

Wei Ying steps forward. Every time he and Jiang Wanyin attempt to outpace each other they get closer to the throne. If it happens just twice more, he will be within touching distance. Lan Wangji wonders if he will look at him then.

“Ahh, Jiang Cheng, they know all that! And what is all that beside Hanguang-Jun’s achievements, eh? Your Imperial Majesty, you know who I am. You know what I bring. That is not important. What is important is that the people of Yiling and the Wen remnants are both protected. The people of Yiling, of course, can stay in their town, but I trust that Your Imperial Majesty will pick an experienced and just regional administrator to watch over them.” The threat does not have to be spelled out, it hangs over everything he says, a stormcloud clinging to his clothes. “Jiang-zongzhu has been to the Burial Mounds, and will vouch that the Wens are no threat to you. I ask for land for them — fertile land, on which to farm, and for your pardon. That is all.”

“You may have your pick of administrators, Wei Wuxian.” Xichen looks at him. Does not look anywhere else, at any of the half-dozen faces clenched in fear. “And if the Wens are pardoned?”

“Then I will marry his Royal Highness, and everything I am is yours.”

Xichen nods. Yours, Wei Ying had said, looking at Xichen. Yours, the Emperor’s. Lan Wangji had known this was political, had known that from the very start, but hearing it laid out like that… Wei Ying is not Xichen’s. Wei Ying should not be anyone’s at all, except for the ways in which they used to be each other’s. Except, also, Lan Wangji grudgingly admits, for the way he will always be Yunmeng Jiang’s, just a little bit, the purple-blooming bruises under his eyes the same purple of Jiang Wanyin’s robes.

“I am prepared to extend forgiveness, if it is as you say. Jiang-zongzhu?”

“Wei Wuxian speaks truthfully. They are mostly old, and worn down, with one small child.”

“And the Ghost General?” Xichen’s tone is even, but Wei Ying flinches. Wen Ning does not, does not raise his head, or even twitch a finger. He looks resigned, Lan Wangji thinks.

“Wen Ning is not a threat. He is — he and Wen Qing, they saved our lives. Mine, Jiang Cheng’s, and Jiang Yanli’s. The pardon extends to them, or it extends to nobody, and I will leave,” Wei Ying says.

Wen Ning does move, then, jerking upwards and shooting an alarmed look in Wei Ying’s direction. Wei Ying shakes his head, keeps his face smooth and sure. His hand has not left Chenqing in all this time.

“I will consider your proposal. Until then, I hope we can extend the hospitality of the Imperial Palace to you. You are most welcome here.”

You will not leave, Xichen is saying. You will not leave until we have decided what to do with you. Wei Ying must know this — Jiang Wanyin certainly does, because he bristles, powerless to refuse the Emperor’s hospitality, but Wei Ying does not look afraid. He nods, and he smiles for the first time. It is awful. Brittle, stretched across his face so that the skin distends, torn silk over flesh. There is nothing in his eyes at all.

 

4.

They’ll say yes. The negotiations are just prevaricating, pointless sect politics, the Emperor pretending to give a shit about what the likes of Sect Leader Yao has to say about the matter, a nod towards appeasement before they accept. They’ll probably insist on sending someone else to check, someone else with whom to traipse up that awful mountain, someone else with whom to nod awkwardly at the elders tending to their crops and feel that same bitter guilt against their tongue. If Wei Wuxian had listened, if he had bothered to come and talk to Jiang Cheng about any of this —

Jiang Cheng shakes his head, and kicks at the wall of the guest quarters. It’s solid, and results in a predictable, brief burst of pain, which is more than can be said for anything else in Jiang Cheng’s life at the moment. Still. They’ll say yes, and Jiang Cheng will have done the best thing he can think of to protect Wei Wuxian. To ensure he keeps living. Or starts to live again, maybe.

The Emperor is locked in with his advisors, after Jiang Cheng had managed to put the case forwards once more, in slightly more diplomatic terms than Wei Wuxian had managed. It had been worse, seeing him in that room, that Jiang Cheng had thought it would be. Wei Wuxian used to belong in rooms like that — used to make them belong to him — but he’d mostly looked tired, resolute in the way that had never boded well for anybody. Narrow-eyed and washed out. Jiang Cheng can glare at all the skittish guards he wants, but the wariness will not leave his brother’s eyes.

The knock at the door doesn’t surprise him at all. It does surprise him a little to see Lan Wangji stood there, as prim and proper as ever, but not as much as it might.

“Your Royal Highness.”

“Jiang-zongzhu. I thought to find Wei Wuxian here.”

Jiang Cheng grimaces. Wei Wuxian is supposed to be here, really, but he’d decided that ‘within the technical bounds of the Cloud Recesses’ was good enough, and had vanished as soon as Jiang Cheng had taken his eyes off him, probably to find whatever out-of-the-way hut the Lans have decided they can bear to let Wen Ning stay in.

“He has gone for a walk,” is all he says. Lan Wangji nods, fluttering his eyes shut so briefly Jiang Cheng isn’t entirely sure he hasn’t imagined it. He’s tired, and hungry, and his shixiong has disappeared again and Lan Wangji is looking as he always done, blank and perplexing and — fond? — of his sect brother in ways Jiang Cheng suspects he will never understand. He scrubs a hand over his eyes, prods at the heavy formal hairpiece that is beginning to give him a headache, and tries to think of the polite, Sect Leader-y way to ask Lan Wangji to leave.

In the end, there is no need. The door to the guest quarters slides open again, and he and Lan Wangji both whip round. Wei Wuxian is standing in the doorway, frozen. He’s looking slightly to the left of Lan Wangji, refusing to make eye contact with either of them, and Jiang Cheng barely restrains an eyeroll. They all stand there in silence for an interminable moment. Lan Wangji’s face is as open as Jiang Cheng has ever seen it, mouth agape and eyes wide, Wei Wuxian’s carefully tight, a taped-together facade. Jiang Cheng is not going to give either of them an easy out: if they want to stay silent all day, so be it.

Unfortunately, it transpires he’s over-estimated the both of them, and Lan Wangji merely clenches his hands behind his back, pushes past Wei Wuxian, and leaves.

It is going to be a very long engagement.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything, even once Lan Wangji has left. Jiang Cheng swallows around his silence, feels it scrape at his throat like rambutan skin.

“Wei Wuxian,” he tries, but it comes out too loud, echoing around the space, and Wei Wuxian only half-looks up at him, waves a hand.

“Jiang Cheng,” he complains, “I have a headache.”

Jiang Cheng frowns at him. He doesn’t look like he’s been drinking, but it’s always been a little harder to tell with Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng goes red as soon as he’s had one beer, even if he doesn’t list slowly to the side like jiejie, but Wei Wuxian seems pretty much sober until he’s throwing up, Jiang Cheng angrily tugging his hair and the sweep of his robes out of the way.

“Have you been drinking?” he winces at the way it sounds, baldly accusatory, but he needs to know. This is an important alliance. Wei Wuxian’s last chance probably — not that he cares about that, but also the last chance of those wretched Wens. Of — of Wen Qing, too. Jiang Cheng’s thoughts stutter over her name and he shakes his head, anger rising. It was all very well for Wei Wuxian to get them all in trouble by drinking in the grounds of the Imperial Palace whilst they were young and foolish, but to risk it all now? He grits his teeth, asks the question again. Wei Wuxian sighs, heavily, and stands up. He is taller than Jiang Cheng now. Has been for a while, but has never worn it like this, loomingly, no sign of his usual lazy posture.

Wei Wuxian walks, very deliberately, in a straight line towards Jiang Cheng. He leans close to him, and breathes, slowly, into his face. He smells like spice, mostly. There is no alcohol in his breath. Wei Wuxian smiles, his mouth the shape of an apple-bite, and turns to leave. Jiang Cheng can only hope that his stormy path does not meet Lan Wangji’s. They don’t have to like each other, after all. That has never been a common theme of Imperial marriages. Jiang Cheng had thought — but that is not the point. The point is to save Wei Wuxian, and the others, and to bring light back to jiejie’s face. To let Jiang Cheng sleep through the night once more.

It doesn’t get better. Wei Wuxian speaks to Jiang Cheng when he is forced to, his voice sliding too easily into threat every time. He does not joke with him, he does not chatter. He asks after Yanli once, voice tight, and nods when Jiang Cheng’s voice spikes, when he tells him she is worried about him. Wei Wuxian curls into himself, and Jiang Cheng wishes for jiejie, fiercely, for the softness and the way she can see through both of them. One of them needs to be in Lotus Pier, though, and jiejie has her own marriage to worry about. She needs to be seen as separate to Wei Wuxian, at least until the deal is finalised. Jiang Cheng had insisted on that.

After two weeks, Jiang Cheng is summoned before the Emperor to find Wei Wuxian already there, Wen Qing kneeling beside him.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice more controlled than Jiang Cheng has ever heard it before “This humble one asks that you do not see this as an insult to your hospitality. Believe me,” he allows himself a hint of a smile, and the Emperor smiles back, almost real. “I would much rather be here. But the Wen remnants may — struggle, perhaps, if they are only collected by your disciples. It will be easier if I am there to reassure them.”

The Emperor nods, and Jiang Cheng realises what this is. If Wei Wuxian cannot escape, he will give himself this, at least. The final weeks before his marriage will be spent without Jiang Cheng. Will be, instead, with the people he has chosen — the powerless outcasts he decided were worth more than Yunmeng Jiang.

“I understand,” the Emperor says. “But could not Mistress Wen perform the same task?”

“Ah.” Wei Wuxian twists his fingers together. “I had hoped — there are items I have left behind. Talismans, mostly, but also arrays. The wards. They are — they need me to collect them, or dismantle them, safely. No cultivator would be able to do so.”

The Emperor nods, and Jiang Cheng hates that they’re dancing around this, hates that none of them will acknowledge what Wei Wuxian is saying. That is the price of this arrangement, this pretense, this lightness of touch around what exactly it is that Wei Wuxian is giving Gusu Lan, and Jiang Cheng feels an unexpected, unwanted surge of sympathy for Wei Wuxian. He would not want to pretend, in his place.

He follows Wei Wuxian out of the hall, tries not to watch Wen Qing peel away from them, the careful way she steps out of his space and around him. As soon as they are out of earshot of the nearest visible Lan — Jiang Cheng is not an idiot, and knows they will be being watched regardless, but plausible deniability is all he needs — he wheels on Wei Wuxian, grabbing at his shoulders. It is the first time they have touched since the Burial Mounds, and Wei Wuxian should feel more solid, more well-fed, but his shoulders are bony and narrow under Jiang Cheng’s hands. It feeds Jiang Cheng’s anger further. What is the point, if Wei Wuxian will not look after himself, even once he has been brought to safety. What is the point of Jiang Cheng trying.

“So, you’re leaving,” he spits again. Wei Wuxian has the good grace to look slightly guilty, but it doesn’t last long.

“Ah, Jiang Cheng, what are you complaining about? You’re always telling me I’m too messy, and that I’m distracting you from doing your very best diplomacy work. It’ll be a relief to see me gone! And it’s only for a few weeks, anyway, before the wedding. I wasn’t lying, before. I need to see that they’re safe. And they won’t be, with — I need to be there.”

“Not until the wedding.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian blinks at him. “Jiang Cheng, what are you talking about? Lan Zhan — well, anyway, regardless of how his brother feels, the Emperor isn’t going to make me live in the Burial Mounds once I’m married.” he scrunches up his nose. “There are too many rules here, but at least they can grow something other than turnips.” he laughs a little, and wrenches himself out of Jiang Cheng’s grasp, as if that will make Jiang Cheng forget the sting of skin and bone underneath his fingertips.

“You have to come back to Lotus Pier.”

“To live? Jiang Cheng, I really don’t think —”

Jiang Cheng is going to kill him.

“To prepare for the wedding. Like we always talked about, idiot, or is your memory that bad? Or is this another way you’ve found to disappoint jiejie? To deny her —”

Wei Wuxian winces. It’s small, the barest drawing in of his shoulders, and then his smile is plastered back over his face, and he reaches forwards, claps Jiang Cheng’s arm like — like they’re brothers again.

“Aiya, Jiang Cheng, you should have said! Of course I will. Of course.”

 

5.

Lan Wangji does not see Wei Ying again until the wedding. He spends a month thinking of the awful, hollowed-out look on Wei Ying’s face, and attempting to avoid Xichen. Jiang Wanyin and Meng Yao are arguing, he knows. He is never there for the meetings — apparently it would be gauche to be present himself, to see the messiness behind his own future, and perhaps Xichen knows that he would agree to whatever Jiang Wanyin asked, anyway — but he knows they’re arguing. Jiang Wanyin’s voice is audible from some distance, and Meng Yao once pretends to not see him as they pass in the corridor, his hands clenched by his sides. He may be the best person to negotiate on Gusu Lan’s behalf, but Lan Wangji wears this knowledge uneasily. Meng Yao would marry Xichen, if he could, but he cannot. Lan Wangji wonders if his brother knows how Meng Yao feels. It would be out of character for Xichen not to notice something like that, but he is good at pretending. Good enough at pretending to be cruel about this, perhaps.

Time drags slowly forward, humid and heavy with rain, and Lan Wangji waits. He does not know what he will do if Wei Ying looks at him like that again. Or even if Wei Ying looks like he did, standing before Xichen, blank-faced and waiting, as if he will take anything that is thrown at him. (Lan Wangji does know. He knows what it is to endure, and he will do so for Wei Ying, if that is what is needed.) He asks Xichen, once, if Wei Ying is happy with the arrangement, and Xichen smiles, and sips his tea, and says“Wei Wuxian has agreed to the proposal,” and Lan Wangji does not know how to say that that wasn’t what he was asking at all.

Wei Ying arrives for the wedding flanked by Yunmeng Jiang disciples, his sect siblings just behind him. Everything Wei Ying is wearing is red and gold, veil obscuring his face. There are flowers and clouds swirling through the lace, and there is space on his belt for the jade token Lan Wangji will give him after the bows have been made. The only skin exposed to the air are his thin, long-fingered hands. His nails are bitten to the quick.

Lan Wangji feels heavy and flushed in his own red robes. They do not speak as the Jiang Sect enter the Imperial Palace, the cursory pretence of tradition set aside entirely. They do not speak as they bow three times each. Not as Xichen greets the guests, invites them to the banquet, and nor as they are led away to the wedding chamber. Perhaps Wei Ying finds his robes cumbersome, too. Perhaps he, too, is developing a headache, listening to the whispers. Perhaps that is why he stands so stiffly, why his movements are jerky, lacking all of his usual grace. Lan Wangji is not sure how long they are expected to stay here, before they rejoin the guests at the banquet. Hours. Enough time for the guests to drink their fill. There is food on the low table by the bed, but Wei Ying makes no move towards it.

“The day was well chosen,” he says, eventually, as if Lan Wangji is a stranger. As if Lan Wangji is another gawping onlooker, to be informed of the auspicious date the Court and the Jiangs had so carefully chosen. What can Lan Wangji say to that? The date may be auspicious, but no aligning of the calendar can make up for this, for Wei Ying’s terrible silences and the way he holds himself, upright and away from Lan Wangji.

“Wei Ying,” he says, helplessly.

Wei Ying twists his hands together. Lan Wangji wishes he could hold them.

“Ah, Lan Zhan.” It is softer than he has spoken in a long time. It is also the first time Lan Wangji has heard his birth name since Wei Ying had last spoken it, choked and desperate, all those years ago. Nobody else calls him Lan Zhan. What use is there for this name, without Wei Ying to voice it? He is Hanguang-Jun, he is Lan-er-gongzi, His Royal Highness.

“Lan Zhan, it’s just us. You don’t have to pretend.”

Lan Wangji frowns. Wei Ying’s voice is still soft, gentle, as if he is telling Lan Wangji something he wants to hear. When Lan Zhan does not say anything, Wei Ying continues, knuckles clenching white.

“They are not expecting anything of us. There is no bloodied sheet to fake, for afterwards. No child.” He tries to laugh, scraped and raw, and Lan Wangji remembers A-Yuan, remembers the way Wei Ying’s fingers had brushed his own stomach as he’d teased Lan Wangji. He should have stayed, then. He should have asked, then, if this was something Wei Ying would want. If this was something he could offer to do. Wei Ying would have said no, but he would have said it laughingly, chidingly, as if Lan Wangji would be sacrificing anything at all to have Wei Ying dressed in red and as loose-limbed as he has always known him.

“I will not ask that of you.”

“I know.” Wei Ying scuffs a shoe along the ground, and for a moment Lan Wangji’s heart upticks into swinging, wild hope, and then Wei Ying stills it, places his feet deliberately together, and drops his hands down by his sides, held slightly apart from the fabric of his robes. Now he is not even touching himself. He does not look at Lan Wangji, and so Lan Wangji is free to look at him, at his lowered eyes and the odd tilt to his mouth. Disappointed, almost, Lan Wangji thinks. As if Lan Wangji has, once more, said entirely the wrong thing. Lan Wangji does not speak again.

They stay like that, standing apart, until a servant arrives to fetch them. It does not fall quiet when they enter the banquet hall, and Lan Wangji is fervently glad that Xichen has relaxed the rule on alcohol for tonight. He and Wei Ying sit beside each other. Wei Ying stumbles as he kneels, one of his knees giving way, but Jiang Wanyin is there before Lan Wangji can discern if his help is wanted, letting Wei Ying lean into his side and whispering something fiercely into his ear. Wei Ying shakes his head, and Jiang Wanyin glares at Lan Wangji over his shoulder, but lowers Wei Ying to the ground. The wedding is beautiful, Lan Wangji thinks, absently and without feeling. Jiang Wanyin has done a good job. Xichen would have made things beautiful the Lan way, precisely as it should be done, but Jiang Wanyin has made it gorgeous. Opulent, the way the second son’s wedding should be. Meng Yao’s hand in that too, perhaps, Lan Wangji lets himself acknowledge. A wedding that looks as though they mean it.

Xichen gives another speech, and Jiang Wanyin gives one too, words carefully moderated, eyes landing anywhere but Wei Ying. Another round of toasts, and Lan Wangji spots Meng Yao carefully hand Sect Leader Yao some water, and have a quiet word with his slightly more sensible daughter. When the toasts finally come to an end, Wei Ying stands up to leave. Jiang Yanli cries as he turns to her, wraps him up in her arms. Wei Ying’s hands come up, hesitantly, to pat at her arms, to wipe at her face. They hold each other for a very long time, but eventually Jiang Yanli draws back and frowns at Lan Wangji over Wei Ying’s shoulder. It is unexpectedly difficult to hold her gaze, to see the weight of the love there. So many things have separated Wei Ying from the people he loves, and Lan Wangji does not want to be another one of them.

“Please visit whenever you would like, Lady Jiang. This is Wei Ying’s home now, and his family will always be welcome.”

Jiang Yanli nods once, thoughtfully, something resolving itself in her gaze.

“Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” is all she says, voice soft. Her hands linger on Wei Ying’s shoulders. Lan Wangji wishes he could draw her aside and ask her advice. Wei Ying has used the excuse of the veil to eat very little tonight, flapping at it pointedly whenever Lan Wangji had tried to push food towards him. He had hardly spoken, although the fabric had fluttered over his mouth in quick, damp gasps when Jiang Wanyin had given his speech. Perhaps Lan Wangji can write to Jiang Yanli. It cannot be improper to maintain communication with the siblings of one’s spouse.

There is a pause before Wei Ying speaks, and he jerks slightly before he does so, as if remembering something is expected of him, that something is missing from the exchange.

“Ah, but shijie is so busy now! So much to do at Lotus Pier, and a wedding to plan on top of that — we cannot expect her to come traipsing up here all the time, Lan Zhan.” It is the most he has said since they were in the wedding chamber, and he says it all without looking directly at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji misses the bright burn of his gaze like it is something physical.

“Don’t be silly, A-Xian. There is always time for you. And you will have to be there for the wedding, as you promised.” She says this last sentence half to Lan Wangji, voice steely and sure, as if Lan Wangji would — or could — stop her. He inclines his head silently, and she gives Wei Ying one last hug, pushes him gently in Lan Wangji’s direction. Wei Ying stumbles slightly, and he shakes his head, mimes drinking, although Lan Wangji had hardly seen him drink at all.

They make their way back to the wedding chamber silently. In the morning, Lan Wangji will return to the jingshi, and Wei Ying will make his home in the adjoining spousal rooms. Tonight, however, there is the wedding bed, draped with red and festooned with double luck characters. A bath has been drawn, softly scented, steam rising behind the flimsy excuse for a privacy screen.

“You may take the bath, if you wish,” Lan Wangji says. “I would like to meditate.”

Apart from anything else, it will mean he has to close his eyes, to ignore the temptation to watch Wei Ying’s silhouette disrobe, to watch the shadowed line of his slim waist and the slight flare of his hips. Wei Ying nods, slowly, and begins undoing his belt, movements more sure than they have been all day. Lan Wangji turns hastily, folds himself down into the lotus position, facing away from the screen. There is no need to make it difficult for himself.

They slip into bed as silently as they have done everything else, and Lan Wangji cannot help but look at Wei Ying in his underrobe, the way the fabric slips to the side, the shadowed, concave curve of his chest. Wei Ying lets him look, rolls his shoulders back slightly, arches one eyebrow. Nothing else moves in his face: the archness is an empty gesture, divorced from any hint of seductiveness.

“We should sleep.” Lan Wangji does not know if he should remind Wei Ying that he will never ask this of him, not if he doesn’t want it, or if it is better to stay silent, to not speak of such things at all. Wei Ying’s shoulders drop slightly, and he turns his face away, hiding it from Lan Zhan as he slides beneath the blankets. They lie apart from each other, and it is cold and awful and nothing Lan Wangji ever thought to dread, but it is after hai shi, and Lan Wangji cannot help himself. He falls asleep.

He is woken at yin shi by the sound of screaming. He flings his sword arm out, other hand already sketching in the air, and for several confused moments he is back on the battlefield, heart in his mouth and blood on his tongue. And then he opens his eyes. The screaming does not stop, because it is Wei Ying who is screaming, curled in on himself, eyes wide and staring. Lan Wangji has rarely heard screaming like this, wild and scraping and unrestricted, a gaping maw of agony and fear and grief. Every muscle is locked in place, Wei Ying’s knuckles white where his hands claw at the blankets. Lan Wangji isn’t sure if he should reach out and touch him. If there had been hands on him when he had awoken, he isn’t sure what he would have done, and he isn’t the one screaming.

“Wei Ying.” he says, softly. “Wei Ying, you are safe.”

Wei Ying gasps, and jolts backwards, blinking rapidly.

“Wei Ying. You were dreaming.”

Wei Ying sits up slowly, running a hand through the tangled mess of his hair. He tries to shake his head, tries to laugh. It is one of the worst sounds Lan Wangji has ever heard. He doesn’t know how many more terrible things he can stand to hear.

“Ahaa, I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. What a wedding night, eh? What a mess. I’ll, um, are the other quarters made up yet?” His voice is hoarse, rasping at the edges of Lan Zhan’s name.

Lan Zhan shakes his head.

“I’ll. I can —”

“Wei Ying. You can stay here.” Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to say what he means. That the thought of Wei Ying screaming somewhere else, alone, is a thousand times worse. Wei Ying laughs again, and swings his legs out of bed.

“It’s alright, Lan Zhan. I don’t think I can get back to sleep now, anyway. I’ll be back for breakfast, for — I’ll be back. Just need some fresh air, I think.”

Lan Wangji nods, and watches helplessly as Wei Ying slips on his overrobe and trousers, and walks, bare-footed, out of the wedding chamber.

True to his word, Wei Ying returns shortly before the servants bring breakfast, and slops listlessly at his congee, even after Lan Wangji pushes over the bottle of chili oil he’d asked them to include. He has never seen Wei Ying like this. Even before he’d disappeared with the Wen remnants, even whilst they’d been arguing, there had been life to him. Bitter and anguished and on the edge of something dark, but life nonetheless. Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to do with this, with a Wei Ying who won’t push back. Who will not demand better of him. Lan Wangji must, he supposes, demand better of himself. He has become more used to doing so, these last five years.

Another servant appears before he can work out what shape that should take, now that Wei Ying is with him. The servant is smooth-faced, with Meng Yao’s seal in his hand; he asks Wei Ying to come with him, making it clear that Lan Wangji’s presence is not required. Xichen had said Wei Ying would be helped — they must be going to the infirmary, to visit the healers. Lan Wangji thinks of Wei Ying’s face the last time he offered to play Cleansing, twisted with vitriolic disdain, and aches that Wei Ying will no longer allow him to perform this service. That Wei Ying can no longer be vulnerable with him. The healers of Gusu Lan are amongst the best in China, however, and Lan Wangji can only force himself to be grateful that Wei Ying will receive their services.

Lan Wangji heads to the jingshi and buries himself in his work immediately, grading the batch of latest batch of essays from the junior disciples. It’s hard to concentrate on the work, on the same recycled arguments and conclusions, hard not to think of the flashing originality Wei Ying had always displayed during his own time here. Lan Wangji had always admired that, even when he’d been scared of it, too. There had been no denying that Wei Ying was brilliant even then, and that is so much less the case now. Lan Wangji thinks of Jin Guangshan’s clenched fists, the barely-concealed disappointment on his face when Xichen had accepted Jiang Wanyin’s offer. At least Wei Ying is safe from his grasp. Whatever Wei Ying thinks of Lan Wangji, at least he is here.

Wei Ying arrives at the jingshi late in the evening, as dusk is bleeding into night, the clouds dark bruises in the sky. He looks exhausted. Perhaps worse than he had that morning, shoulders slumped and arms half wrapped around himself. He feels — off. Sour, somehow, burnt ash in the air. He looks warily at the bed, warily down at Lan Wangji, who has not risen from his desk.

“Your quarters are now ready, should you wish to —”

Wei Ying is through the adjoining door before Lan Wangji can finish his sentence, the smell of burning lingering long after he has gone.

Lan Wangji wakes to screaming once again.

It’s worse this time. Worse in that he cannot see Wei Ying beside him, alive and unwounded. Worse in that he must run towards the noise, come to a skidding halt just before the bed, where Wei Ying has wound himself into sweat-soaked sheets, and see the scratches down his arm. Worse in that Wei Ying looks up, and says, with bone-deep weariness:

“Go back to sleep, Hanguang-Jun.”

Lan Wangji does. He will not press himself upon Wei Ying, not when he is so clearly unwanted. He cannot stop himself from bursting through the door again the next night, however, slipping on a silencing talisman that has been torn straight through. There is smoke in the air, dark and thick, and when Wei Ying sits up and looks straight at Lan Wangji, his irises are crimson.

The next morning, Lan Wangji goes to find Meng Yao, who is ostensibly in charge of making sure Wei Ying gets better, and is clearly doing an absolutely abysmal job of it. He finds him in Xichen’s ante-chamber, flicking through piles of paperwork. He stands up and bows as soon as Lan Wangji walks through the door, smile already fixed firmly in place.

“Your Royal Highness, how can I be of service?”

“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Wangji stops. He is not sure, exactly, how much he should say. Eventually, he settles for a simple “He is not well.”

Meng Yao’s smile stretches into something sympathetic, and he lowers his eyes.

“Wei-gongzi is making slow progress.” he admits. “This humble one apologises, Your Royal Highness, that we have not been able to help him more, as of yet. It will take time. You should not worry yourself.”

Lan Wangji frowns.

“You are not worried?”

“No! No, Your Royal Highness, no. It is difficult, of course. But we must all be strong, for his sake, do you not think?”

“Mn.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Lan-er-gongzi?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, makes his way to the jingshi. It is good that Meng Yao is not worried. It must be good. And it makes a certain kind of sense that they should present a strong front to Wei Ying, who must be frustrated with his own lack of progress. Perhaps — perhaps that is why he would not allow Lan Wangji to play for him. That thought chimes more with the Wei Ying that Lan Wangji knows than anything else, despite what Wei Ying had said to him all that time ago. Don’t pretend you’re fine when you’re not, as if he himself had ever done anything else.

Wei Ying is not in the main part of the jingshi when Lan Wangji returns, or in his own quarters, but Lan Wangji had not expected him to be. He sits, cross-legged, on the floor beside Wei Ying’s bed, and summons his qin. There is a haze in the air, the same burnt ash smell. The broken talisman is still on the floor, the bed not yet remade by the servants. There are wood shavings underneath Lan Zhan’s feet, and when he reaches his hand up and runs his fingers along the bedposts, he realises Wei Ying has carved protective sigils there. The thought catches in his throat, in his chest. Wei Ying does not feel safe here. Lan Wangji has failed him, as he keeps finding himself doing. The awful thought occurs that perhaps they are there to protect Wei Ying from Lan Wangji himself, and Lan Wangji feels sick with the thought, lets his hand drop before he can investigate their nuances further. He almost leaves immediately, but stops himself. He will play Cleansing, and make the air less heavy with dread, and then he will go. Pushing Wei Ying did not work before, and it will clearly not work now.

That night, he braces himself to ignore Wei Ying’s screams, but they never come. He tells himself to be glad, that this is a good sign. It is quiet the night after, and the night after that. It is quiet for so long that Lan Wangji sneaks into his quarters during the day to check for silencing talismans, but finds none. The bed is neatly made, and there is nothing in the air but the smell of wood and fresh sheets.

6.

Lotus Pier should not feel empty. Wei Wuxian was here for three nights, not even time enough to justify making up his old room, the effort it would take to remove the dust drapes, to take out the things that had been shoved in there for want of better storage. Instead, Wei Wuxian had spent three nights sleeping in a frighteningly clean guest room — or not sleeping, maybe. The servants said they didn’t see him in the morning, and he’d looked haunted and wan when he turned up for robe fittings. So Lotus Pier should not feel empty. Jiang Cheng should feel relieved, if anything, that he no longer has to look over his shoulder for the ghost of his shixiong, the way he had during those first six months. When he thought Wei Wuxian might still come to his senses, as if that has ever been the case in all the time Jiang Cheng has known him.

He has enough to be getting on with, anyway. Jiejie’s wedding to plan — a wedding that has taken years of careful negotiation to bring to fruition, and therefore must be the most beautiful wedding anybody can remember. Jiang Cheng is very fixed on that point. The wedding at Gusu had been — fine. The Lans hadn’t been as generous as the Jins on the budget front, and they had been operating with quite frankly unseemly haste, not that Wei Wuxian had seemed particularly bothered by that, but Jiang Cheng has made miracles from less, and he had made it beautiful. Had Wei Wuxian ever looked around? No, he had not. But the guests had gone home knowing that Yunmeng Jiang was not ashamed, and that the Imperial Family weren’t either, and that would have to do.

It did do. It did, even if Jiang Cheng can’t quite shake the sense of a shadow behind him as he bustles around Lotus Pier, barking at the disciples who’d gotten lax whilst he’d been away. Whilst he’d been distracted, before that. Wei Wuxian’s fault. Wei Wuxian, who should have been there to help them train.

Jiang Cheng looks across at jiejie, their fourth morning at home, and watches the light fall uninterrupted across the space where Wei Ying should be sat. He thinks of the terms they could have perhaps negotiated, under different circumstances. Wei Wuxian back for the important Jiang festivals. Wei Wuxian back home for two weeks in every three months. Little enough, when Lan Wangji has spent the last five years traipsing through half of China. Lan Wangji wouldn’t even have had to come. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if he’d want to, now.

“Did you see his face?” he asks jiejie.

“Whose?”

“Lan Wangji’s. At the wedding. All — stiff.”

A-jie shrugs, and picks at her nails. They are red-raw. She’d have to see someone about them before the wedding, but they have time for that. Jiang Cheng knows better than to mention it now.

“Doesn’t he always look a little like that? I thought he just looked nervous.”

“Why should he be nervous! He’s not the one leaving his family!” Not that Wei Wuxian had any trouble with that the first time around. “Or the one — he’s —”

“He’s allowed to be nervous at his own wedding, A-Cheng,” jiejie says reprovingly. “It’s a strange time for everyone. And he wasn’t given a choice.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. He wonders if anybody had tried to make Lan Wangji do something he didn’t want to before. If anybody had ever tried to make him stay. Perhaps they hadn’t felt the need.

“Still,” he says. He’s not sure what he wants to hear, but jiejie smiles, pats his knee.

“It was a beautiful wedding, A-Cheng. And Lan Wangji is a good man. Even if they do not love each other…” she winces, but she’s right. What is love, when it comes down to it? Wei Wuxian’s parents were supposed to have loved each other, and they wound up dead, early and pointless. What does love matter if Wei Wuxian can eat, if it will stop him shaking, stop the looming skeleton of him walking through Jiang Cheng’s dreams.

“He better,” Jiang Cheng says, nonsensically.

“We can still write to him. And he will be here for my wedding, no matter what.”

They’d always thought they’d plan jiejie’s wedding together. Thought that she’d be the first of them to get married, the way she should have been, if Lotus Pier hadn’t been destroyed. Wei Wuxian feigning politeness and hovering silently by his husband’s side whilst their sister gets married — Jiang Cheng pulls a face, and jiejie pats his knee again, rises.

“We will write to him,” she says again. Not a suggestion, anymore. Jiang Cheng hates writing letters, the splutter of the ink a twin to the stupid splutter of his words, but he will. How can he do otherwise with jiejie looking at him in the morning light like that, unbalanced somehow, like she’s standing to the left of the frame. Of course he will.

7.

For two weeks, Lan Wangji allows himself to believe that Wei Ying is happy. Or, if not happy, at least getting better. He thanks Meng Yao when he passes him in the courtyard, and ignores his polite demurrals. He completes his work diligently, and advises his brother when he is asked to do so, and draws up the proposed rice tariffs for the next season’s yield. He eats alone, as he has done for many years, and tells himself that this is enough.

Until, one morning, a servant knocks at the door and enters the jingshi, bowing deeply.

“Your Royal Highness, the steward has directed me to ask whether Wei-gongzi would like his belongings moved into the jingshi?”

Lan Wangji looks blankly at him, and hopes the man will give him more information without him having to actually ask for it. Thankfully, the servants of the Imperial Palace are used to Lan Wangji’s silence, and the man continues to speak.

“The servants have noticed that, ah, that Wei-gongzi’s bed is not slept in, and that he no longer takes his meals in his rooms. We assumed that he was here —” his eyes flick up, about the room, and Lan Wangji stands up, hastily.

“I will ask him,” he says. Not a lie. He will ask Wei Ying. If Wei Ying has not been sleeping in his bed — if he has not been taking his meals… It is possible, he supposes, that Wei Ying has found a home with the Wen remnants, who, after all, have been his family. That is… fine. Not proper, perhaps, but Lan Wangji is no longer particularly interested in that. If Wei Ying has found safety with them, found rest, then that is as it should be. He just needs to know that.

Against all hope, he waits in Wei Ying’s quarters, just in case. When hai shi has passed, and he has not materialised, Lan Wangji leaves the jingshi, and steps onto his sword. He makes his way to the corner of Gusu Lan, outside the immediate reaches of the Imperial Palace, that has been granted to the Wen remnants, and knocks at the door of the first house he sees.

Wen Qing opens it, face cinched with suspicion, and flinches into a bow as soon as she sees Lan Wangji.

“Your Royal Highness, I —”

“Is he here?”

Wen Qing straightens up, slowly. Her brows are drawn together, her lips pursed. She is beautiful, Lan Wangji thinks, almost absently. She is beautiful, and she has done so many brave things. He would understand if Wei Ying had wanted to return to her.

“My husband,” he clarifies, when Wen Qing does not speak. He is doing this wrong. He is saying the wrong things. She looks wary, or more than that: on the darkened edge of frightened. “I am worried about him. That is all. If he is here, I am happy to leave.”

“He is not here.” Wen Qing shakes her head, slides the door a little further. Her brother stands behind her, wide-eyed and stretched tall in the shadowed room. “We thought —” She steels herself. “Forgive me, Your Highness, we thought you had kept him from us. We have been told we are not welcome in the area of the Palace reserved for the Imperial Family.”

“You have not seen him?” Lan Wangji can hear the urgency in his own voice. He should tell her that he has forbidden no such thing, but if Wei Ying is not here —

She shakes her head, and behind her, Wen Ning twists his hands, an echo of Wei Ying’s movements on their wedding night.

“Not since the wedding. And not to speak to since he left for Lotus Pier.”

The Wen remnants had not been invited to the wedding. Wen Ning must anticipate this train of thought, because he steps forward, bows.

“Ah, Hanguang-Jun, please forgive us, but we wanted to watch! A-Yuan wanted to see Wei-gongzi in his wedding red, and I could not refuse him.” Wen Ning’s voice is soft, earnestly pleading. A-Yuan. Chubby cheeks and grimy hands, little sooty marks left on Lan Wangji’s white collar, a small warm body pressed trustingly against his.

“May I see him?”

“Your Royal Highness, I promise he isn’t here.”

“Not Wei Ying. A-Yuan.”

“He is asleep.”

“Forgive me. Of course.” Lan Wangji bows his head, and makes to leave, but Wen Ning’s hand on his arm stops him. He takes it away immediately, stumbling backwards and falling onto his knees.

“Your Royal Highness, I’m — I’m so sorry! I only meant to say — you can come back, if you’d like. I mean, of course you can, you can do whatever you like, but to see A-Yuan. When he’s awake. He’d, he’d like that.”

Something passes over Wen Qing’s face at that — suspicion, maybe, or regret that her brother had spoken. Lan Wangji tries to take a subtle step back, to loom over her less. He should be better at this. He is so much practice at thinking of himself as a threat, after all.

“He remembers you.” Wen Qing sounds wry, clearly deciding that whatever objections she has are not worth voicing, and Lan Wangji can’t work out why until she smirks. “Rich-gege, he calls you. You won his heart with that paper dragonfly.”

There is nothing Lan Wangji can say to that. Wen Ning is right, there is nothing to stop him coming back here whenever he wishes, nothing that would stop him demanding to see whoever he pleases. But to have it offered like this, as if seeing A-Yuan would be a boon to be granted to the child, would be anything other than a balm to Lan Wangji’s own soul, this he cannot comprehend.

“Thank you.” he says, and leaves. The night is not yet over.

It is nearing zi shi when he finds Wei Ying high on the hillside, curled up at the edge of a copse. He’s surrounded by pots — not the fine, white porcelain of Emperor’s Smile, but the rough, reddish pottery of the cheap alcohol they drink by the docks. The air smells like spirits and sweat, the sourness only slightly abated by the fresh air and the cool night breeze. Wei Ying sits up as Lan Wangji lands, hand reaching for Chenqing, and does not let it go when he sees who it is. He says nothing as Lan Zhan sits down, leaving some distance between them, and reaches for one of the jars, turning it over in his hands. It is ill-made, cracked slightly at the edges, and the moisture beads stickily on the rim.

“Can you sleep, here?”

Wei Ying was not sleeping when he landed, despite how much he has clearly drunk. His eyes are red-rimmed but alert, no residual sleepiness at all. He shrugs, taps his knuckles against another one of the jars.

“I try.”

He taps again at the jar, harder than he should, and it splits beneath his knuckles, shards spilling out over the grass, and he draws his hand back with a wince. Lan Wangji rises forwards onto his knees, reaches a hand out instinctively, and folds it neatly back into his lap when Wei Ying ignores him, instead wiping off the slick line of blood on the ground.

“You are hurt.”

Wei Ying shrugs again, tips his head back against the tree.

“I do not refer to the cut. This is hurting you.”

“Is it, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying’s voice is bitter. His eyes are closed, and he hasn’t moved any closer, but Lan Wangji feels it scythe into him anyway, recriminatory and just. “Where have I heard that one before, eh? But that doesn’t seem to matter any more, does it?”

Lan Wangji had not forgotten what he had said to Wei Ying. He had meant it then, and he means it now, even if Wei Ying will not hear it.

“Meng Yao said it will take time. You must be patient. You can heal, if —”

“Heal?” Wei Ying sounds incredulous, and this time he does open his eyes, rocks forwards that he can stare at Lan Wangi. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“The healers of Gusu Lan are —”

“What healers?”

Lan Wangji blinks at him. It is almost a relief to feel like this again, unsure of himself, his old certainties flung away in the face of Wei Ying’s questions. This, at least, he knows.

“Who play Cleansing for you. Or — perhaps there are other songs, of which I am unaware.” He is unsure of what else they might do, but Cleansing he is sure of, the first and best resort of the Lan Sect.

“Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan —” Wei Ying laughs, loud and cackling, all serrated edges and discordant tones. “Lan Zhan, I have seen no healers. Even if I had — I told you before, Cleansing can do nothing for me. Luckily for me, they aren’t interested in that! Ahhh, Lan Zhan, don’t look like that. I said it when I m— when I came here, didn’t I. It’s all theirs, as long as the Wens are safe.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I know what?”

“That they are safe. Wen Qing informed me that you do not visit.”

“Following up on me, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying’s voice is light, and so are his fingers on Chenqing, twirling in his grip. “They don’t need to see me, not like this. I watch them, that is enough. Ah, Lan Zhan, you really don’t know?”

“Know?”

“What I came here for. Why Meng Yao persuaded your brother this was all a good idea in the first place.”

“To keep Wei Ying safe.”

“No.” Wei Ying tilts his head, hums a little in the back of his throat. “Well, a little. After all, you keep Bichen safe. Polished. Cared for, in its own way. In that way, I suppose, I am safe. I have food, if I want it. A bed, even! Ah, Lan Zhan, the generosity of His Imperial Majesty knows no bounds.”

“I —”

“Aiya, Lan Zhan, can’t you just leave it? I knew what the bargain was after all, even if you did not. There is no need to pretend it is anything else. It is — it would be easier, for me, if you didn’t.”

“Wei Ying. Are they hurting you?”

“No more than I have already hurt myself, so what does it matter?” He blinks slightly after he says it, like he’s surprised at himself, surprised to hear his own truth spoken so baldly. He looks down at the collected jugs as if they have betrayed him.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying sighs, lets himself fall sideways, sprawling over the hillside. He presses his hand against his face.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re giving me a headache. It’s past your bedtime, isn’t it? What are you bothering me for?”

Lan Wangji pushes down his instinctive frustration at Wei Ying’s words, remembers every time before this has worked on him when it should not.

“I want you to come back.”

“I already did that.” He gestures, as if to say, and look how well that’s working out.

“To the jingshi. Or your quarters, if you prefer.”

“Are you not tired of being woken up? What will people say, if the great Hanguang-Jun roams the Palace with bloodshot eyes and dark circles?”

“I do not care.”

“You should. Ah, Lan Zhan, you should.”

“Wei Ying does not.”

“Hm? About me? Well, that’s different. Nobody’s parading me around, after all. Not yet, anyway! Aha, Lan Zhan, do you think when I crack their tricks for them they will throw me a parade? Mn?” He looks at Lan Wangji expectantly, and laughs when he says nothing. “No, me neither. Ahhh, never mind, eh. What do I want with a parade, all that noise and clutter and standing on your feet for too long.”

As if Wei Ying has never dragged Lan Wangji round markets for endless hours. As if he has never craned over the heads of a crowd to watch a dragon dance, or to strain for the sound of a street performer.

“Come back,” he says, again. It is the only thing he knows he wants.

“No.” The laughter is gone from Wei Ying’s face. “I have — I have done what I was asked. I will not pretend —”

“Pretend to tolerate me?” It is as Lan Wangji has feared then, exactly that, that Wei Ying has judged him and found him wanting, has ripped away the words and bond he once so freely offered, and traded them for empty syllables and an empty room. He stands up. “Are you not my zhiji?”

“No.”

Lan Wangji reels from the word, taking one, lunging step backwards. He feels like his insides have been stripped from him, a roiling mass of skin and blood where his lungs should be. Wei Ying looks up, and meets his gaze. For a moment, he holds it, cold and unrepentant, and then he is stumbling forwards, raising his hands to the space where Lan Wangji’s face had just been.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, it is not — I cannot be. I’m not. He’s dead. The boy who was your zhiji. I’m not him.”

“No.” It is Lan Wangji’s turn for refutation now. Wei Ying is there in front of him. Even hollowed out, red-limned and shadowed, he has never been anything less. “You are Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying seesaws his hand, shudders his shoulders.

“Please.” Lan Wangji has never begged before. He finds he does not mind, not like this. “Come back.”

“I can’t.”

“Then I will stay.”

Lan Wangji ignores Wei Ying’s splutters, and lies down, flat on his back, hands resting on his stomach. The grass is damp, but no matter.

“I will stay, or you will come back with me, and tell me the truth,” he says, looking upwards at the cloud-black, blanketing sky. Wei Ying sighs, heavily, and flops down too.

“Aiya, always so stubborn.”

Lan Wangji falls asleep like that, damp seeping into his robes, and Wei Ying’s wheezing, patter-rain breathing beside him.

Lan Wangji wakes shortly before dawn to the sound of screaming. He barely thinks of the battlefield at all, now. When he opens his eyes all he can see is the smoke that billows out from every part of Wei Ying, every pore seeping black. There is blood crusting underneath his nose, bloodsweat at his neck and hairline, and his eyes are blank and unseeing. Lan Wangji ignores him when he wakes, blinking into semi-coherence, shuddering and clawing at the energy, ignores him as he cries out, warns Lan Wangji back. What else can he do, but step forward, into the swirl, to feel it flutter and pry at him, and to know it is a hundred, a thousand times worse for Wei Ying. What else can he do, if not wrap his hands around Wei Ying’s, if not rub the rawness of his bruised knuckles, and look unflinchingly into the crimson bleed of his eyes.

“I am here,” he says, as the smoke dissipates around them, leaving the air acrid and heavy. “I am here,” as Wei Ying shudders, searches for the pasted-on smile he always carries. “I will not leave.”

Wei Ying mutters something indistinguishable into his own shoulder, and, a little belatedly, tugs his hands away. He has found the smile, and it is just as terrible as Lan Wangji remembers.

“I can’t tell you,” he says. “I don’t —”

“I will come with you.” It is clear, whatever the immediate, present hurt is, that it is within the walls of the Cloud Recesses Palace. That it keeps Wei Ying company where Lan Wangji has not, these past two weeks. Wei Ying shrugs.

“I cannot stop His Royal Highness going where he will in his own palace. Who could?”

“Mn.”

“I’ll — you should go and get changed. There’ll be gossip, if you’re seen with grass stains all over you.”

Lan Wangji ignores him, replaces his guan, straightens his ribbon. He is not going to get changed and give time for Wei Ying to disappear. Time for him to tie himself together, to fabricate the lies he is currently too tired to tell. It is too early for them to be going anywhere, even for the Lans, but it is clear that neither of them will be going to sleep.

“Will you practice with me?” he asks, instead.

“Sparring?” Wei Ying pats at his sides theatrically, where Suibian has not sat for years. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I seem to have forgotten my sword.”

“No. Music.”

Wei Ying stills, as arrested as a bird shot in mid-flight. He looks down at Chenqing, and back up at Lan Wangji. Repeats the motion. Laughs uneasily.

“Are you sure?”

“Mm.”

Lan Wangji sinks neatly to the ground, and summons Wangji, rests his fingers on the strings, and begins to play. He has not played their song since the Burial Mounds, but it still comes easily to him, slipping from his heart to his fingers like spring water. Wei Ying does not join in until the second rising swell, and when he does it is not quite right, not quite there. Too easy a metaphor but true nonetheless: his high notes are a little squeaky, he runs out of breath too quickly. Lan Wangji does not stop playing, regardless, and neither does Wei Ying, finding the smoothness where he can. When they finish the song, Wei Ying is looking down at his own hands, astonished, and the air is clearer than if Lan Wangji had played Cleansing a thousand times.

“Will you take me?” he asks, and this time it feels like the right question.

“Yes.” Wei Ying takes a step away from Lan Wangji, and another, but he turns as he goes. “I will.”

Lan Wangji watches Meng Yao see them both and pause, almost imperceptibly, before gliding towards them.

"Your Royal Highness; Wei-gongzi." Lan Wangji hates how Meng Yao says his title, cloying and viscous, like it covers Lan Wangji entire. Wei Ying has always said his name like it is the easiest thing in the world, a summer breeze of a name, blooming and fresh.

"I will observe, today," Lan Wangji says. Meng Yao’s eyes widen along with his smile.

“Ah, Your Royal Highness. I must warn you, it is not always pleasant. It is… a somewhat difficult process we must go through, with Wei-gongzi.”

Lan Wangji stares levelly back. He will not stoop to reminding this man of the unpleasant things he has seen.

“Aiya, Meng Yao, should the prince not see what he has bought?”

Perhaps it is the disdain in Wei Ying’s voice on the word ‘prince’, perhaps it is the careful distance he keeps between himself and Lan Wangji, but something in Meng Yao’s face settles, and he nods, careful and slow.

“Of course, Your Royal Highness. It is an honour to have you with us.” He turns before he can see Wei Ying roll his eyes; Lan Wangji’s heart leaps at the sight.

Meng Yao leads them into one of the old practice courtyards. It had been damaged during the war, and at first Lan Wangji thinks that is all the damage is, old rubble, old, brown blood-stains across the flagstones. But there is fresh sand, and blood mixed up with that too, and the scars in the wood are white, not yet weathered to the same colour as the rest of it. Wei Ying walks forwards, stretches his hands together and up, arches his back, purses his lips. He does not look at Lan Wangji, and it reminds Lan Wangji all too well of another moment like this: Wei Ying frowning guilessly up at Wen Chao and knowing Lan Wangji would understand what he was trying to do. He will wait, then. He will not say anything, even if everything in him is screaming at him to drag Wei Ying away, to never let him set foot here again. He will let Wei Ying show him what he must. And then, perhaps, if he is allowed, the dragging.

Meng Yao is bustling about, speaking softly to one of the servants, and a couple more are making their way over, dragging — something. Orange and black and. A tiger. A tiger’s corpse, more accurately, a few days old judging by the smell. Wei Ying claps his hands together.

“Meng Yao, you shouldn’t have! You see —” he spins on his heel, but doesn’t actually look at Lan Zhan, instead gestures broadly, as if to a vast audience. “Ah, or would you rather explain, Meng-gongzi? No, never mind, you’re busy, I’ll do it. Who better, after all. You see, Lan Zhan, we know I can control people. Fierce corpses of people, of course, but people all the same. But there aren’t many dead men who can wield a sword well. It’s all well and good having the numbers, but it’s easy enough to cut off the head of a decomposing peasant. Not that you all seem to have tried particularly hard, these last few years, but there we go. But what about something a little more threatening?” he gestures at the tiger with a flourish. “Agh! A tiger! The problem is that a person’s rage is easy. A fierce corpse wants revenge, which is simple. A tiger? What does a tiger want?” He pauses, like Lan Zhan might answer. “Ah, you’re so wise, Lan Zhan. It is, indeed, a mystery to us all. Still, we persevere! I am still a little Jiang, my shidi has declared it so, and so attempt the impossible I shall.”

Lan Wangji hopes the horror does not show on his face. Wei Ying has not finished, he knows. It simmers under his skin though, crawling into shock, into disgust. The resentful energy of animals is different to that of humans. More bestial, more unrestrained, if such a thing is even possible to imagine. The energy Wei Ying has cultivated for five years is already tearing him apart, has already left him with ragged edges and a thinning grip on what it means to be human. If he is forced to do this regularly, to commune with the resentful energy of animals — of predators, hungry even in life — Lan Wangji cannot imagine what that does to him. Does not want to. Must. Must, to look at Wei Ying, head held high and Chenqing at his lips, even as the sky grows dark and the smoke swirls around him, glutinous and spreading. The tiger twitches. Stands up, unsteadily, and opens its mouth. There is no air in its lungs to roar, but it takes several stumbling steps forwards and swipes, almost lazily, at the space in front of it.

Wei Ying is barely visible, a maelstrom of black and red, only Chenqing’s high, piercing sound audible over the rushing wind. On the edge of the courtyard, Meng Yao bounces up and down on the balls of his feet. If he was not too decorous to do so, Lan Wangji thinks he would be rubbing his hands together.

Abruptly, the music stops, and the smoke clears a little, drooping down into eddying swirls around Wei Ying’s calves. He is bent over, hands on his knees, panting hard. There is blood dripping from his nose, from his ears.

“Wei Ying —” Lan Wangji starts.

“Again,” he says. And, when Meng Yao makes no movement. “I’m going again. Practice makes perfect, isn’t that what you always say, Meng-laoshi?”

He raises Chenqing. Again, the tiger steps forward. More confident this time, another swipe, with real force behind it. Almost gambolling now, towards the outer wall of the courtyard, and Wen Ying does not stop playing, lets it crash into the wall at full force, the stones trembling, the white now grey-red-orange-black with matted fur and blood and brain matter. Very carefully, very precisely, he tucks Chenqing into his belt. Puts one arm behind his back in the Lan manner. Smiles.

Meng Yao splutters.

“Your Royal Highness I apologise for — Wei-gongzi, that was most impressive, really, but I did tell you, before, there are only so many tiger corpses I can easily procure, but, ah — of course, all the same, you see, Your Royal Highness, the aid this will be to the Empire —”

“What aid will it be when my husband is dead?”

“Ah, no, Your Royal Highness, you mistake —”

Lan Wangji stares him down. Flicks his eyes pointedly to the blood running down Wei Ying’s chin.

“It is an honour, is it not, to serve the Empire?” Meng Yao says, recovering smoothly. “We have all offered to lay down our lives for the Emperor. Both you and I alike, Your Royal Highness. It is our privilege and our duty to do so, should the need arise.”

“There is no need, now.”

“There is always trouble somewhere.”

Abruptly, Lan Wangji is tired of this. Tired of Meng Yao’s words, tired of anticipating the moment he will fall into pleading subservience if Lan Wangji continues to push. Tired of the way Wei Ying is slumping slightly to the side, seemingly without being aware of it. Tired of pretending he can do nothing, after all.

“Wei Ying.” He holds out his hand, and Wei Ying walks over. He doesn’t take it, just brushes their fingertips together briefly and drops his hand to his side. Lan Wangji spares one last glance for Meng Yao, and then leaves, Wei Ying following closely behind.

As soon as they are out of sight of the practice courtyard, Wei Ying collapses into Lan Wangji’s side, coughing frantically. There are specks of blood on his lips, foaming spit.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji grabs his wrist, gathers his spiritual energy at his fingertips, but Wei Ying is already shaking his head, pushing him away.

“Don’t — Wen Qing. I need Wen Qing.”

The doorways of the Wen compound are low, and Wen Ning has to stoop to help carry Wei Ying through the door, almost banging both their heads in the process. Wen Qing rolls her eyes, laying an old blanket on her bed so that Wei Ying doesn’t get blood on the sheets. It’s the kind of brusque efficiency that Lan Wangji finds comforting, and he lets his fingers uncurl, leaving cool-sweat imprints on his palms. Wen Qing is palpating Wei Ying’s meridians, assessing and thoughtful, and Lan Wangji resolves to head to the library as soon as possible to study the medical arts with more fervour. He does not want to be this helpless again. Wen Ning wipes the blood from Wei Ying’s face, large hands effortlessly gentle. Looking at him like this, it is hard to believe he is a weapon as much as he is a man.

“Tongue,” Wen Qing says, tapping at Wei Ying’s jaw until he opens his mouth, sticks his tongue out for inspection. Lan Wangji looks away, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks.

“May I play for him?” he asks. The room is really too small for the four of them, and he feels useless, a spare part. Wen Ning and Wen Qing move around Wei Ying easily, almost routinely — which, Lan Wangji realises, is probably true. Wei Ying was not unaffected by the power he poured into defending the Burial Mounds, after all. They have all done this before. It is only Lan Wangji unsure of his place here, even in his own lands.

Wen Qing purses her lips at his question, presses down on two yang meridians at once, and shakes her head.

“It’ll be distracting.”

Lan Wangji blinks at her. He should probably be affronted, he thinks, but — distracting? Nobody has ever said that about Lan Wangji before.

“His core —” he starts, thinking of the way the resentful energy had licked at his own core, greedy and taunting. Wei Ying is powerful, that is undeniable, but it must be damaged by now, eroded at the edges.

“I wondered if he’d told you.” She sounds distracted, her focus still half on Wei Ying. “That’s good. But you’re right, the lack of core means he doesn’t have anything to balance it out, and Cleansing will only work a little. Will calm him, but nothing else. There’s only so much we can do, unless he stops.”

Lan Wangji nods, and hopes that his years of piling everything behind the blankness of his face are helping him here, too. Wen Qing is one of the best doctors Lan Wangji has met, but in this, she must be mistaken. There is no other option. Distantly, he is aware of the sound of his own breathing, shallow and rapid, water sucking at the sand. His vision is greying around the edges. His cheeks, he thinks, are wet.

“Your Royal Highness.” There is a tentative hand on his back, another on his arm. He is being led, he sits down. Before him, Wei Ying is a blur, and that cannot be allowed to persist. Lan Wangji blinks, wipes at his eyes until Wei Ying’s shape resolves into its familiar lines and curves. He is only semi-conscious, but his chest rises and falls, and he flinches where Wen Qing’s needles touch his skin.

“You didn’t know.” Wen Qing’s gaze is assessing, head cocked to one side. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how you should have found out.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head slightly, and then again, harder this time.

“How?” he manages to whisper.

“Wen Zhuliu.” Wen Qing isn’t looking at him at all, for the first time, her watchful gaze breaking off, and Lan Wangji knows that he is not being given the full story. Wen Qing will not give it to him, though, and she is right not to. It is not hers to give. Lan Wangji thinks he might be shaking. His fingers feel colder than usual, his throat tight and choked. There is nobody he has ever met who has shone like Wei Ying, bright and golden all the way through. Nobody who cultivated like him, like it came as naturally as breathing, like he was born with the power crackling through him, dancing to meet the air.

I should have known, he thinks, with the clarion bell surety of grief. Wei Ying has never done anything without a reason, however frivolous that reason may have seemed to Lan Wangji. And then, reluctantly, we should have known, as if Jiang Wanyin’s guilt does anything to ameliorate his own.

Eventually, Wen Qing draws back.

“There’s only so much I can do. Mostly, he needs rest.” This is directed entirely at Wei Ying, her voice pointedly raised. “He can stay here, for now.”

“He is not sleeping.”

Wen Qing raises one eyebrow.

“I can tell.”

“I will stay, until he is ready to move.”

“If that is what you want, Highness.” Wen Qing sounds weary. “A-Ning should be heading out to the fields. And your Healers wanted to see me.”

“Where is A-Yuan?”

“He’s with Granny — with one of the Elders.”

Lan Wangji frowns. A-Yuan must be almost seven now, old enough to be at school, to start learning. It was made clear that Wen Qing could no longer be formally part of the cultivation world, not after what she did for Wen Ruohan, but surely the same cannot apply to a blameless child. Wen Qing must misunderstand him because she frowns, takes a step closer.

“He would not be shocked to find Wei Wuxian like this. He has seen worse. He has seen things no child should see, Your Royal Highness.” Her voice is careful, no edge of recrimination, but the meaning is clear. Lan Wangji is too late to protect A-Yuan from the sight of his surrogate father bleeding and bruised. “It is not just you he has missed. Not just you he asks for.” This again, pointed. Wei Ying does not seem to hear it.

“I am sorry,” Lan Wangji says. “I should have come with Wei Ying when he left with you.”

“Ah, what good would that have done? And have people say the Yiling Patriarch had kidnapped the Prince? No. Perhaps you should have married him a little sooner, that is all.”

Lan Wangji bows his head. He cannot say what he wants to say, which is that he does not think he should have married Wei Ying at all. Not to these people, whose lives have been bought with that marriage. Not even to Wei Ying, who was prepared to pay that price. After a while, the Wens leave. Lan Wangji does not.

Wei Ying does eventually fall into a sleep, of sorts. Lan Wangji drags the chair closer to the bed so that he can monitor his breathing. There are things he should be doing, he’s aware. His insufferable steward, Su She, is probably running himself ragged trying to find him. Lan Wangji prides himself on his diligence, his reliability, but this is where that diligence has led him. He will never want anything but the best for the Empire, for Xichen’s reign, but the best Wei Ying has to offer is not his raw, destructive power. It is his mind, the connections that nobody else would think to make. The sheer joy he finds — found? — in invention. Lan Wangji thinks of that shimmering blue-silver rope that had wrapped around his wrist, bound him to Wei Ying, and wishes for it now. Wishes for the closer, softer kinship of the ribbon, the press of Wei Ying’s body against his, skin hot and clothes freezing cold from the water, Lan Wangji skittering between temperatures every time Wei Ying had shifted. It is not enough, this distance, this watching. He wishes it could be. He wishes he were less selfish, less wanting.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying raises his head, barely, and then flops back down. His voice is croaky. Lan Wangji guides a cup of water to his lips, helps him drink.

“You should rest.”

“Aiya, I tried that, didn’t I? Look where that led us.” Wei Ying frowns, looks at the bloody smears he has left on Lan Wangji’s robes. “Why are you still here? Don’t you have better things to be getting on with?”

“No.”

“No? They let the Prince just sit around, do they? I can’t believe that, Lan Zhan, you always liked to be so busy. Are there no new rules to memorise? No students to terrorise? Ah, they will not be as handsome or as troublesome as me, I suppose, so —”

He breaks off to cough, and Lan Wangji leans over the bed, tries to help him sit up, until Wei Ying flinches away from his touch. Lan Wangji sits back down, and laces his fingers together. He can be still, if that is what Wei Ying needs.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t — I’m fine. I’m fine! And you’ve seen now, so now you know, and you can, well, it’s impressive, isn’t it! You can tell your brother I’m making progress.”

“No.”

“Lan Zhan! That’s not fair! You didn’t see how bad I was at the beginning. I’m getting pretty good, you know —”

“You should not be getting good. This should not have been asked of you.”

“This is what I promised. I said all of me.”

“To me.”

“To the Emperor, Lan Zhan. To Gusu Lan.”

“You are not married to my brother.”

There is a little satisfaction in the way that Wei Ying grimaces reflexively at the thought of that, and then winces apologetically. Not enough to calm the burning in Lan Zhan’s chest, but a little.

“You can marry again, Lan Zhan, if that’s what you’re worried about. That’s what you said before, isn’t it, to Meng Yao? About me being your husband, and winding up dead. But you can marry again. Now, even, if you’d like! Ah, the ladies must be lining up for the great Hanguang-Jun, no matter how stern he looks.”

“No.”

“Lan Zhan! All those broken hearts, dismissed! But, seriously though, you were good with A-Yuan. You’d be a good father.”

“I will not marry again.” Lan Wangji doesn’t know how else to say it. There is only Wei Ying.

“Have I done such a bad job of being your husband to put you off the whole thing for life? Aiya, you don’t have to say anything, I know I have. The screaming was bad enough, but I can’t even take one measly tiger without passing out? What has happened to the Wei Ying you knew, eh?”

“He is still here.”

Lan Wangji was wrong. He cannot be still. He takes Wei Ying’s hand, does not let go even when he struggles, and presses his thumb very deliberately against his wrist.

“Ah.”

“Mn.”

“I was hoping I’d dreamt Wen Qing telling you. Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t look at me like that.”

“It was not Wen Zhuliu.” Wei Ying’s meridians are whole, undamaged in a way they would not be if he had been burnt from the inside out.

Wei Ying makes a face, and tugs ineffectually at his hands again. When it becomes clear that Lan Wangji will not budge, and has no intention of doing so, he flops back against the bed, pulling their joined hands down with him, and burying his face in his own arm. This is how he tells Lan Wangji the truth, muffled and muttered, so that Lan Wangji must strain to hear every word. After he is finished, there is a long silence. You should have told me, Lan Wangji thinks, and understands exactly why Wei Ying did not.

“Wei Ying.” He lets Wei Ying’s hands go. “Do not go back tomorrow. This is not the bargain that I made.”

“It is the one I made.”

“Nevertheless.”

Wei Ying sighs, and rolls his eyes, and pretends that he is not stifling a smile, the soft spread of relief suffusing his limbs.

“Alright, then. As Your Royal Highness wishes. And, and the other thing, too. What you said before. That, too, if you want.”

He swings his legs over the bed, and immediately falls sideways, straight into Lan Wangji’s waiting arms, and he lets Lan Wangji lift him up, carry him back to the jingshi. Lan Wangji starts to carry him towards his own rooms, but Wei Ying freezes in his arms, and he stills.

“It’s worse alone,” he says, very quietly, and then immediately tries to start a whole new sentence about the letters piled up on Lan Wangji’s desk. Lan Wangji turns around and, very gently, lowers Wei Ying onto his bed.

“I must work. Rest, Wei Ying. I will be here.”

Against all the odds, Lan Wangji manages four whole hours of uninterrupted letter writing before the screaming starts once more.

“Are you not tired of this?” Wei Ying asks, the fourth time Lan Wangji wakes up choking on smoke, reaching out.

“No.”

“Ugh, Lan Zhan, you’re too good. I’m tired of this.” He bats at Lan Wangji in the darkness. “Lan Zhan, such a good husband. You have to marry again, think of all the maidens with their night terrors! What a waste of such good practice.”

“There will be no-one else.”

“Lan Zhan! You really are too stubborn.”

“There is only Wei Ying.”

There is a sharp, in-drawn breath. Lan Wangji wishes he could see his face, whether it is the easy roll of emotions or his most difficult smile. At least it would tell him something.

“Wei Ying,” he begins “I do not expect you to feel the same. I have — you mock me, by calling me good. I have not been good, to you.”

“Lan Zhan!” Something broken in Wei Ying’s voice, like shards of porcelain catching on delicate skin.

“I have not been there.”

“Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, you could not have been. You needed to be here, with the Emperor, or out in the world. I am glad you have been here, these last few weeks, I am glad you are being listened to. You are so needed. I’ve heard about what you’ve done, you know. The good you have given to the world, and even now you’ve come back — I’ve watched you teach, through the papermen. You need to work on the children’s observational powers, not one of them noticed I was there! But I wasn’t — I meant it. You will be such a good father, one day. Those children have learnt so much. Gusu Lan is better for your heart, your bravery. It needs you.”

“You needed me.”

“Aiya, I’m here, aren’t I? Lan Zhan, is this all about one fainting fit?”

“You are not sleeping.”

There is silence, the kind of silence that means Wei Ying has run out of ways to pretend he is alright. Lan Wangji inches his hand along the sheets, and lets their fingertips touch, little bobbing anchors in the dark. Wei Ying does not move away, even inches his fingers closer for a moment, pressure dimpling their skin. Lan Wangji stays there until Wei Ying lies back down, until he moves his hand back to his own chest and until his breathing evens out. The sky is paling at the edges now, the gaunt curve of Wei Ying’s cheekbone just catching the light. It is not yet mao shi, but Lan Wangji rises anyway, and writes Wei Ying a note with careful strokes, placing it on top of Wei Ying’s sandals. He has already delayed too long. He must speak to his brother.

The guards around Xichen’s quarters let him through with no questions, bowing as they move aside. This at least, has not changed, since Xichen’s rise from Heir to Emperor, and Lan Wangji lets himself inside the hanshi quietly. Xichen is already awake, a servant threading his hair into his elaborate guan, his outer robes still undone.

“Your Majesty.” Lan Wangji bows low. He is taking no risks with this. “Forgive me for disturbing you at such an early hour.

“No forgiveness is needed, Wangji. Come, sit.” He gestures at the servant, and they disappear. For all he was born to it, Lan Wangji has never had Xichen’s ease with the servants, and Wei Ying’s arrival has only heightened that. He sits opposite Xichen, watches as he belts his robes with quick, practiced motions. It has been a long time since he has seen him like this, the closest to unguarded he ever gets.

“I went to watch Wei Ying, yesterday.” Xichen nods, but says nothing. Wangji is used to reading his brother but, even so, he is unsure of how much Xichen knows. “Meng Yao has been training him.”

“Yes, he mentioned. New talismans, I think. Did you see them?”

“No.”

“Oh? Are they doing something else, now? It’s been a while since A-Yao and I discussed it, I assumed he was coming to you.”

“He was not.” Lan Wangji looks unwaveringly at Xichen. He has not ever lied to his brother, and he is not going to start flinching from the truth now. “Xiongzhang, he was encouraging Wei Ying to use resentful energy to control the corpses of animals. It is killing him. I will not allow this to continue.”

“Are you sure? Is this —”

Sometimes, Xichen’s desire to see the best in people is intensely wearing.

“I saw it myself. Wei Ying raised the corpse of a tiger. He ran it into a brick wall.”

“We cannot allow the use of resentful energy within the Imperial Palace. We allowed Wei Ying here on the basis that —”

“Xiongzhang.” Lan Wangji takes a deep, modulating breath. “This is not Wei Ying’s fault. He has been brought here, and he has been instructed to use resentful energy under duress. He is alone, and the people he has sacrificed so much to save are under our protection. What else could he do?”

“A-Yao would not —”

“I think it is clear that you do not know what Meng Yao would or would not do.”

Xichen reels from his words, and Lan Wangji bites his tongue. He has gone too far, he knows, has forgotten exactly who he is speaking to, now. He has been absent for this moulding of power, careless of the shape Meng Yao has made for himself in Xichen’s life. But he will not stand for the way Xichen talks about Wei Ying, the preemptive regret easing into his voice, as if it were that simple, that obvious.

“I will not deny that Wei Ying should have informed me earlier,” he manages. “But things have been… difficult. He is not at fault, here.”

Xichen shakes his head, looking troubled.

“I must speak to Meng Yao. His intentions are good, Wangi. ”

If Lan Wangji had his way, Meng Yao would be thrown out by breakfast, but that is unlikely.

“I only wished to inform you of the truth. Wei Ying will not return to his tutelage. Not ever again.”

Xichen nods.

“I understand. You said things were difficult?”

Lan Wangji stands up. He has never wanted to talk about Wei Ying to his brother, and he is unlikely to feel differently now. He bows, and leaves the room, ignoring the way Xichen’s mouth softens into amusement despite the furrow on his brow.

When he returns to the jingshi, Wei Ying is still in bed, Lan Wangji’s correspondence spread out before him. He jolts slightly when Lan Wangji enters, looking faintly guilty, but when Lan Wangji says nothing he shuffles over on the mattress so that Lan Wangji can sit, too, without needing to press up against him.

“What’s mine is yours, right? And anyway, you get so many letters, Lan Zhan, you can’t possibly have time to read them. There are some quite good ones in here! Also three from Yao-zongzhu complaining about the new rice tariffs, but he left a fair bit of space on the back, you can use them for scrap paper.”

Lan Wangji hums slightly in the back of his throat, holds his hand out for the letter in Wei Ying’s hand. He is careful, slow to reach forwards, but Wei Ying does not adjust his grip, lets their fingers brush as Lan Wangji takes it. It’s from one of the minor clans, asking for assistance with a recurring water ghoul problem.

“What do you think?”

Wei Ying starts, momentarily unsure, but when Lan Wangji says nothing further he seems to conclude that Lan Wangji really does want his opinion. It is absurd that he should doubt it: Wei Ying is one of the smartest people Lan Wangji knows, and has an unfailingly rigorous sense of justice when it comes to everyone other than himself. Of course he wants his opinion.

“Hmmm, well. As reluctant as I am to say it, Meng Yao was right when he suggested watchtowers at the last Cultivation Conference. If the — if your brother can figure out a way to do it without completely pissing off the Jin Sect, that would help. Generally I mean, there must be a dozen letters from little villages and towns that aren’t close enough to anyone to get help. Here — I mean, it seems like the ghouls just keep coming back. They can’t find a source of resentful energy nearby, which suggests that they’re being washed down the river — so, either they need to trace it back to the source, which given the river network inland could take years, or they need to think about some sort of comprehensive protection array. There’s actually — if you combine the demon-attracting talisman, with the spirit nets the Jins use, but —”

Wei Ying flips over one of Sect Leader Yao’s letters and starts scribbling on the back, muttering to himself. Lan Wangji watches him, fond, picks up another letter — this one, unfortunately, about new land for millet fields — and lets him get on with it. The note he left Wei Ying is crumpled slightly to the side, presumably tossed there as soon as Wei Ying had read it, and Wei Ying knocks it when he reaches for more paper.

“Oh! You went to see the Emperor. How was that?”

“Mm. He believes in Meng Yao’s good nature more than I. But you will not be forced to return.”

“Good. I mean —”

“It is good.”

“I don’t really give a fuck about Meng Yao, you know that, right? You don’t — I know your brother cares about him. I don’t want to make things difficult. As long as we can stay out of each other’s way, that’s. I understand what he was doing. Why, even. It wouldn’t have been different anywhere else. Less imaginative maybe, that’s all.”

“It should be different here.”

Wei Ying shrugs, quirks his mouth into something almost like a smile.

“Ah, Lan Zhan. I’m so glad you’re not Emperor. You’re too good, and they’d never let you do anything fun again.”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji lets Wei Ying distract himself again. He looks almost properly alive like this, light in his eyes, bent over and scribbling. He’s scraped his hair up into a hasty ponytail, and the flyaways fall into his face, dancing with every huffed-out breath. He’s so beautiful, he’s so beautiful and Lan Wangji has taken such poor care of him.

The servants lower their heads, looking slightly embarrassed, when they come in with the breakfast things, but Wei Ying hardly notices them, doesn’t look up until Lan Wangji holds the bowl of congee under his nose, and then takes it away again, using it to guide Wei Ying to the table. He watches him eat, can’t help it. Is greedy for this proof he’d denied himself, the beginnings of Wei Ying’s appetite returning, the gulping, humming noises of satisfaction he makes as he eats that had driven Lan Wangji crazy when they were teenagers but now sing out in joyful harmony, blessed proof that he is here.

“I am teaching the juniors, later,” he says carefully, once they’ve finished eating. “Would you like to come with me?”

“As a warning? ‘Beware, if you, too, disrespect the Rules of Gusu Lan, you will end up as haggard and reviled as this man I am shackled to.’ Ah, but no, you’ve always been so good, and you still ended up married to me, so maybe that will backfire. Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, do you think this is punishment for when I made you drink alcohol? Ah, Lan Zhan, that was so bad of me, I’m sorry. I hope your ancestors forgave you immediately, it wasn’t your fault at all. Perhaps I should visit your family shrine, and apologise.”

There is so much nonsense in Wei Ying’s burbling stream of speech that Lan Wangji takes a moment to parse it, to find what he thinks is most objectionable.

“I am not shackled to you. It is not a punishment, to be married to Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan, you’re too kind. I don’t think the juniors will see it that way, though.”

Perhaps this is not a battle Lan Wangji will win immediately. He can be patient.

“I would like to expand the curriculum. The juniors’ knowledge of talismans is lamentable. Wei Ying’s input would be most valuable.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, well, when you put it like that.” He jumps to his feet, and then immediately falters.

“I am sure.” Lan Wangji says, before he can ask. “It will be most instructive.”

This particular batch of juniors are, Lan Wangji must admit, not Gusu Lan’s best. This is mostly because the best of their generation were co-opted into fighting well before their time, and are, as a result, dead. It is not the fault of those left behind, Lan Wangji knows that. Knows that, and tries to believe it, and still cannot help but see the blood-stained bodies in the empty chairs, think of the senior disciples’ robes that they will never wear. He keeps his face blank, then, as Lan Shan sticks his hand up and asks his third unimaginative question of the class. Lan Shan is as solid and round-faced as his name suggests, and one day he will make a very good guard, perfectly suited to saying ‘who goes there?’ on a regular basis. Curiosity is good, Lan Wangji reminds himself. It is how people learn.

“But, Your Royal Highness, if Wei-laoshi, um —” he casts a nervous look at Wei Ying, who had made it very clear that nobody was to be referring to him with any sort of noble title, even the ones Xichen had deigned to confer. Wei Ying tries to smile encouragingly. “If Wei-laoshi can invent new talismans, what’s there to stop there being — a hundred talismans, all for the same thing?”

It is a surprisingly good question, and Lan Wangji allows his face to soften slightly, nods to Wei Ying. He was not merely being kind when he asked Wei Ying here — Lan Wangji has many strengths, but invention is not one of them, and Wei Ying’s innate, quicksilver understanding of the theory is like nobody else’s.

“Um.” Lan Lu twitches awkwardly, belatedly sticks up her hand. “Can we invent talismans?”

Wei Ying laughs, a proper laugh, one that shakes his shoulders and makes his eyes crinkle up into cheerful crescent moons. It is worth a thousand foolish questions to see it.

“Not just yet, perhaps.” he says. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t one day, though. It’s difficult. You will have to work out. To answer, um, your friend’s question — well, actually, it might help if you come a little closer. All of you — if you come and look at the stroke order here —”

He waits, and the students edge a little closer. They look a little nervous, a month of whispers and glimpses of Lan Wangji’s new husband not enough to make them forget five years of stories about the Yiling Patriarch. Wei Ying doesn’t look much like the Yiling Patriarch now, though. He looks tired, mostly, the white of Lan Wangji’s underrobe peeking through at his collar, the red end of his ribbon fraying slightly. Lan Wangji watches him wrinkle his nose, ruining the delicate slope of it, watches where his incisor catches slightly on his bottom lip, the rose-pink flush of pressure. The students are still shuffling closer, almost despite themselves, drawn in by Wei Ying’s enthusiasm, the questions they have never before thought to ask. Lan Wangji remembers, suddenly, that Wei Ying had always thought he would be Head Disciple at Yunmeng Jiang. That he would spend his life amongst bright, curious young people, with heads full of dreams and misconceptions and ridiculous questions. It would have been a good life for him. Perhaps Lan Wangji can give him that, in some way. Perhaps that will be a kind of redemption. Something close to enough.

8.

Wen Qing writes. If Jiang Cheng had found time to think about it (and that’s what he’s sticking to, there hasn’t been time, it’s not anything else) he wouldn’t have thought the Wens would be allowed to write. It’ll have been read, of course. You don’t address anything to Cloud Recesses without assuming at least three different Lans will have their sticky fingers all over your letter first. Still. A letter from Wen Qing. Who Jiang Cheng had last seen as a shape in the Burial Mounds, somebody in his peripheral vision at whom he could not directly look. She’d been watching him then. Wary. A wariness he deserved, perhaps, but one that grated at him all the same. And now she’s written to him, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t open the letter for two days. He’s busy. He’s busy, and there are piles of official correspondence to read that require his attention far more urgently.

By the time he does, it is battered. Folded at the edges where he’d shoved it to the bottom of the pile. He opens it quickly, movements brisk. Scans the opening lines, the formal greetings, all exactly correct. As they should be.

The letter doesn’t exactly say much, not on the face of it. She tells Jiang Cheng that the Wens are well, that they are grateful for the Emperor’s generosity and kindness, that she has begun to work alongside the Lan Sect healers. She says that Wei Wuxian’s duties keep him busy — and at that, Jiang Cheng pauses. Wei Wuxian has always found time to see his friends. Even when he was First Disciple he still found time to wend his way into town, to tease and play with the juniors, to taunt Jiang Cheng. Wen Qing writes that she makes offerings for their marriage. Wen Qing writes that she does not expect a response, but that she will continue to write. Perhaps, she wonders, if Wei-gongzi visits Lotus Pier, he might carry a letter then.

Jiang Cheng must write to his brother. Something is wrong, and he needs to come home.

9.

Three days later, Wei Ying has achieved a personal best of four uninterrupted hours of sleep, and Lan Wangji is beginning to feel a little ragged around the edges too. No amount of meditation is worth a good night’s sleep, and there’s only so much of the former he can manage to squeeze in anyway. He spends as much time as he can in the library, delving into texts that are more myth than medicine, and when he closes his eyes at night it’s those illustrations he sees: black-ink wraiths, decimated golden cores, people utterly lost to the ravages of resentful energy. Wei Ying is not lost, not yet, not the way Lan Wangji had feared he would be during the Sunshot Campaign, but his pale face and darting eyes offer little in the way of comfort.

Lan Wangji will keep searching, whatever it takes.

In the meantime, in order to bring back a little of the light to Wei Ying’s life, Lan Wangji has decided that it is important that Wei Ying finds his way back to the Wens. He has tried bringing up A-Yuan, but every time he does so Wei Ying goes quiet for a moment, and then immediately says something provoking and wonderful and entirely unrelated that makes it clear that, whatever his reasons for not visiting A-Yuan, they are utter nonsense. When Wei Ying has good reasons, foundations for his actions, he is not afraid to make them known. Lan Wangji thinks of a classroom years ago, of Wei Ying standing up for the Wens at the conference, thinks of what he had said to Jiang Wanyin when going to Lan Wangji’s aid at Nightless City. If there was a good reason, a reason not twisted up in the inexplicable way he thinks of his own pain and needs, Lan Wangji would already know it. There might even be footnotes.

At the earliest opportunity then, whilst walking back from lessons, he asks Wei Ying about the practical application of the binding talisman during night hunts, which sets him happily chattering away, and uses his distraction to steer him out towards the Wen enclave. A-Yuan is playing outside, sifting soil through his little hands, and Wei Ying comes to an abrupt stop.

“Xian-gege!” A-Yuan is already standing up, running towards them. “And, rich-gege —” he blushes, more aware of who Lan Wangji is, five years later. “I mean, Your Royal Highness.” He drops into a bow, more graceful than Lan Wangji expected. He’s not a tall seven-year-old — will likely never grow into his full height, given what the previous five years of his life consisted of — but he looks sturdy nevertheless, his cheeks still round, eyes crinkling up into crescents.

“Ah, A-Yuan. Are you trying to grow yourself more siblings?” Wei Ying’s cheer sounds forced, and when Lan Wangji glances at him, he’s biting at the inside of his cheeks, jaw tense. A-Yuan screws up his face and, forgetting his momentary fear of Lan Wangji, leans forwards and bats at Wei YIng’s forearm.

“Xian-gege, I’m too old for that now. Babies don’t come from the ground!”

“No?” Wei Ying taps at his nose, thoughtful. “Are you sure? But where did I get you from, then? I could swear I grew you myself.” He turns to Lan Wangji, eyes crinkling up in mischief. “Lan Zhan, where do you think babies come from?”

Lan Wangji feels his ears flush, and steadfastly refuses to meet Wei Ying’s eyes. Wei Ying has no way of knowing that Lan Wangji spends a lot of time thinking about exactly that. Well, not exactly that, but close enough.

“Your Royal Highness?” A-Yuan asks, shuffle-hopping towards Lan Wangji instead. He has clearly decided Lan Wangji is more trustworthy than Wei Ying, and Wei Ying pouts. Lan Wangji was right to bring him here, despite the lingering reticence in his frame.

“Love,” he manages, eventually. A-Yuan’s eyes grow big, and he nods solemnly.

“Mmmmm that makes sense,” he declares. “Xian-gege, what’s your favourite bug?”

“Bees. I like honey —”

“I like silkworms! Tang jie says if I’m very good I can maybe have a silkworm as a pet! Also I can plant things by myself now!”

“You are not attending school?” Lan Wangji had suspected as much, last time they’d visited, but even so.

“Um. No? Tang jie is teaching me to write though! I can write my name! And tang jie’s, and tang xiong’s, and, and a bunch more! And I can do archery! I can hit the target from, from really far now, and I know all about herbs! Ask me about herbs!”

“That is very impressive.” Lan Wangji says gently. Wei Ying is blinking, looking slightly dazed. “Would you like to attend school?”

“Hmmmm I don’t know. I’ve never been. What is it like?”

“You would be able to learn many new things. And there would be other children there, of your age.”

A-Yuan’s mouth drops open, and he nods hard.

“Ah, A-Yuan, let’s go find Qing-jie, yeah? And you can remind me how to plant radishes, it’s been so long I’ve completely forgotten, so you’ll have to show me very carefully, OK?” Wei Ying scoops up A-Yuan with the same automatic ease he had when A-Yuan was five years younger, A-Yuan’s arms coming up easily to loop around his neck.

“We don’t plant radishes, Xian-gege! But I’ll show you. You’ve been gone for so long, tang jie said you were getting married but it took a very long time so don’t do that again, OK?”

“I don’t plan on doing so.”

“Good! Good, tang jie, tang jie, look, look, Xian-gege is back!”

“So I see.” Wen Qing stands with her hands on her hips in the doorway. “Finally remembered your maternal duties?”

“Ah, don’t —” Wei Ying bounces A-Yuan in his arms. “It’s been a very long time since this one called me Mama, so quick to forget how I grew him by my very own self, so quick to forget —”

“He has not forgotten you.”

“Ah. I know. I know. I’m sorry, Qing-jie. I thought —”

Wen Qing reaches out, and smacks Wei Ying on the arm.

“I know what you thought. And it’s nonsense. You belong here, too, A-Ying.”

Wei Ying laughs weakly, jostles A-Yuan until he rubs Wei Ying’s arm for him, rolling his eyes. It’s clearly a familiar routine, and Lan Wangji’s chest aches. Another home that Wei YIng feels uncertain of, another thing this marriage has robbed him of.

A-Yuan is wriggling in Wei Ying’s arms, so he crouches down, lets him go, taps him on the head and tells him to fetch his writing. As soon as he’s gone, he ducks Wen Qing’s second swipe and turns to Lan Wangji, reproachful.

“Lan Zhan, you shouldn’t promise him things he can’t have. This isn’t as simple as buying him toys in the market, you know?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head stubbornly.

“He is bright. He should be in school, with the others.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan. You know as well as I do that they will never let a Wen study cultivation with the children of Gusu Lan.”

Lan Wangji says nothing. A-Yuan is smart, that much is apparent, and, if he is anything like his cousins, will be a gifted cultivator. And he is a child, and children deserve to learn.

“A-Ning and I have discussed this.” Wen Qing says, her voice careful. “We want him to have the best. If there is a way — even if it requires giving him up — we will consider it.”

“Wen Qing!”

“He deserves the best. I wanted to talk to you about this weeks ago, Wei Ying, but you’ve been —”

“He deserves the best,” Wei Ying repeats, and this time the inflection makes it clear he is not talking about school. Wen Qing rolls her eyes, the perfect match for A-Yuan’s earlier action.

“He is your son, Xian-di, in all but name. And perhaps he should be in name, also.”

“I —” Wei Ying turns to Lan Wangji, hands spread out in front of him as if reaching.

“If Wei Ying wishes. He is a good child. I, too, believe he deserves the best.”

“Lan Zhan —”

“Think about it.” Wen Qing says shortly, and turns back to greet the returning A-Yuan, smile firmly in place.

“Did you mean it?” Wei Ying puts down his chopsticks, and rests his hands on the table. “The thing you said the other day, to Wen Qing. About A-Yuan.”

“I mean everything I say.”

“It would be — children are messy, and loud, and they ask questions all the time, and it’s not like your students, you can’t just wash your hands of them at the end of the day, and the Wens will still be his family, and people already think you’ve lost your mind, marrying me, if you adopt a Wen they’ll think you’re corrupted, too, and —”

Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows slightly. Slowly, pointedly, he looks around the jingshi, at Wei Ying’s scattered notes, at where his robes are flung over the privacy screen, at the tangle of Wei Ying’s ribbons on the blanket chest. Returns his gaze to Wei Ying, holds it there.

“I do not mind.”

Wei Ying buries his head in his hands, and groans, long and loud. Lan Wangji does his best to ignore the curl of heat in his stomach at the sound.

“Alright, then. You’ll have to speak to the Emperor. Again. He’s going to start thinking I’m more trouble than I’m worth. Well, maybe not start, but it will certainly cement his opinion.”

“You are no trouble.”

“Lan Zhan, you have to stop. You have to stop being nice to me. I told you before, there’s really no need. You don’t have to keep face when it’s just us”

Lan Wangji purses his lips. All he can keep doing is telling Wei Ying the truth and hope that, one day, he believes it.

“I like that he’s not scared of you,” Wei Ying says, after a moment, muffled by his arms.

“Mn?”

“A-Yuan. And your students, too. There’s so much — stuff, around you, being Prince. They should be scared of you, even the ones with Imperial blood. But they aren’t, you’ve made sure of that. You’re good with them. With him.”

“You were not scared of me.”

“Ah, no, but I’m an idiot. Everyone kept trying to make me, but you were so much fun I didn’t want to waste any time being scared.”

“I am glad.”

Are you scared of me now? Lan Wangji wants to ask, but that’s the wrong question. Was Wei Ying scared, perhaps, at the thought of marrying Lan Wangji. He shares his bed now, but that’s so it’s easier to be shaken awake from his nightmares. Other than those fleeting, rough touches, they sleep stiffly apart. Wei Ying used to touch him in ways that Lan Wangji had never been touched — a casual arm slung over his shoulders, an elbow to the ribs, a tug to the loose tendrils of his hair. Lan Wangji aches for it, wants to do what A-Yuan does when he wants affection, or when he feels like he’s not being paid attention to: wants to tap Wei Ying on the nearest available limb until he relents and lets Lan Wangji crawl into his lap.

“The nightmares have not improved,” he says, instead, knowing that Wei Ying will flinch and try to deflect. He is tired of letting him. “Wen Qing says her sleeping draughts are not effective.”

“Aiya, Lan Zhan, are you teaming up with Wen Qing behind my back now?”

“If necessary.”

Wei Ying huffs out a laugh, rubs his cheek up against his own arm.

“I see how it is. No, they’re not better. I don’t think —”

“Do you feel safe?”

“With you? Of course.”

He says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and something in Lan Wangji eases with it. That isn’t quite what he meant, though. He reaches a hand out, and dares to lay it along Wei Ying’s forearm, just brushing his wrist. Wei Ying slips his elbow outwards, lets it rest on his own hand, instead.

“Here, in the Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Ying thumps his head against the table so that Lan Wangji cannot see his face. That means not really. That the truth is a little too complicated for Wei Ying to simply lie and say “yes, of course!”.

“I feel safe with you,” he says, to the table. “And with the Wens. And I am glad —” a heavy sigh “I am glad you bullied me into seeing A-Yuan. I think he could be happy here. But I don’t trust Meng Yao, and — ah, Lan Zhan, I trust Zewu-Jun’s heart, but —”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji lifts his shaking hand, and rests it, very lightly on top of Wei Ying’s hair. His head is warm, comforting, like finding a sun-warmed patch of earth on which to read. His hair is finer than Lan Wangji’s own, no natural curl to it, and Lan Wangji strokes it gently, running the filament strands through his fingers. Wei Ying makes a humming noise in the back of his throat, a little like a purr, and presses into the touch.

That night, when they both startle awake, Wei Ying reaches for Lan Wangji’s hands. Their bodies are still curved apart, but he clasps their fingers together, hides his shaking hands inside Lan Wangji’s grip.

“I see their faces,” he whispers. Lan Wangji rubs his thumb across Wei Ying’s knuckles. “Not even the people I killed, Lan Zhan, that’s the worst thing. That would — make sense. That would be normal. I see the faces of the people I failed to kill. The spirits — they asked me if I wanted revenge, and I did. But they wanted revenge too, and I didn’t give it to them. Not enough. Not what they wanted, and it’s —” he grits his teeth, and Lan Wangji can hear the sick chalk-slide scrape of it echo in the dark.

“You owe them nothing.”

“That’s not quite how they saw it.”

Lan Wangji dares to shuffle slightly closer, to touch the top of his knees to Wei Ying’s, which are drawn up against his chest.

“Did it help, when I played Cleansing?”

“Not really. Wen Qing was right about that. It’s nice, but it doesn’t do anything. We haven’t — she’s been trying, too. But whilst I still have to use it, there’s nothing that helps. Although — it’s different, now. They don’t quite want revenge anymore. It feels less like a ‘they’, somehow, less — I don’t know what to do with it, anymore. Like we’ve run out of purpose, almost. Ah, Lan Zhan, I know exactly what face you are pulling.” Wei Ying pulls one hand free, and reaches across to poke at the minute furrow between Lan Zhan’s eyebrows. He doesn’t quite get it the first time, and his fingers skim across Lan Zhan’s forehead and the delicate skin underneath one eyebrow, leaving searing heat in their wake. Wei Ying presses his thumb into the divot until it disappears.

“Good boy.” His voice is soft. “Don’t worry about me, Lan Zhan. I’ve lasted this long, haven’t I? And I’ve got you now.”

“You should have had me before.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan. Wen Qing was right. What good would that have done?”

“You heard us?”

“Mmm. Silly boy, getting yourself worked up like that about me. Would have thought you would have been glad of the quiet! Instead you ended up getting us married.”

“It was not my idea.” This seems important. Wei Ying should know that Lan Wangji did not want him like this: tethered, another weapon in the armoury. It is, somehow, the wrong thing to say. Wei Ying’s hand falls from his face, and he tugs the other one from Lan Wangji’s grasp. He laughs, a sound like a skipping stone that does not touch any part of the heart of him, and rolls over.

“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan, I’m not getting any ideas. I’m just glad they didn’t marry me off to a Jin, that’s all.”

It takes Lan Wangji a very long time to fall asleep, after that.

Xichen is suspiciously amenable to the idea of A-Yuan attending school with the Lan disciples. Lan Wangji suspects a combination of lingering guilt over the tiger corpses and A-Yuan’s chubby cheeks are to thank for this — Xichen had visited the Wens and met A-Yuan for himself, and been utterly and thoroughly charmed, as is only correct.

“He will have to become a Lan, officially,” he’d told Wen Qing, who had nodded, face utterly still. He will not be an Imperial Lan — Lan Wangji had asked, foolish in his fondness, but there is no possibility of Xichen risking the succession thusly — but he will be a Lan, accepted and with all the rights that affords, and Lan Wangji can only hope that will be enough. Wei Ying had been quiet when he’d told him, and Lan Wangji had wanted to turn around and ask again, to keep asking, to remove himself from the succession if that is what it took. Xichen would have said no, again. It would have grieved him to keep saying it, but he has always been more born of duty than Lan Wangji, and Wei Ying was right that the sects would be afraid of any child of the Yiling Patriarch. There is no point in A-Yuan swapping one kind of fear for another.

“You will always be his family, Qing-jie,” Wei Ying had said, when they’d spoken to her, and Wen Qing had nodded again, and quietly called him an idiot, and bowed very low to Xichen, and that had been that. Now A-Yuan sits before Lan Wangji in his white robes, sleeves a little long to allow for his hopeful future growth spurt, and looks very seriously up at him.

“You can come back whenever you want, A-Yuan,” Wen Ning tells him softly. “It will be good for you to make friends with the other children, but we are always here.”

“You have to be good. Promise tang jie you will be good.”

A-Yuan nods, and promises. Wei Ying is smiling very big and very wide and hoping that nobody will notice that his eyes are wet, and that he hugs A-Yuan very tight indeed. It is especially ridiculous, given that the student’s quarters are in the adjacent part of the Palace to the jingshi, but Lan Wangji thinks he understands. A-Yuan looks very grown-up in white, and he feels a little like crying, too. It is good that A-Yuan is loved to the point of ridiculousness. A-Yuan taps Wen Ning on the knee, and opens his arms, and Wen Ning sweeps him upwards, presses his face into A-Yuan’s hair.

“He will be well looked after.” Wen Qing says, half-threat, half-plea.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nods, and holds out his own arms, settles A-Yuan on his hip. He will not make A-Yuan walk away from his family on unsteady legs. He should know there is love for him within the Palace, too.

“A-Yuan!” Wei Ying stands behind Lan Wangji so that A-Yuan can easily look at him, places his hands on top of A-Yuan’s on Lan Wangji’s shoulders, four points of pinioned warmth. “A-Yuan, I’ve done some scouting, and there is one boy who is almost exactly your age, isn’t that cool! He’s called Lan Jingyi, and he gets into trouble almost as much as your Xian-gege did, so I have very high hopes for him. Do you think he will be a good friend for you?”

“Maybe I can teach him the rules?”

A-Yuan sounds very shy. They’ve been working hard at catching up before he joins the main class, and he’s memorised a remarkable number of the rules already, despite Wei Ying pulling faces in the corner.

“I think that sounds like a very good idea,” Lan Wangji tells him. “Are you ready to go?”

A-Yuan nods against his shoulder, and Lan Wangji turns, so that Wei Ying’s arm ends up draped along his back, still holding A-Yuan’s hand. He keeps it there as they walk to the student’s quarters, as they drop A-Yuan off there. He only lets it fall after A-Yuan has disappeared, waving to them before reaching up to hold the hand of the Dorms Supervisor.

“Ah, you should have said something. I keep — forgetting.” Wei Ying says. His eyes are dark, when they flick up to meet Lan Zhan’s, but then he is shaking his own arm out and failing to notice the shiver Lan Wangji does not manage to suppress at the sudden loss of warmth, and the moment is gone.

He is already speeding away before Lan Wangji can ask him what he keeps forgetting. It is forbidden to run within the Cloud Recesses Palace, and he does not try to catch him up.

The post comes every morning, piles and piles of letters that have already been sorted through for threats and curses (and anything of a lewd nature, although Lan Wangji tries not to think very much about that particular category) and yet still seem endless. Tucked into them, as often as not, are letters from Wei Ying’s siblings. From Nie Huaisang, too, although he is an irregular correspondent, and more often sends notes tucked into pamphlets and trinkets than actual letters. Lan Wangji is not surprised, then, to see a letter addressed to Wei Ying slipped in between missives from minor sect leaders, and hands it over without thinking much more about the matter. It is only Wei Ying’s little hitching gasp, quickly suppressed, that makes him turn around, hands already coming up to reach out for him.

“Wei Ying?”

“It’s — ah, it’s fine, Lan Zhan, don’t look so worried. It’s from shijie. They wanted to let me know that they’ve picked a date for the wedding. The Jins have agreed to the wedding settlement at last. They went to the best fortune teller in Yunmeng, that’s good.” Wei Ying is looking slightly dazed. Lan Wangji thinks about what Jiang Wanyin had been like about Wei Ying’s wedding: focused, wildly passionate about the smallest detail. Thinks about how much Wei Ying loves his shijie, and about how he’d never expected to leave Lotus Pier.

“Would you like to go? The preparations must be time-consuming.” He stops short of saying Jiang Wanyin will be pleased to have Wei Ying there, unsure of how close that is to the truth.

“Could the Emperor spare you?”

It takes Lan Wangji a moment to process the apparent non-sequitur. He’d meant to give Wei Ying space to see his family, to spend time being home, without the looming threat of his own nuptials. But Wei Ying had said it with such hope —

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, resolving to make it true. It would be prudent, after all, to insure he is amicable with his new in-laws. Would be a polite overture, to extend the official Imperial blessing to the wedding between Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan. And if it lets him keep a closer eye on a union between two of the most powerful sects in China, then that is all to the better. Xichen can hardly complain that Lan Wangji has finally taken an interest in politics.

Wei Ying smiles. It’s his truest smile, the one he wears when he is so overspilling with joy that he can’t help himself, the one that lights up his whole face, rippling outwards so that his eyes scrunch up and his cheeks push out. Lan Wangji has not seen it for such a long time, and he cannot help smiling back, relishing the tug of the unfamiliar curve to his own lips. Wei Ying sways towards Lan Wangji for a moment, something light and hopeful in his eyes, and then settles back on his heels.

“I’m going to show you all the best places,” Wei Ying promises him. “Lan Zhan, we can do so much swimming! And I’ll pick you the best lotus pods, and you’ll get to meet shijie, properly I mean, and she’s so good, and calm too, and she does the bitchy mean politeness thing that you do, it’s terrifying, I’m glad you’ve never teamed up against me, really, you’ll wonder why I was the one you had to end up with.”

“Jiang Wanyin will also be there.”

Wei Ying laughs, cackling and undignified.

“Aiya, well, yes, that might help my case, I suppose. Did you argue about the wedding, Lan Zhan?”

“I believe he was very particular.”

There’s a brief pause, a moment in which Lan Wangji knows he has revealed too much about the choices that he did not get to make, and then Wei Ying sighs, and laughs again, fonder this time, his eyes soft. He reaches over, and Lan Wangji thinks he means to clap him on the shoulder, and suddenly cannot stand the thought, catches Wei Ying’s hand in mid-air instead. Tangles their fingers together. Wei Ying’s thin, scarred fingers entangled with his bolt-knuckled, calloused ones. Harboured and harbouring.

“I look forward to seeing your home.”

Wei Ying’s smile is smaller this time, a sheltered bay, quiet and homely. The time has long passed since Lan Wangji has been ashamed of the way he hoards knowledge of Wei Ying’s every facial expression. He is so glad that this one has returned.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying leans forwards in the litter, and props his elbows up on Lan Wangji’s knees, sharp points that dig into the muscle. “Lan Zhan, do you hate this?”

Lan Wangji looks back at him, nonplussed. Wei Ying flicks his eyes around the litter, around the plush fabric and ornate decoration, and then pointedly to Bichen, resting at Lan Wangji’s side. Lan Wangji forces his face to stay still, to betray nothing at being so known. Yes, he would much prefer to travel by sword, Wei Ying pressed to his side, perhaps curled under his cloak to protect him from the cold, the hot line of his body and the rush of the wind. Unfortunately, an official visit from the prince and his new husband necessitates slightly more formal transportation, and an entourage, however claustrophobic Lan Wangji finds the experience.

“Mn,” he says, as neutrally as he can manage. Wei Ying grins, wicked, and collapses his elbows so that his chin is propped up on Lan Wangji’s legs instead, his back a straight line across the gap between the seats. Lan Wangji does his best not to think about the flexibility and core strength Wei Ying is exhibiting so casually, and looks out the window at the blue-green-brown blur of fields and paths and sky. It is hard to pretend there is anything of interest in the landscape at all when he can see Wei Ying in his peripheral vision, the wide, kissable press of his lips and his laughing eyes. Wei Ying licks his lips, not looking away from Lan Wangji at all, and sits up.

“Don’t fret, Lan Zhan, I’ll keep you distracted.”

“I have brought correspondence with me.”

“Ugh, of course you have. His Royal Highness, always so diligent. Will there be any time for fun at all, Lan Zhan?”

“I will make time.”

“Ah, the best prince, the best husband. Is there anything Hanguang-Jun can’t do?”

Wei Ying is joking, of course. Does not mean what he says, is exaggerating, could probably reel off a list of things Lan Wangji cannot do. Cannot joke, cannot drink, cannot flirt the way Wei Ying does, with open-handed charm. Lan Wangji thinks of Mianmian for the first time in years, and has to bite the inside of his mouth to stop himself from frowning. Mianmian, when Wei Ying is right there, biteable neck and thin wrists, and eyebrows and smile, the smartest, most infuriating person Lan Wangji has ever met. Who is married to him now, he reminds himself, upon feeling the rage of his younger self rise again. Mianmian is married too, he thinks, to someone from outside the sects. Lan Wangji is, at least, now safe from that particular misaccusation.

Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli are waiting for them at the entrance to Lotus Pier, flanked by a parade of Yunmeng Jiang disciples in purple. Wei Ying scrambles out of the carriage as soon as it comes to a halt and pelts through the ranks of disciples, throwing himself into his sister’s arms. She’s laughing, pinching his cheeks and ruffling his hair, and Jiang Wanyin scowls, failing to school his expression back to neutral by the time Lan Wangji makes his way to them at a more sedate pace.

“Your Royal Highness.” He bows, and Jiang Yanli nudges Wei Ying to the side so that she can bow too. And then Wei Ying bows also, stood in a row with his sect siblings, hair falling in his face, and grinning when he straightens up. Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes, and steps forward to lead Lan Wangji into Lotus Pier.

“We will be honoured if Your Royal Highness will take tea with us. You must be in need of refreshment after your long journey.” The words are rote, stiff and correct, and Lan Wangji knows they are necessary, that Jiang Wanyin cannot lose face in front of him, but still hopes that, for Wei Ying’s sake, Jiang Wanyin will relax at some point during their visit. Perhaps when he realises that Lan Wangji has only the slightest of ulterior motives.

It seems unlikely, however, when, as soon as the tea is served and everyone has taken their requisite sips, Jiang Wanyin frowns at Wei Ying across the table.

“You look terrible,” he says, baldly.

“A-Cheng! It’s been a long journey, that’s all.” Jiang Yanli smiles, soft and placatory, and makes meaningful eye contact with Jiang Wanyin.

“‘’stoo thin,” Jiang Wanyin mumbles defiantly. He’s young still, they all are, but it’s particularly obvious like this, wide-eyed and waiting for his sister to step in again. He’d been a force of nature in the lead up to the wedding, and Lan Wangji can only imagine what he’s had to do to get Lotus Pier standing again, to have this many disciples at his beck and call, but being with Wei Ying seems to undo all of that. Lan Wangji can understand that, at least, albeit from a slightly different angle.

“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying laughs awkwardly, fidgets with his cup. “Don’t be silly. It’s just been a busy couple of months, after all.”

Jiang Wanyin’s gaze narrows, turns assessing, accusatory. Switches to Lan Wangji.

“Jiang Cheng! Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, ignore him. That’s just what his face looks like. It got stuck like that when we were children, deeply tragic, but there we go.”

“We mean no disrespect.” Jiang Yanli’s voice is even, but Lan Wangji sees a hint of his own steel in it, the sharp edge to what she is saying. “I’m sure the hospitality of the Imperial Family has been exemplary. We hoped to see Wei Ying looking a little better, but recovery is a long road.”

“I’m fine! I’m fine, shijie, don’t worry about me. Lan Zhan puts up with me wonderfully, and A-Yuan is doing so well at school, and everything — Lan Zhan! Tell shijie I’m fine!”

Lan Wangji says nothing, just does his best to make meaningful eye contact with Jiang Yanli until she nods back in understanding. Wei Ying pouts at them both, hits Lan Wangji’s leg where it’s hidden by the table, and then flinches, which hurts worse than the punch. Lan Wangji wonders what Jiang Wanyin would do if he held Wei Ying’s hand. There isn’t a lot he could do, probably, which is the first time the power of being a prince has held much appeal at all.

“Anyway!” Wei Ying says pointedly. “I’m here now, so you can cook for me and make sure I’m eating, and I can stop Jiang Cheng from yelling at the dressmakers, and I can flirt with all the women at the stalls so that they — ahhh, Jiang Cheng, don’t look at me like that! Lan Zhan isn’t going to get jealous over me, that would be most unbecoming.”

This is such an astoundingly absurd statement that Lan Wangji cannot speak for quite some time. Eventually, he manages to ask to be shown to their rooms. Just before the servant leads them away, Jiang Wanyin catches Wei Ying’s arm.

“Your old room is available. If — if you want it.”

It is just on the border of acceptable — this is Jiang Wanyin’s home, and he probably assumes they sleep separately in the Palace, as is customary, but he should have asked Lan Wangji first. Wei Ying looks anxiously between them, edging slightly closer to Lan Wangji.

“I — thank you, Jiang Cheng, but, really, it’s easier if —”

Lan Wangji reaches down and fits their hands together. Strange, how this has become second nature so quickly, how he doesn’t need to look to know exactly how they will intertwine, exactly where Wei Ying’s hand falls in relation to his own. Jiang Wanyin looks oddly satisfied, and gives Lan Wangji a sharp nod.

The room is cool, breezy where it looks out upon the water. It does not seem to help with the nightmares.

 

10.

It may have been an impolitic thing to say, but Jiang Cheng hadn’t been wrong. Wei Wuxian looks terrible, gaunt and hollow-eyed — almost exactly as bad, in fact, as when Jiang Cheng had first brought him back from the Burial Mounds. Worse than he’d expected, even after reading Wen Qing’s letter. He turns to jiejie, fists already clenched, his chest twisting when he sees the concern in her eyes.

“It was supposed to make things better.” He sounds petulant, he knows, like a child. Like the younger brother Wei Wuxian will always see him as, not quite capable of facing the darkest things. A-jie wraps her arms around herself.

“He’s not sleeping. He’s put on weight, though.”

Jiang Cheng gapes at her. Wei Wuxian’s cheekbones are sharp slashes across his face, the shelf-dip of his collarbone visible every time his robe shifted. She’s right though, he realises. He’s still thinking of Wei Wuxian as he was before the war, the last vestiges of puppy fat still clinging to his face, not as he has been these last few years: skeletal, eyes too old for even that face, like he had no memory of youth at all. Jiang Cheng has forgotten a lot of things, in the last five years. Forgotten how Wei Ying speaks to Lan Wangji, how he says his name like it’s punctuation, like it’s the subject marker of every sentence. He should have been executed by all rights, daring to address the Second Jade like that, and perhaps it is Jiang Cheng’s initial astonishment at Wei Ying’s survival that has carried him through the last five years, unable to believe that his shixiong will not surprise them all once more. He’s scowling again, he knows. Jiejie lays a soft arm on his hand, puts her head on his shoulder.

“You don’t think —” It’s treason to even voice it, but Jiang Cheng would do worse for his brother. “The Prince wouldn’t hurt him.”

“No. No, A-Cheng.” She knows better than to say ‘he’s not like that,’ but Jiang Cheng can see her thinking it anyway. Wishes he still had that kind of faith in anyone.

“That’s not how A-Xian looks at people who hurt him,” she says, eventually. Jiang Cheng tries not to think about what’s laced through that. The understanding that they both know exactly what that looks like.

He nods, shortly. The world doesn’t stop just because Wei Wuxian and his noble husband have deigned to pay a visit. There are still drills to run, accounts to look after, town leaders to placate. Jiejie’s wedding to finish planning. It’s to be held here, at least, so the Jin Sect can only interfere minimally. A-jie is helping, of course — if there’s anyone who can sweet talk the most miserly of seamstresses it’s her, and the Jin Sect are far more interested in keeping her happy than they are in answering Jiang Cheng’s increasingly strident demands for clarity on the guest list — but still. It’s a lot of work. He wonders, distantly, if Wei Wuxian meant it. That he would help. It is difficult to imagine this Wei Wuxian, who still wears darkness as a cloak even in the midst of laughter, buying ribbons and place-settings and trinkets for the guests.

He’s focused on the image of that even as he strides through Lotus Pier, heading out to the practice courtyards. He’s proud of what they’ve managed to achieve with the new Jiang disciples, but he doesn’t want to give Lan Wangji any reason to — well, it’s difficult to tell exactly what his face is doing, ever, but Jiang Cheng remembers all too well the general aura of ‘unimpressed’ he’d exuded during their days at the Cloud Recesses, and he doesn’t think he could take that here. The disciples are already moving through their sword forms. The Yunmeng Jiang style looks almost graceful like this, slowed down, arms moving in syrupy swings.

There’s a dark figure in the corner, watching them.

Jiang Cheng has his hand on his sword before he can process what he’s seeing, before the shape can resolve itself into Wei Wuxian, curled in on himself, biting down on one knuckle as he watches.

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng calls, just to see the way Wei Wuxian startles, dropping his hand and looking across. The way his shoulders relax and then tense again when he sees Jiang Cheng. He deserves that, he knows. It doesn’t make it hurt any less.

“Did you want to join in?”

Wei Wuxian walks over to him, ignoring the wary looks some of the newest disciples are beginning to throw him. The ones who didn’t know him before, who never knew him as Wei-qianbei, to whom he is more myth than anything else.

“No sword,” Wei Wuxian shrugs.

“They haven’t made you start carrying it?”

“Ah, Jiang Cheng. Who cares about the sword, anymore. That’s hardly the thing people object to most.” He twirls Chenqing pointedly. It looks ridiculous. He looks ridiculous. It’s a weapon, not a toy.

“So you won’t join?” He can’t seem to stop himself from asking again. Like things would be different, somehow, if Wei Wuxian would pick up Suibian, would spar with Jiang Cheng like he used to, graceful and laughing and always better than him. So good it forced Jiang Cheng to be better. He thinks he’s stronger than he was then. His reflexes better, his sword lighter in his hand somehow. He wonders if he could beat Wei Wuxian. If that would make things different. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, claps him on the back.

“I want to see what you’ve been doing! See what all your hard work has been about. They look good, Jiang Cheng. Not as good as we did, at their age, of course, but then, who does?” He’s not smiling when he says it, not properly, but Jiang Cheng thinks it might be true. It would be easy to roll his eyes, to practice until the sweat drips down his face and ignore whatever it is that Wei Wuxian might be thinking, but he will be here for weeks. Until jiejie’s wedding, at which point they are expected to present a united front. Jiang Cheng did not break his back organising the wedding of the decade to let the Jins believe they are anything other than beloved martial brothers, not now.

“Suit yourself. You should make yourself useful though. You see that kid in the corner?”

He points, and Wei Wuxian follows his finger to where Jiang Zhuang is swinging his sword in wild circles, liable to cut someone’s head off at any moment. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen.

“Yeah, exactly. He’s got the strength in spades, but nothing we’ve done can get him to remember the footwork. There’s no harm in letting you loose on him.”

It’s a clear invitation. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Wei Wuxian says no, and feels the relief spiral through him when Wei Wuxian grins and rubs his hands together. It’s hard to concentrate completely on the other disciples for the rest of the session when he can hear Wei Wuxian’s cackling laugh, the softness in his voice when he corrects mistakes, see the glimpse of spinning ponytail when he’s demonstrating the footwork Jiang Zhuang finds so inexplicably impossible. He forces himself onwards, however, keeps going until at least three of the juniors are collapsed, panting on the ground, and his own breathing comes shallow and fast. Wei Wuxian wonders over, smacks him on the back and pushes a jug of water under his nose.

“Getting old?”

“Pah! Still younger than you. What was that nonsense you were teaching him, with the left leg?”

“Same nonsense I taught you when you couldn’t do it either. Ring any bells?”

Jiang Cheng splutters, and gets Wei Wuxian in a headlock, but his sweaty hair makes him too slippery, and he wriggles out of it, cavorts triumphantly around the courtyard. None of the disciples look scared of him now.

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng gestures at the pile of abandoned practice swords. Some of the juniors will get a stern talking-to later. “Make yourself useful.”

Wei Wuxian picks up less swords than he would have once. Perhaps he’s gotten lazy, cushioned safely in the Palace. Perhaps —

“Are you happy?”

It’s such an embarrassing thing to ask, bald and too obvious, and Wei Wuxian stumbles, almost drops the swords. He flushes, is about to say something, anything else, when Wei Wuxian answers.

“Right now? Of course, Jiang Cheng, who wouldn’t be happy to be bossed about by the great Sandu-Shengshou?”

He could let it go. It’s what Wei Wuxian expects, and the exact opposite of what a-jie would do.

“At the Palace. Does he make you happy?”

Wei Wuxian does drop the swords this time, a tinny cascade of metal and wood. He bends to pick them up, hands clumsy, dropping them again more often than not.

“It’s more complicated than that, Jiang Cheng. But I have everything I asked for. I have the Wens. A-Yuan is safe.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Jiang Cheng can see jiejie out of the corner of his eye. She starts to walk towards him, and he panics slightly.

“Wei Wuxian, if you are not happy —”

And then jiejie is there, bending down to help Wei Wuxian with the swords, giving Jiang Cheng a stern look.

“A-Cheng, he isn’t well. Xianxian, you shouldn’t have to pick the swords up if you’re still feeling unwell.”

Wei Wuxian pouts, and Jiang Cheng sighs. The moment is lost, then.

“Xianxian is three years old, and shouldn’t have to pick up swords at all! The swords are almost the same size as me!”

Jiejie nods solemnly, and reaches up one hand to tug Jiang Cheng down.

“All of us will help, then,” she says.

“He says his happiness is complicated.” Jiang Cheng tells her later. She smiles, takes the hand upon which Zidian sits.

“Isn’t everyone’s?”

 

11.

On the third morning of their visit, Wei Ying wakes up hard. He’d spent the first three days of their visit seesawing between being blushingly overwhelmed, which is terrible for Lan Wangji’s blood pressure, and defensively startled, which isn’t much better, but his movements are easier than they have been, his laughter more quick to sound, and when Lan Wangji wakes up on the third day, Wei Ying is plastered along his back, and he is unmistakably hard. Wei Ying has been inching closer to him, in sleep, since they arrived, but he has never — Lan Zhan is so carefully aware of his body, gazes upon it every morning, checking for bruises, watching the delicate line of his closed eyelids for flickering dream-movement, that he would have known if. If this had happened before.

He does not know what it means that it has happened now, and says nothing. Rises quietly as always, ducking behind the privacy screen and biting his arm to muffle his gasps as he finds his release. Repeats it all the next day, when he wakes with one of Wei Ying’s thighs between his, and a hand clenched in the back of his sleeping robe. It takes some time to disentangle himself, but it does nothing to quell his arousal, not when Wei Ying is so stubbornly reluctant to relinquish his hold.

As the fourth day fades into evening, Wei Ying looks up at Lan Wangji, mouth oddly sweet around the corners.

“Lan Zhan, shall we go swimming?”

“Mm.”

It is strange, to have sealed his own doom so comprehensively whilst saying so little, but Wei Ying looks delighted, and stands up from where he is sprawled on the floor, prodding Lan Wangji’s shoulder until he stands up, too.

“We should go now, the sun has been on the water all day and it will be the perfect temperature, nothing like the Cold Springs. Absolutely no healing properties at all, I promise, ha! Lan Zhan, are you good at swimming? Of course, you’re good at everything, but you didn’t grow up in Yunmeng, so this is the one area where I might have you beat — you can float though, right? Ah, you would look so handsome just floating along the river with all the lotuses, like a painting! Mostly Jiang Cheng and I just splashed each other when we swam together, but I’ll do my very best to refrain.”

"You need not."

Wei Ying splutters, ducks his head, slaps Lan Wangji’s arm cheerily as he recovers. He looks almost young, in this moment.

"You asked for it!"

All this whilst Wei Ying has been dragging Lan Wangji cheerfully along the shadow-drenched paths to one of the lakes that encircles Lotus Pier. Wei Ying skims a hand through the water, droplets spraying upward in an elegant curve. Lan Wangji bends down to dip his hands in too. Wei Ying was right: only the surface is truly warm, but even when Lan Wangji rolls up his sleeves and submerges himself to his elbows it is still pleasant, fresh and silky against his skin. Wei Ying has already shed his two top layers, and is kicking off his shoes, hands hovering at his waistband.

"Lan Zhan?" There's something like a challenge in his voice. "Are you going to swim like that?"

Lan Wangji begins the slow, methodical task of stripping himself of his layers. His wet hands slip on the ties. He thinks they might be shaking.

"Here, let me." Wei Ying bends his head, hair falling in his face as he unpicks the knots with deft, sure fingers. When Lan Wangji’s inner robe falls open, his chest bare, Wei Ying does not quite move his hand in time and his fingers skim the flushed skin of Lan Wangji’s stomach.

He jerks his hand away, spins and jumps into the water, knees tucked to his chest, water pluming upwards, all over Lan Wangji, leaving his parted inner robe soaked through and translucent. Lan Wangji scrabbles to pull it off, discarding it on the ground. In the water, Wei Ying has thrown himself backwards, hiding himself from Lan Wangji, nothing but blue lines in the deep.

Lan Wangji lowers himself into the water slowly, tries to let himself enjoy the way it flows around him, the immediate lightness, the way every movement is a propulsion. The water is not deep, not where he stands, and his toes sink into the mud. A little further out, Wei Ying is treading water, arms fanning across the surface of the lake, and Lan Wangji is preparing to wade out to him when Wei Ying looks down at his own arms and flinches, a sudden, rippling spasm that sends him falling backwards. For a second, Lan Wangji’s only thought is of water ghouls, and he is already tracing shining characters in the air when Wei Ying surfaces, spluttering slightly, and tries to smile.

“Lan Zhan, what are you doing? Were you worried about me? Silly boy, I told you I could swim, didn’t I? I was just — messing about.”

He must realise it’s unconvincing even as he says it, because he splashes Lan Wangji immediately. Lan Wangji closes his eyes against the wave, and takes a step forward, and then another one, and then pushes into a forward stroke, bringing him level with Wei Ying. Wei Ying’s eyes are very wide. He’s soaked through, water running in rivulets down his face and hair, his eyelashes clumped together in distinct triangles. Under the water, still visible in the pinking light of dusk, his arms look pale, distorted and fluttering like seaweed. It seems obvious that Lan Wangji must grab Wei Ying’s wrists in one hand, and bring them up into the air, into what remains of the light. Wei Ying resists as soon as he realises what Lan Wangji is doing, but Lan Wangji is stronger than him now (he ignores the guilty thrill at that; Wei Ying needs to eat more), and he slips his other arm around Wei Ying’s waist, stills his struggles.

He doesn’t realise what he is looking at, at first. The scratches on Wei Ying’s arms are not deep. The skin is barely broken. The same with the graze at his elbow, the nail marks in the palm of his hand. But the skin is broken all the same, and where there should be little, dipped lines of red, there is instead black. When Lan Wangji looks very close, bringing Wei Ying’s hands up so that his knuckles brush the bridge of his nose, he can see that the black is moving. Pulsing underneath Wei Ying’s skin, and when Lan Wangji runs his finger along the longest scratch, from wrist to elbow crease, the resentful energy licks up to meet him, whisper-thin tendril wrapping around his index finger. His grip loosens, and Wei Ying yanks his hands away immediately, pushes himself backwards, legs stretching palely outwards as he attempts to put as much distance between himself and Lan Wangji as possible.

“Wei Ying —” Lan Wangji begins, but Wei Ying is not listening. He’s breathing quickly, so harsh and loud that it is almost the only thing Lan Wangji can hear, as if every breath is being dredged up from the very bottom of his lungs, as if every scraping inhale is taking all his power to find. He has his eyes screwed tight shut, one hand twisting at the skin of his arm, even as his legs corkscrew wildly to keep him upright.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji leaps through the water, catches Wei Ying around the waist once again and pulls him to shore. Wei Ying does not open his eyes, does not move at all, except the heavy rise and fall of his chest, the cruelty to his own skin. He is a deadweight in Lan Wangji’s arms, his head lolling against Lan Wangji’s neck once they make it to solid ground. Lan Wangji pulls him up against his chest, grip loose, and rubs his shoulders, slow but firm.

“Wei Ying, I am here,” he tells him. “I am not leaving. I am not —” he is unsure, for a moment, what exactly Wei Ying’s reaction might have stemmed from. Thinks about the way Wei Ying had looked at him after the incident with the tiger, utterly defiant, daring him to be anything other than terrified. “I am not scared of you. I am not disgusted by you.”

Wei Ying takes a huge, shuddering breath, and shakes his head.

“I am not. I would not lie to you. I am astonished by your strength, and I am saddened by your suffering. Nothing else.”

Wei Ying lets go of his own arms, and reaches behind him for Lan Wangji’s hands. Lan Wangji gives them to him, and Wei Ying puts them over his own face. The heel of his hands sits on Wei Ying’s ears, his fingertips brushing his nose, the corner of his eyes.

“You should be,” Wei Ying says, mumbling it into the meat of Lan Wangji’s palm, his breath hot and damp.

“I am not sure how much use I have for ‘should’, anymore.”

Wei Ying shakes his head again, moving Lan Wangji’s hands with him. Lan Wangji shifts him a little closer, hopes Wei Ying can feel the thump of his heartbeat at his back.

“s’gross.”

“It is not.”

He wants to see Wei Ying’s face, but does not think Wei Ying will move.

“Is that what you meant,” he asks, as gently as he can manage with dread still pounding in his heart, “when you said you had not been able to stop using resentful energy?”

Wei Ying nods, very slowly.

“There’s nothing else. We tried, Wen Qing tried. But it should have killed me, Lan Zhan, the fall into the Burial Mounds. The last five years, really. This is the only thing keeping me alive.” And it’s killing me anyway he doesn’t say, but Lan Wangji hears it all the same. Wei Ying is shaking, his earlier tremors transmuted into shivers. The night air is cold, Lan Wangji realises. There is nothing heating Wei Ying up from the inside, no golden core to mitigate the effect of his wet trousers, or the dampness of his skin.

“I understand,” he tells Wei Ying. He presses a kiss to the crown of Wei Ying’s head, where his wet hair hangs from his skull, the skin beneath peeking through, vulnerable and pinking in the chill. It feels unspeakably daring, although it is the same kiss he would give a child, no heat to it. “It is cold. Let us return.”

Wei Ying’s legs are still shaky, and they walk slowly, snaking around the outskirts of Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji is not sure what Jiang Wanyin would say, were he to see Wei Ying like this. Would understand, for once, if he were to leap to anger. When Lan Wangji thinks of what Wei Ying has endured, he is not so far away from that himself.

They sit down on the bed together, pressed side to side. Very carefully, Lan Wangji picks up Wei Ying’s hands, and brings them to his lips. There is no mistaking his intent, this time. His heart in his mouth, he kisses along Wei Ying’s arm, up to the crease of his elbow.

“Lan Zhan —” Wei Ying’s voice is hoarse, his eyes wary and unsure, and Lan Wangji is so tired. So tired of that look in Wei Ying’s eyes, so tired of trying to hide what he feels, pretending to be anything other than that which he is.

“You are so brave.” Another kiss, pressed against the raw skin of Wei Ying’s knuckles. “I am in awe of you, Wei Ying. In awe of what you have accomplished, and of how you have survived.”

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying shakes his head, looking down. “Don’t, alright? I can’t — you don’t have to. It’s enough. This is enough, you don’t need to pretend.”

“The only pretending I have done is not telling you this more often, Wei Ying.” Wei Ying closes his eyes, and Lan Wangji lets go of his wrists, tips Wei Ying’s chin up with his forefinger. He will stop if Wei Ying wants him to stop, but he will not pretend. Wei Ying closes his eyes tighter.

“Lan Zhan, you’re too good.”

“Wei Ying is also good.”

“It’s not the same. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you have to stop touching me, I can’t — it’s too much. I want you too much, and I don’t want to —” he cuts himself off, looking abruptly furious, and Lan Wangji’s heart seizes in his chest. I want you too much, as if there has ever been a ‘too much’ when it comes to Wei Ying, when it comes to them both.

“I want you,” he says, low and intent. “Wei Ying, I have always wanted you. That will never change.”

“You’ve never said anything.” He sounds almost desperate, pleading.

“Wei Ying. I am the Imperial Prince. You married me out of necessity, not out of choice. Not the way I wish we had been married. I could not —”

Wei Ying laughs, strangled. There are tears beading on his eyelashes, squeezing out into pearls as he closes his eyes once more.

“I wanted you to. Or wanted to want anyway, I think. It’s been — It’s hard for me to remember, a lot of it. That first night. I thought — you were so distant, and respectful, and so good. I thought you hated me, for putting you in that position. I wanted you to have me, to want me, regardless of anything else. I hardly felt like myself, but I wanted your hands on me. To take whatever you wanted, Lan Zhan, to fuck me on our wedding bed until I screamed.”

His cheeks are flushed with the force of his own fantasy.

“I thought you hated me,” Lan Wangji says.

“I did, a little. I hated how good you were, when I felt like anything but.” He shakes his head. “I was hardly a person, when they brought me to you. I — I hardly knew if I could kiss, anymore, if I could — I knew you could fuck me, if nothing else. I’ve only just.” The heel of his hand presses against his own groin, and he sighs. “Well, you’ve felt that, right, the last two days? I thought you’d be disgusted, before. I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to want the way people should.”

Lan Wangji slides his hand upwards, cupping Wei Ying’s jaw. Tightens his grip when Wei Ying’s breath hitches.

“And now?”

“I thought — I thought, in the water. If you saw me, like that. Without all the rest of it. Cleaner. I’d forgotten — the scratches, they happen in my sleep, so I’d forgotten...”

“You were right.” He’s still holding Wei Ying’s jaw, tracing his fingers along the stretch of it, along the snap and pull of Wei Ying’s skin and muscles and teeth whenever he speaks. “I wanted you. But I always want you, Wei Ying.”

“Always?”

His voice wavers, unsure in a way that Wei Ying should never be.

“Sleeping next to you has been extremely difficult,” Lan Wangji says, watching the bloom of surprised mischief furl open on Wei Ying’s face, his eyes meeting Lan Wangji’s. He smirks, and Lan Wangji can take it no longer, leans down to taste that beautiful, insufferable expression that is all for him.

Wei Ying’s mouth is soft, his lips parting under Lan Wangji’s immediately, his hands coming up to grip at Lan Wangji’s back, to pull him closer. It doesn’t feel possible enough to get close enough to Wei Ying, even as Lan Wangji licks into his mouth, slides his other hand into Wei Ying’s tangled, damp hair, tilting his head for better access. He tugs Wei Ying up by his hair so that he’s on his knees, pulls him so that he crashes into Lan Wangji’s lap, barely giving him time to catch his breath before he fits their mouths together again. They’re the same height like this, giving Wei Ying the leverage he needs to kiss back with equal force, tongue slipping against the inside of Lan Wangji’s teeth, slick and wanting. He’s grinding a little, ass rubbing against Lan Wangji’s rapidly hardening cock. Lan Wangji wants.

“Wei Ying —?” he manages.

“Yepyepyep.” Wei Ying grinds down more purposefully, and then cocks his head. “You still want me, right?” he asks, a thread of real uncertainty underlying the fixed smirk. This cannot be allowed to stand. Lan Wangji lifts him off his lap with one move, and flings him on the bed, straddling him, allowing Wei Ying to feel the hard press of his cock against his own.

“Fuck, Lan Zhan, please —”

“What do you want?”

“Anything, just, gods, the way your hands feel on me, Lan Zhan —”

Lan Wangji hums thoughtfully, runs his hands down Wei Ying’s sides. Tugs at his trousers, lifts his hips so that he can slide those off too, and rubs his thumbs along the lean muscle of Wei Ying’s thighs. The insides are soft, softer than he expected, still a little plumpness left on them despite how thin Wei Ying is, and he gets lost in the feeling for a moment, smoothing his fingers along the sensitive skin. Wei Ying wriggles underneath his touch, whines until Lan Wangji reaches up and scrapes his nails along Wei Ying’s stomach, raising red welts along his stomach. The resentful energy rises up to meet him, sick-twist bitter, and he thinks no, sends back pulses of his own spiritual energy to meet it, soft blue light shimmering over and into Wei Ying’s skin. He can feel where it stutters out, where it meets no golden core to rekindle, but it wends its way around Wei Ying’s meridians, clinging to him. There is space inside Wei Ying, for Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan, I’m dying here, really, I am.” Wei Ying tries to sit up, and Lan Wangji slides his hand up to his shoulders, pushes him back down. Kisses him again, fierce and claiming, biting at his lips, sucking his tongue until Wei Ying moans into his mouth, bucking up where Lan Wangji’s thighs are clenched tight around his hips. His cock leaves wet, slick trails behind where it rubs against Lan Wangji’s stomach, and Lan Wangji can feel himself leaking through his own trousers, through the inner robe he’d hastily slung on whilst on the bank. He imagines doing this fully dressed, enshrined in all six layers, Wei Ying red and naked beneath him, taking him apart slowly, until the only words he can say are Lan Wangji’s own name, the name that belongs only in his mouth. Another time.

Between them, Wei Ying’s cock looks painfully hard. Lan Wangji leans over and spits, relishing Wei Ying’s gasp, the way his dick twitches, the look of his own saliva running down the shaft of it, and takes Wei Ying in hand, pulls him off rough and fast. It does not take long. Wei Ying turns his head as he comes, bites into the flesh of his own arm, leaving black-bumped crescents in his skin that Lan Zhan turns sky-blue. He wants to see him make that same face — agonised stretch of his mouth, the slight curl to his lip, eyes closed — again and again. Lan Wangji wipes off his hand on Wei Ying’s chest, rubbing against the hard nubs of his nipples as he does so, and bends down to kiss him, licking along the shell of his ear, sucking bruises into his neck and chest. He ignores the heavy ache between his own thighs, keeps going until Wei Ying is squirming again, his hands clenching on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. There are bite marks on Lan Wangji’s skin now, too, scratches down his back; skin tightening as the saliva and come dries between them; the first prickles of soreness beginning to make themself known. Lan Wangji wants it all. The weird, uncomfortable bits, every bitten-off sound Wei Ying makes, the pond-water smell of his hair. It’s real, Wei Ying is real beneath him, and that is all that matters.

He kisses down Wei Ying’s body, and takes him in his mouth. Spiritual energy still seeps from his fingers, still crackles in his voice, and he is helpless to stop pouring himself out for Wei Ying. He thinks he might be humming slightly, throat vibrating against the length of Wei Ying’s cock, but it is hard to tell over the sound of Wei Ying’s relentless babbling, over the roaring of blood in his own ears. Wei Ying is salt-slick, hips jerking up with every press of Lan Wangji’s tongue, his hands fluttering over Lan Wangji’s head, as if unsure where he wants to touch. Lan Wangji reaches up, grabs Wei Ying’s hands and presses them down so that his thumbs touch the forehead ribbon, brushing along the silk. Wei Ying gasps, tries to bend himself in half so that he can see better, can watch his own hands, and the way his cock disappears into Lan Wangji’s reddened mouth. Lan Wangji raises his own eyes to meet his, flattens his tongue against the underside of Wei Ying’s dick, and hollows his cheeks. Wei Ying curls in on himself, abs constricting, and then falls back with a choking gasp and a sigh, releasing into Lan Wangji’s mouth.

He doesn’t let go of Lan Wangji’s forehead, even as Lan Wangji swallows him down, keeps him gently in his mouth until he is fully soft, kitten-licking at his shaft until Wei Ying mewls and twists his hips so that Lan Wangji is forced to let it drop from his mouth. Only then do Wei Ying’s hands move, slipping to Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and pulling him up, so that he straddles Wei Ying once more. Wei Ying looks wrecked, flushed and red all down his front, the marks on his chest swollen, beginning to bruise.

“Mine,” Lan Wangji tells him, very seriously. Wei Ying nods, and tugs at Lan Wangji’s hips until he’s sitting higher on his chest, until he’s close enough Wei Ying can rub his cheek against the hard jut of Lan Wangji’s cock.

“Mmmm, yours. Wish we’d done this that first night, when everything was awful and weird, and nobody would look at me properly. Wish I could have walked onto the practice ground that first morning with bruises all over me, and everyone would have known that I was yours, no matter what else happened, that I was wanted —”

“You are always wanted.” It is better that they did not, that Lan Wangji had not taken a Wei Ying who had half-stepped out of his body so roughly into his bed, but even so, Lan Wangji cannot help but wish it also, just a little.

Wei Ying’s breath is hot against his cock, and it would be so easy to slip into his mouth, to take his pleasure that way, but Lan Wangji did not hear Wei Ying’s voice for a very long time, and he wants to keep hearing it, now. He licks his own hand, and begins to jerk himself off with swift, sure motions, never looking away from the shape of Wei Ying’s mouth as he chatters onwards.

“Fuck, fuck, Lan Zhan, you look so big like this, do you think I could even get it in me, do you think I could take it, I think you’d have to make me, make me yours, gods, everyone would know, I wouldn’t — I couldn’t even — Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, do you — I want you so bad, fuck, you look you so good, I used to think about this, when they first told me, or, before that even, but I didn’t even want to hope, but now, you’re here and you’re so good, so good, please come, come on my face Lan Zhan, please I want —”

Lan Zhan comes. He is bent double with the force of it, and it goes all over Wei Ying’s face, and all over his hair, too, and Lan Wangji cannot bring himself to feel guilty about it at all. Wei Ying looks so beautiful, tan and white and desperate, tongue licking around his lips, tasting it. Lan Wangji rubs at his cheeks, smearing it in further, and Wei Ying groans even as his soft dick twitches against his thigh, his eyes rolling back in his head.

“I can’t,” he says. Lan Wangi privately thinks that he very much could, and that one day he will, but it is late, and it has been a long day for the both of them. Instead, he rearranges them both so that Wei Ying is curled into his side, nose pressed into his neck.

“We should call for a bath.”

Wei Ying looks faintly horrified at the idea of anybody seeing them like this, regardless of what he’d said earlier.

“They’ll have brought water already. Can’t you just do a heating talisman? Please, er-gege, the servants are such terrible gossips.”

Lan Wangji nods. He can hardly complain about frivolous uses of spiritual energy when he has been pouring it into Wei Ying for the last hour. He heats the bath, and they get in together, sitting at opposite ends, their bare feet touching under the water. Wei Ying’s scratches look better, he thinks. Redder than they were, less inhuman. Wei Ying looks down at them with interest, pulling the skin to watch the blood wash tide-like in and out.

“I can feel it,” he says, after a while. “Sort of — bubbling. It’s strange. It doesn’t know quite where to go, I — my qi doesn’t circulate like it should, not quite, but it’s found a way to help, I think.”

“You do not mind?”

“Why would I mind? It’s you, isn’t it?”

“You have not always —”

“Ah, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “I’ve always wanted you, too. Always wanted to touch you, even when I was scared to let you anywhere near me. I should have known — er-gege is simply the best amongst men, after all.”

“I have not always been good to you, about this.”

Wei Ying screws up his face.

“No more sorrys, Lan Zhan, I can’t bear it. You’re — we’re here now.” Underwater, he clenches his fists, a sudden rush of movement that sends water rushing around Lan Wangji’s drawn-up knees. “I love you. I meant to say that before. I want you, and I love you. You’re my best friend, and my zhiji, and my husband. I’m sorry I —”

“No sorrys.” Lan Wangji leans forward, grabbing for Wei Ying’s hands. “I love you, also, Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying’s mouth drops open. He looks up at Lan Wangji, tangled hair falling in front of his face, and Lan Wangji does not think he has ever looked more beautiful.

“Oh,” he whispers, very softly. “That’s good.”

Lan Wangji sits on the bed, Wei Ying kneeling up behind him, and closes his eyes as Wei Ying scritches at his scalp, combing out the tangles in his hair. His fingers brush against the knot of the ribbon, and he taps at it lightly, a question.

“Mn.”

Wei Ying laughs, and tugs the ribbon free, leans forward over Lan Wangji’s shoulder to place it in his cupped hands before resuming his combing. Lan Wangji had half-wanted Wei Ying to keep it, but this is good too, running his thumb over the familiar silk, Wei Ying’s hands in his hair, his breath on his neck. Wei Ying hums, satisfied with his work, and presses a kiss to Lan Wangji’s neck. When Lan Wangji turns, tilts his head up, Wei Ying looks astonished by his own daring. That’s not what Lan Wangji wants. He wants a Wei Ying as unafraid to touch him as he has always been. He tilts his chin up more insistently, and Wei Ying laughs again, softly, wonderingly, and bends down to kiss him, gentle press of warm lips, the ghost of the laugh still there in the upturned corners of his mouth. Lan Wangji kisses those too, and the end of Wei Ying’s adorable nose, and tugs him down so that he can kiss each fluttering eyelid, and his forehead, and then his lips again, for good measure.

“Wei Ying,” he breathes.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, with the wry tilt to his mouth that means he’s teasing.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, just to watch the smile bloom on Wei Ying’s face, the delighted little gasp-laugh.

“Lan Zhan! When did you learn to tease?”

Lan Zhan does not give that the dignity of a reply. Whilst you were gone, he does not say, I imagined what it would be like, to make you laugh again. He lies down, instead, as stiff and proper as he always is, and Wei Ying sighs, a great gust of put-upon dramatics, and flops down, half on top of him, one leg hooked over Lan Wangji’s hip, one arm coming up to grasp at the shoulder of his sleep robe. He wriggles until he is satisfied, his final position seeming no different than the one he started in, and tucks his head so that the sharp point of his chin digs into Lan Wangji’s shoulder. It is — astounding. More of a shock than the sex had been, almost. That had been a frenetic haze of need and lust and heat and wet and finally, and this is none of those things. Only quiet. Only Wei Ying, eyes closed and making little contented noises as he snuffles into Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and a hundred points of startling heat where his body is thrown over Lan Wangji’s like a blanket. To be touched like this, like it means everything and nothing all at once, is not something for which Lan Wangji has ever prepared himself.

He’s woken up three hours later by Wei Ying’s nails digging into his skin, his whimpers on the verge of becoming cries.

“Wei Ying.” He runs a hand up and down his back, rubs little circles where he’s tensed up. “Wei Ying, it is a dream.”

Slowly, Wei Ying wakes. Slowly, he opens his eyes, the whites of his eyes silver segments in the slither of moonlight that makes its way into the room. He loosens his grip, inhales, and Lan Wangji cannot bear to hear the apology he knows he is preparing to make. Pulls him down, instead, presses their lips together. It’s clumsy, in the dark, and he mostly misses, kisses Wei Ying’s cupid’s bow and the bottom of his nose instead, but the next kiss lands true, Wei Ying’s mouth sleep-warm opening easily underneath his. His shoulder is a little damp, he realises. Wei Ying has been crying in his sleep. He kisses up his cheeks, following the salt trails up until there is nothing left of them, runs his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair — tangled again, despite his best efforts with the brush earlier — and nestles him back down into the crook of his neck.

“Sleep,” he tells him, firmly.

“I’ll wake up again.” It’s supposed to sound like a threat, Lan Wangji thinks, but it’s mumbled into Lan Wangji’s collarbone, lips brushing his skin, and it feels like nothing more than a promise.

“I shall be here.” His own promise, in return.

“It’s quieter, with you here.” The kind of thing Wei Ying finds so difficult to say in daylight is easily given over in the night, the dark its own kind of gift. “Easier to remember. Ah, Lan Zhan, I have forgotten so much. It was better like that, at the time. Now, I only wish —” he breaks off, and kisses Lan Wangji’s shoulder, more an open-mouthed press than anything else.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji strokes his air, the delicate curve of his neck. Rests his hand in the small of Wei Ying’s back, the shallow dip where the heel of his palm fits perfectly. “Sleep, now.”

He does, for a little while. The second time Wei Ying wakes, there is screaming. Lan Wangji kisses those tears away, too.

“Did you mean it?” Wei Ying whispers the fourth time, too tired to even turn it into a joke. He smells like sulphur again, all trace of the sweet, floral bath oil gone. Lan Wangji chokes on it, tries not to flinch at the inquisitive trail of resentful energy that flickers against his own skin, and instead kisses Wei Ying wherever he can reach.

“Yes.” It doesn’t matter what Wei Ying is asking, he means everything he has ever said to him.

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying sounds scared, he thinks. It’s strange, to be unsure of this, when he has interred so much knowledge of Wei Ying into himself, sewn every breath and twitch of his eyebrows into the pockets of his soul, tucked away for safe-keeping. He has never heard Wei Ying scared. “Lan Zhan, can you feel it?”

“Mn.” He pulls Wei Ying impossibly closer, presses his thumb against the knot in his shoulder that keeps reappearing.

“I hate it. I hate that you — don’t you hate it, Lan Zhan? But I — I shouldn’t, it saved me. It’s saving me, still, despite everything. And it’s not the energy’s fault, after all.” He laughs against Lan Zhan’s skin, the sound vibrating through their chests. “I shouldn’t. But I feel — flayed.” Lan Zhan suppresses his flinch. “Angry, all the time, when I don’t want to be. I didn’t used to be angry, Lan Zhan, not for long, and now I can never work out when I’m supposed to be.”

“You are allowed to be angry.” Lan Zhan tells him. He hadn’t known that, before. He hadn’t known that until Wei Ying.

“Mm.” Wei Ying sounds sceptical.

“Your shidi is often angry.”

“Yes. He’s less tearing-apart-cities about it, though. I could have — you don’t know the things I could have done, Lan Zhan.”

“I do. You would not have done that.”

Another sceptical hum. The knot is not budging, and Lan Zhan digs his fingers in harder, ignoring Wei Ying’s yelp, and the way his cock twitches against Lan Zhan’s thigh. This is not about that, he doesn’t think.

“You married me.” As a statement, it does not appear to have anything to do with the previous one, and Lan Zhan makes a small, inquisitive noise.

“When you married me,” Wei Ying rephrases, “what did they say to you? Did — did they ask?”

Lan Wangji half-wishes he could lie. Does not know what Wei Ying would say, now, if he could say that he chose this for both of them. Perhaps it does not matter, anyway, for he can only speak the truth.

“No.” And then, as quickly as he can manage, before Wei Ying can forge that into a weapon for his own demise, “I do not regret it. I would have married you five years ago, Wei Ying. I would marry you again tomorrow. I only wish it could have been your choice.”

“Our choice,” Wei Ying says, firmly. “Without any of the other stuff. But I don’t regret it, either, Lan Zhan. I’m glad it was you. Obviously, I mean —” he grinds his hips down, slightly, but there is no real intent behind it, his dick mostly soft. “And — I mean, it’s you. Hanguang-jun. My Lan-er-gege.”

“Your husband.” He pats Wei Ying’s back, considering. “My beloved.”

Wei Ying gives a small, stifled cry, rolls over onto the mattress, and buries his face in his hands.

“Oh no,” he says, very quietly. “Oh no, I am slain. Lan Zhan, you have killed your husband. Lan Zhan, have you no remorse? You remain silent, through all my suffering.”

“I have remorse.” It comes out more seriously than he means it to, but it is true. He does.

Wei Ying props himself up on his elbows, and frowns at him. It’s a little lighter now, just the grey beginnings of dawn, and Wei Ying’s frown is made up of soft shadows and graphite shades, too fond to possess any heat.

“None of that, sweetheart. Ahhhh, Lan Zhan, how can you do this to me? How am I supposed to go back to sleep now? Feel my heart —” he reaches out, and presses one of Lan Zhan’s hands to his chest. His heart beats strong and steady and only a little quicker than normal against Lan Wangji’s palm. Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows a little, and pulls his hand back, opens his arm. Wei Ying shuffles across the bed, and wriggles until he is back where he belongs, safe and warm and knowingly loved.

“A-Ying.” It is not the name Lan Wangji loves best, not the name that has been theirs since the moment they met, but Wei Ying’s cheeks flush all the same. “Sleep, now.”

 

12.

For a moment, Jiang Cheng thinks he will have to kill the Prince. It is a long moment, plenty of time in which to grimly list the ways in which the Yunmeng Jiang disciples are unprepared for war, time in which to wonder if he can push forward the wedding so that Lanling Jin are forced to stand by their side. Except that Jin Guangshan would push for the Emperorship if they won, and nobody wants that. It is a relief, then, to look away from the bruises that litter Wei Wuxian’s neck, and realise that he is leaning into Lan Wangji’s side as they eat breakfast, wholly inappropriate and completely relaxed. That he is smiling as Lan Wangji heaps steamed buns onto his plate, eyes crinkling upwards, with a flush to his ears that Jiang Cheng has not seen since they were children and Wei Wuxian was just learning to flirt. Disgusting. Disgusting, but, he acknowledges, at least not something he has to go to war over.

Jiejie smiles at them, soft and fond and knowing, all the hesitancy gone from her eyes when she looks at Wei Wuxian. Which is a little premature, Jiang Cheng thinks, because he still looks like shit. Exhausted, and only slightly less thin than when he’d arrived at Lotus Pier, despite jiejie force-feeding him soup and dumplings at any given opportunity. When he’s not fighting, or when he thinks Jiang Cheng isn’t looking, he moves more sluggishly than normal — or, not than normal. This is normal, the way he’s moved since he first sprung back into existence after those awful three months: like he’s wading through water, like it’s taking more energy than it should to keep his limbs where he places them.

“Wei Wuxian.” It comes out sharp, but then it always does. Jiang Cheng has been extending a blade since he learnt to walk. Wei Wuxian gives him the sort of queasy smile that always itches underneath Jiang Cheng’s skin, makes him want to push further than he should. Jiejie is right there though, purple rings under her own eyes. Jin Guangshan is not making things easy, for all his wife’s promises that they wanted the best for jiejie.

“Ah, shidi.” Wei Wuxian smiles again. It’s slightly better, this time. “Lan Zhan and I —” he looks up at Lan Zhan, and simply stops, as if he had always intended to end the sentence there. His eyes are narrowed.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji prompts.

There is another minute where they just silently stare at each other. Wei Wuxian is doing something unforgivable with his eyebrows.

“Jiang Cheng, shijie,” he starts again. He’s looking in-between them, as if some invisible third party might have more patience for his nonsense. Jiang Cheng doubts it. He’s been on enough night hunts with a teenage Wei Wuxian to know that ghosts have their limits, too. “Um. It is possible that we might have to leave earlier than expected.”

“No.” Jiang Cheng doesn’t quite realise he’s spoken until Wei Wuxian flinches. Lan Wangji’s face does that awful stone-blank thing that has made Jiang Cheng intensely nervous since they were fifteen. It only seems to have become more effective with age.

“Wei Ying is not well. We wish to speak to Wen Qing.”

Wei Wuxian pouts up at Lan Wangji, looking betrayed, but jiejie is already leaning forward, already sliding one hand across to Wei Wuxian.

“A-Xian, what’s wrong? What can we do? We have healers here, should you wish to stay.”

Another fraught staring contest. Jiang Cheng is pretty sure Wei Wuxian loses this one, because he huffs, and squeezes jiejie’s hand, and looks firmly above her head as he speaks, very quickly.

“The resentful energy that I have been cultivating with is. Well, it’s a bit of an issue! And it would be slightly less of an issue if one little slimy man with a bad taste in hats hadn’t made me run tiger corpses around in circles until I threw up, but it can’t all be fun and games at the Cloud Recesses and —”

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng stands up, Zidian crackling in the air, hardly knowing who he is angriest at, and then Lan Wangji is on his feet, too, hand resting pointedly on Bichen, and they glare at each other until a-jie says, very softly.

“A-Cheng —”

“Meng Yao acted without my knowledge,” Lan Wangji says, which explains precisely nothing. Jiang Cheng sits down again with a heavy crash. Gestures at the two of them.

“Start talking.”

It’s obvious, once Jiang Cheng knows. Once he thinks to probe for it, for the way it emanates from him, clinging and rot-sweet. Wei Wuxian is still talking around why he started using the blasted stuff in the first place, and Lan Wangji clearly knows, which is awful and grating in ways Jiang Cheng does not want to examine, but at least someone knows. And Lan Wangji would probably say, if it was a bad excuse. Would tell jiejie, anyway, even if he still looks at Jiang Cheng with nothing but cool dismissal in his eyes. It is obvious to them both — to him and jiejie, the only people with any sense in the room — that they cannot leave.

“I will protect Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, as if that’s what Jiang Cheng is disputing, as if that’s what’s at stake here. He’s had the luxury of avoiding the whispers, perhaps, these last five years, but Jiang Cheng has sat at court and heard every word of what people have said about his brother’s husband.

“You cannot fight the Emperor’s closest advisor within the Palace,” he says, through gritted teeth. “No matter what he has done, it will be tantamount to treason. You know what they say about Wei Wuxian. You must appear unimpeachable, above his influence.” A joke, given — well, everything about Lan Wangji, but, nevertheless, the sticky, complicated necessity. Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, which means he knows Jiang Cheng is right.

“Wen Qing can’t come here, though,” Wei Wuxian says, a little bitter. “They’re not allowed to leave Gusu Lan.”

“You can write to her, can’t you? Or is that something else you’ve given up doing?” Too close to the bone, but he won’t back down, not when Wei Wuxian is being so ridiculous about this. Not when this is the first thing he should have said, walking through the door. Jiang Cheng, I need help. Words they’ve spent a lifetime dancing around, as if either of them could ever say no.

“Right. Right! Yes. Write to Wen Qing.”

“Their correspondence is monitored.” Lan Wangji says, as if Jiang Cheng is an idiot. He’s the idiot, if he can’t figure out a way to ask for advice without directly doing so. It’s a miracle the Emperor turned out as conniving as he did, if this is the kind of thing they teach them.

Wei Wuxian ignores Jiang Cheng’s scowl, smirks up at his husband, and shrugs, a lazy, fluid movement, which means he’s already got something up his sleeve. Jiang Cheng thinks Lan Wangji might almost smile back.

Jiejie is quiet for a long time, after Wei Wuxian drags Lan Wangji to look something up in the library.

“He should have told us,” Jiang Cheng says, just to break the silence.

“He’s scared, A-Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng scowls, and she laughs, softly, reaches out to hold his arm.

“I’m scared, too,” she confesses. There’s a gap in there where Jiang Cheng should say it back, where he could spit out the snarl of fear and anger and confusion that feels like kudzu in his lungs. He doesn’t, just twists in her grasp so that he can rest his chin on her head, breathe in flowers and fresh air and kitchen-smells, and pretend that they’re children again, just for a moment. That he isn’t the Sect Leader, that their parents aren’t dead, and that his brother isn’t being torn apart by the same thing he’d used to save the entire country as they know it. It’s only a golden butterfly that breaks their embrace, settling on jiejie’s hair, nestling against the purple ribbon in her headdress. It is hard to pretend, after that.

 

13.

“It’s a shame the library at Lotus Pier isn’t more like the one at Cloud Recesses, hm, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.”

Many of the texts that Wei Ying would find most useful are not present, here in Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji is, however, fervently grateful for the difference in aesthetics. It is only the absence of the familiar dark floors and austere shelves, twinned with the ever-present reminders of Yunmeng Jiang’s carved lotuses, that is preventing him from losing all restraint and enacting every half-formed teenage fantasy he has ever had. As it is, it is difficult. Wei Ying’s beloved ink-stained mouth, the furrow in his forehead, the way he taps his face along his elegant cheekbones and the tip of his nose when he’s concentrating. The spreading joy every time he makes a new connection, every time he pushes something across for Lan Wangji to look at. He is as distracting as he has ever been, and the table is at such a convenient height.

“Lan Zhan, am I as annoying to study with as I was back then? Ah, you don’t need to say anything! The answer can’t possibly be yes, I’m quiet for whole minutes at a time, now. That’s what comes of growing up, I suppose.” He sighs, low and mock-mournful.

“You are interested, now.” Lan Wangji points out.

“Are you saying I wasn’t interested before? In the 8000 Lan Sect rules? Why, Lan Zhan, however could you imply such a thing? I would never disrespect the Imperial Family in such a way.”

Wei Ying had, many times, and would absolutely do so again. Lan Wangji found it very difficult to mind.

“Mn.”

“It was just so difficult when I had his illustrious Royal Highness watching over me, being all serious and strict and morally upright, and when all I wanted to do was —”

“Wei Ying!”

“There he is.” Wei Ying tilts his head, grin too soft to be truly teasing, and Lan Wangji knows that is all this is, just Wei Ying teasing, just him prodding at the shared nostalgia of their teenage memories, but Lan Wangji’s memories are painted less rosily, more red-hazed. His infuriating chatter, his diabolical mouth, the sharp line of his throat. Wei Ying in Lan white, untouched and, to Lan Wangji’s eternal frustration, untouchable.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying reaches a hand out, and tweaks one of Lan Wangji’s flushed ears.

“You were distracting.” Lan Wangji manages, and Wei Ying beams.

“Ah, that I managed to distract the great Hanguang-jun from his work. When they write those dreadful poems about me, they never put that one in, do they?”

“Perhaps Wei Ying can suggest it.”

“Mm, perhaps. Perhaps I should write one of my own.” Wei Ying runs his forefinger along the shell of Lan Wangji’s ear, and then leans in and breathes hotly on it. Lan Wangji shudders, and pulls back, stands up.

“Take the scrolls you need,” he says, and sweeps out of the library. Behind him there is a clatter, and a shuffle, and a shout, and then the sound of running footsteps, and Wei Ying jostles against Lan Wangji’s side. There are too many people about: Lotus Pier is clumped closer together than the Imperial Palace, and although their guest quarters are on the outskirts, near the flowing water, there are no secluded paths on their way — not during the day at least, with everyone about their work. Lan Wangji stares straight ahead, ignoring the hand Wei Ying slips into the crook of his arm, walking as fast as he can without actually breaking into a run.

“Lan-er-gege!” Wei Ying whines, hanging off of him. “Really, if you wanted me to be quiet you could have just said so! Or I could have studied on my own, if you wanted to meditate, or practice music, or anything else at all! Lan Zhan, we’re married now, and that means you have to tell me these things, you can’t just go storming off whenever you feel like, like we’re fifteen again.”

Wei Ying is right, but it is difficult to worry about that as they walk through the door of the guest quarters, and Wei Ying drops the scrolls in a pile on the table. Lan Wangji gives him no warning, drags him in by the arm and pushes him up against the wall.

“You are distracting,” he repeats, low and intent, and watches the way Wei Ying’s eyes widen, the flush rising to his cheeks.

“Oh. Oh, ah, this humble one apologises, er-gege. What can I do to repay His Royal Highness for the trouble?” He licks his lips, and Lan Wangji bends down to kiss him, to swipe his tongue along his lower lip, to bite at him until Wei Ying scrabbles at his shoulders, panting. “Please, please, er-gege, you have to tell me — what can I do? What must this one do, to make amends?”

There is something in that that is not quite a joke, Lan Wangji thinks. He tugs open Wei Ying’s robes, and slides his hand underneath them, scraping his nails along Wei Ying’s back, hard enough to leave welts behind. Wei Ying shudders, a full-body susurration as his robes fall from his shoulders, pooling at his feet. Let the resentful energy come, rushing to the surface of Wei Ying’s scratches. Lan Wangji is strong enough to meet it. Lan Wangji pushes at Wei Ying’s shoulders, and he goes to his knees easily, comfortably, looks up at Lan Wangji with something like gladness in his eyes. Rests his head on Lan Wangji’s hip, turns it so that he breathes hot over Lan Wangji’s hard cock, and flutters his eyes closed.

Lan Wangji grabs the back of Wei Ying’s head, twisting his hair cruelly, fingers pinching at the base of his neck. Wei Ying moans, low in his throat, guttural and broken, as Lan Wangji guides him to his cock. He goes slower than he’d like to, this time. Gives Wei Ying a few scattered seconds to get used to the weight and heft of him, his mouth slack before he starts sucking, drool slipping down his chin already. He gets so messy, so quick to slip into looking used, into looking wanted and owned, and it makes something hot and dark curl upwards in Lan Wangji’s chest. He fucks shallowly into Wei Ying’s hot mouth, the trusting open wet of him, cherishing the sloppy slide, the clumsy way Wei Ying pats at his hip, the way he holds Lan Wangji’s hand over his head, pressing himself deeper.

It doesn’t take long. Lan Wangji has been half-hard since Wei Ying dragged him into the library, and he looks perfect, feels perfect too, soft-edged focus and little humming gasps every time he pulls off slightly for air. He’s brought his hand across to rub at Lan Wangji’s balls, to trace along his perineum, skating across the delicate skin there. His other hand is still entwined with Lan Wangji’s own, and, as Lan Wangji’s thighs begin to shake, he makes a small, determined grunt, and pushes himself down to the very root of Lan Wangji, nose pressed up against the wiry hair at the base of his cock, and lets Lan Wangji come down his throat, biting bloody at his own lip to stop the sounds escaping.

Wei Ying lets Lan Wangji’s cock slip slowly from his mouth, nuzzling . He looks lit up from the inside, and it takes Lan Wangji a moment to realise that it is not just the hazy, sweat-drenched glow of sex, but that Wei Ying is actually shining, his skin almost transluscent in places.

“Oh, fuck —” Wei Ying says, dropping his hand, grabbing his own dick, and bending abruptly in two. He comes all over his own chest, and the glow fades from his skin, until he is just Wei Ying again, smooth-skinned and adored.

“What — what the fuck was that?” he gasps. Lan Wangji drops to the floor, sitting cross-legged, and embraces Wei Ying, pulling him into his lap. Wei Ying kisses Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and then pulls back, sticks out his tongue, shows Lan Wangji the white still streaking his mouth.

“Saving it for later,” he says, cheeky and too-pleased with himself for someone who hadn’t managed to last long enough for Lan Wangji to get his hands on him. Lan Wangji swoops in, licks into his mouth, where everything tastes of him, until Wei Ying is clean, until Wei Ying is grinding a little against his hip.

“You should not have come,” Lan Wangji tells him, and Wei Ying’s hips stutter.

“You gonna stop me?” He sounds like he would like to be stopped.

“Mm.” Lan Wangji hums, non-committal, and pinches Wei Ying’s stomach, watching him yelp. “You were glowing. You stopped when you came.”

“Yeah, to reiterate, what the fuck was that about?”

They look at each other for a moment, each waiting for the other to say it first. Wei Ying breaks first, of course.

“I thought it was a myth?”

“I am not sure. We should ask Wen Qing, when we write. It has only happened once. Perhaps we need more information.”

“Lan Zhan! I can’t ask — I mean, I know she’s a doctor, and my friend, and has never given a single fuck about how handsome I am, which is an affront, honestly, but she does have impeccable taste, so what can you do —”

“Wei Ying.”

“Yes, yes. We’ll ask. Hey, Lan Zhan, does that mean we need to keep practicing?”

“Mn.”

Wei Ying smiles up at him, bright and cheerful. His hair is a tangled mess, and there are scratches on his shoulders, but he’s already lost the glass-eyed watery edge to him that Lan Wangji is starting to crave. He loves him like this, too, of course, but still. It has been months. Years. There is so much he can give him. So much he can take.

But for now, there is still work to be done. An unfinished foray into research, and Lan Wangji can feel the strain in his golden core from the qi he has poured out in the last two days. He kisses Wei Ying, and disentangles them.

“I must meditate,” he tells him, as gently as possible.

“Ah, you must, Lan Zhan. Have I tired you out?” He tries to wink. He cannot wink, and Lan Wangji adores the embarrassing blinking spasm he does instead. “Good boy, building up your strength to fuck me.” He arches his back, and bats his eyelashes. Lan Wangji kisses him again, soft and dry and quick, and peels them apart.

“Indeed.”

Lan Wangji resurfaces just as his lower back is beginning to stiffen, and he stretches his limbs out carefully, resettling his body back into its familiar lines. Wei Ying is still sat on the floor. He’s wearing his underrobe, and using the rest of his crumpled-up robes as a cushion, leaning over something on the floor. It’s an array, sketched out in quick lines on the floorboards, already lit up and glowing.

“You have found a way?”

“Lan Zhan! You’re finished? I’ve — I thought about doing something like the Jin’s butterflies, but they’re so gaudy, and one of your beady-eyed guards was bound to spot it fluttering through the palace, so I wanted to do something more direct. I’ve modified the alert talismans that Wen Qing and I used to use whenever one of us left the Burial Mounds, so she should recognise the signature on those, and then I’ve incorporated the array for distance travelling, only modified so it just picks up the writing on — well, it’s easier to show you, probably.”

He places a piece of paper in the centre of the array, and activates it. The ink from the paper lifts up, ashen-black and glowing, and disappears, leaving the paper blank.

“And now we wait.” Wei Ying screws up his face in mock-disgust.

“It has gone to Wen Qing?”

“Yep! Although if she’s with anyone else, other than Wen Ning, or maybe A-Yuan, I set it to recognise close blood, but I’m not sure — anyway, if she’s with any of the Lans, it won’t open, there’s an extra warding on the reception bit. And then she won’t be able to write back until she forms her own array, but that’s what that message was! The ink’ll go on the floor, so it will be a bit messy to start with —” he gestures round himself, where there are ink stains on the floor, on his bare feet, and all over his hands. “But she’ll figure out the paper thing, I’m sure. What do you think?”

“It is remarkable.”

Wei Ying ducks his head, embarrassed by the praise, and Lan Wangji sinks to the ground beside him.

“I can wait, if you would like. You must be tired.”

Wei Ying sighs, and leans into Lan Wangji’s side.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, voice too deliberately casual, “why did Zewu-Jun let you go wandering off? He must have known — I mean, you must have known what they said about you. The ordinary people love you, Lan Zhan, as everyone should, but the nobility —”

“I do not mind.”

“I know!” Wei Ying sits up hastily, and entwines their hands together. “I know, you’re above such things, Lan Zhan. But the Emperor isn’t. Can’t be. And he still let you go and ruin your reputation tramping all over the countryside.”

Lan Wangji feels his heart sink, the tightening grip of fear at his throat. This has clearly been niggling at Wei Ying, he would not ask otherwise. Lan Wangji owes him nothing but the truth, at all times, and yet he wishes this was not information he had to wield.

“I left him little choice,” he says, carefully. Wei Ying blinks up at him, and it is clear this is not enough detail. “I found it difficult to adjust, after you had gone. I did not think I would see you again. It was clear to me then, as it is to me now, that I had failed you.”

“Lan Zhan! You mustn’t —”

“Wei Ying.” He squeezes his husband’s hand, and swallows, hard, attempting to dispel the lump in his throat. “I can only give you what I felt. My brother was worried, I believe. I do not know if he knew exactly where my heart lay, or whether he thought I was merely suffering the after-effects of the war, but he knew that, if he were to keep me in Cloud Recesses, as the elders did our mother, then I would not — I would not be your Lan Zhan, if they had kept me.”

It is hard to remember. It is hard to think of the way he had been, then, almost torn in two by grief, shuddering at the anticipatory edge of what it would mean when he inevitably lost Wei Ying for good, whether by force of arms or the resentful energy that lingered on him like a shroud in Lan Wangji’s last, regrettable memory of him. How Xichen had looked at him when he’d left Cloud Recesses, the shadows of their mother’s house in his face.

He closes his eyes, and Wei Ying brings Lan Wangji’s own hand up to his hair, tangles Lan Wangji’s fingers in the root of his ponytail. It is soft, much softer than Lan Wangji had ever dreamed.

“Then I am glad you left,” Wei Ying says, staunchly. “They used to sing of you in Yiling, did you know that? They’d stop if they knew I was there, but I liked to hear them, no matter how much I missed you. I was proud of you.”

He smiles, and tilts his chin up for a kiss.

“The great Hanguang-Jun, saving as much of the world as he can.”

“Wei Ying, saving his own piece of it, also.”

Wei Ying swats at him, and is opening his mouth for whatever nonsensical refutation he has come up with now when the array shivers, letting out a low, melodic hum.

“Wen Qing!” Wei Ying shouts, and leans forward eagerly.

In the centre of the array, something materialises, and then drops, smoking slightly, onto the paper. Ink. A message. Wei Ying leans forwards to grab it, yelps, drops it, and then picks it back up immediately, sucking absent-mindedly on two scorched fingers.

I see you’ve figured out how to bug me from halfway across the country it begins. Wei Ying beams.

I’m glad that husband of yours has got you to see sense at last, even if your methods are a little unconventional. You’re right, dual cultivation is supposed to be a myth. But so were golden core transfers, and look where we are now.

Lan Wangji winces at that, but Wei Ying breezes past it, reading on eagerly.

The doctors here have given me free reign of the library. Say what you like about the Lans (actually, don’t, Wei Wuxian), but they value research. Give me a week.

“A week! Ugh, I can’t believe we have to wait around for a week. Whatever shall we do?”

Lan Wangji raises one eyebrow, and Wei Ying breaks into peals of laughter.

A week.

 

14.

Wei Wuxian sits at the end of the boat, trailing his fingers in the water. A-jie is watching him, and so Jiang Cheng watches her, the softened curve of her smile, blueing in the reflected light from the water. It’s early, yet, but Wei Wuxian seems unusually awake, as if he has been awake for many hours. Jiang Cheng doesn’t like it. What use is Lan Wangji if he can’t make Wei Wuxian sleep? Jiang Cheng wonders if the Lans are familiar with the concept of naps. Wei Ying does look — Jiang Cheng hesitates to use the word happy, not when he has the sparkling image of days gone by to compare everything to, but certainly happier. His shoulders are loose as he helps jiejie step down from the boat, and he offers his hand to Jiang Cheng, too, smile still in place even as Jiang Cheng smacks it away.

He flirts with the old women at the fabric store, letting them pinch his thin cheeks, and snaking under their arms to reach the top shelves for them. Jiang Cheng stands there, his fingers stiff on the pursestrings as he weighs the value of everything his jie needs. They can give her this, at least. It is little enough, compared to what she deserves. Jiejie runs her fingers along a bolt of red silk, and smiles, a flush rising in her cheeks.

“Hey, Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian is stood very close to him, almost brushing his shoulder. “Do you want to come swimming with us, later? I want to show Lan Zhan the upper ponds, and you were always better at diving than I was. He’d learn better, from you.”

It is the greatest overture that Wei Wuxian has made since he arrived, but he says it like it costs him nothing, like there has never been anything brittle about the smile he offers Jiang Cheng.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng makes himself say, and, across the room, jiejie looks up and smiles. “You always splashed too much. He’ll pick up sloppy form, watching you.”

Wei Wuxian beams, his face spreading upwards into joy.

Jiang Cheng has to look away.

In the end, it’s only the two of them that swim. Lan Zhan sits cross-legged and straight-backed in the boat with jiejie, holding her parasol diligently, and inclining his head every time she speaks. Wei Wuxian is panting more than he should be, treading water whilst Jiang Cheng completes his fifteenth lap.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jiang Cheng kicks out underwater, connecting with Wei Ying’s knee and sending him splashing backwards for a moment. When they were children, Wei Ying had spent all his time, tumbling and rolling through it as naturally as an otter, and with the same giddy joy. Now he spits out water as he resurfaces, pouting.

“Are you this out of practice?” Jiang Cheng demands “Gusu Lan is not far from the coast. Your Lan Wangji should take you to the sea.”

“Ah, perhaps. Is it not enough that you beat me, Jiang Cheng? There’s no need to crow over this old man, beaten by youth.”

Jiang Cheng glares at him again. It isn’t enough.

“You’re not that old! You should be eating more, that’s all, and training like you used to. You can’t tell me he won’t let you train, that wasn’t —”

“A-Cheng.”

Jiejie is lent over the boat, slightly, one of Lan Wangji’s hands stretched out behind her, not quite touching her. It’s been a while since Jiang Cheng was here, too. He’s forgotten how his voice carries, echoed across the flat surface of the lakes. He’s forgotten how it makes him feel, lighter and heavier all at once, acutely aware of the water his body displaces, of the scurrying fish he pushes out the way, the ease that does not come anywhere else. He’d become used to swimming by himself, since Wei Wuxian left. Nobody to speak to, none of the furious awkward mishmash between the weightless spread of his limbs and the leaden swing of his voice.

“We’ll be out of your hair soon, enough.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is the grating kind of light, a dancing touch, no solid embrace.

“What? You’re staying until jiejie’s wedding, aren’t you? You can’t just waltz in here and go to one appointment and —”

He can, is the thing. If Lan Wangji decides to go, if they so much as hint at the call of station, then Wei Wuxian can walk away whenever he likes.

“No, no, of course we’re here until shijie’s wedding. But that’s just around the corner! And then you won’t have to worry about me anymore.”

Idiot. Idiot, as if Jiang Cheng is a child who lacks object permanence, whose concern ends the second Wei Wuxian’s dot vanishes on the horizon. He splashes him, and Wei Ying flips backwards, somersaults underwater, comes up grinning, with green trails of weed dripping over his head and shoulders.

“Did you have a good wedding?” Jiang Chang asks abruptly. He wishes he hadn’t, as soon as he does, tries to ignore the weight of the eyes on his back, jiejie and Lan Wangji watching from the boat.

“Uh? Yeah?” Wei Wuxian looks genuinely bewildered. “It was nice. It looked really beautiful, Jiang Cheng. It was — well, you know what I’m like, it was a party! It was —” he looks past Jiang Cheng, and frowns. “I appreciate how hard you tried.” It’s only half to Jiang Cheng. He should stop now. That would be easiest. That would be for the best. He doesn’t.

“I couldn’t — it should have been better. It. It did you a dishonour, that you were not taken from Lotus Pier. That there was no child to bless your bed.”

“We — you know I can’t actually get pregnant, right?”

“Still.”

“Ah, A-Cheng. What use would it have been to ask? They don’t want us to have a child. They — the Emperor has not wed, yet. The Yiling Patriarch’s spawn can’t be in the line of succession. Better it go to a cousin than any child of mine. Weapons aren’t meant to have babies.” Scorn in his voice, now, but his face is more alive than Jiang Cheng has seen it yet, the bloody hint of vitriol in his face. He doesn’t have to look behind him to know what jiejie’s face is doing. He knows it must be a mirror to his own: agony torn in two.

“Ahh, shidi, don’t look like that. It’s fine, it’s fine. I’m. I’m glad I’m here, Jiang Cheng. With you both. And you married me off to the best man in the world! You did a good job.”

“You don’t —” Jiang Cheng doesn’t finish the sentence. Ducks furiously away, swims out the pulsating mix of emotions until he is shaking, breathing hard. Wei Wuxian is already half-dry by the time he gets out, wrapped up in Lan Wangji’s arms, Lan Wangji’s thumb hidden by the damp hang of his inner robe. Jiang Cheng rows them away.

 

15.

Lan Wangji watches Wei Ying swing the practice sword and bring it clattering down against some hapless junior’s poorly-held defence. He keels over, and Wei Ying laughs, rueful, sunbright, and pushes his hair back from his face. Lan Wangji takes a deep breath. He should have stayed in the library, where only imagination could taunt him, not the living, breathing proof of the steady stretch of Wei Ying’s shoulders, the ease with which he still swings a blade, the concerned furrow of his forehead as he corrects the juniors’ stances. Wei Ying reaches down to haul the student up, and catches Lan Wangji looking.

He grins, shouts across the field, “Lan Zhan! Did you want to join?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. He cannot risk looking as if he is instructing the juniors in the forms of the Imperial Lan, which are ostensibly closely guarded secrets, even if a thousand men have seen them performed on the battlefield. Still, the footwork is detailed, intricate, difficult to pick up just from looking. Lan Wangji would teach it to Wei Ying, if he wanted. Wei Ying laughs again, sticks the sword in his belt, and comes to crouch down next to Lan Wangji.

“Sure I can’t twist your arm, er-gege?”

“I would spar with you, if you wanted.”

“Lan Zhan! You would beat me too easily, now. You just want to —” Wei Ying gazes at him, shrewd and narrow-eyed, and then smirks.

“Alright!” He rises, less fluid than he should be, claps his hands. “Everyone be good, continue drilling what I showed you. Your Wei-qianbei has places to be.”

The students shrug, already used to Wei Ying’s vagaries, and Lan Zhan lets Wei Ying tug him upright.

“Places to be?”

“Well, that’s mostly up to you, Lan Zhan. But I was thinking we’d start with our bed.”

There is a letter in the array when they get back — a thick sheaf of paper, covered with Wen Qing’s cramped handwriting. Wei Ying grabs them, flicks through them, frowns, hands a diagram to Lan Wangji. Diagram is not a truthful description. It is two men, joined together, not unlike the image Wei Ying had sneaked into his book all those years ago.

“Wei Ying.”

“You were right, about the not coming thing — look. ‘Eight acts without emission causes the whole body to be radiant.’ Eight, gods, I don’t think —”

“Mm. We can work up to it. Besides, it is only three to begin the healing process. We can start with that.”

“Three. Three! Hey, what do you think it means by acts? Because it’s pretty clear when it’s a man and a woman, human cauldron and all, but do you think… Um.”

“As long as you are consuming my yang energy whilst not emitting your own, that should suffice. The idea is to counterbalance your usage of yin energy, and to create a balanced environment in which it is possible for you to heal.”

“Right.” Wei Ying is blushing, a furious red tinge to his ears and neck and cheeks. Lan Wangji would dearly love to bite it. He thinks he might be allowed. “So. I just don’t come. And then, hopefully, we get a bit of breathing space. Wen Qing says — I mean. My meridians are fine, so they should be able to direct the flow of energy. I’ve been praticing, since we last — And you’re strong. Strongest cultivator of our generation, so.” His breathing has a whistle to it, dragging itself through his lungs.

“Wei Ying. I will be fine. We will be fine. Wen Qing’s notes are thorough, but they are not complicated, and nor are they a surprise.”

“I don’t. You’ll have to make me. You’ll have to stop me.” He takes a step closer to Lan Wangji, setting the letter aside. “I’ll ask for it. You’ll have to say no.”

“I will do so.”

Wei Ying takes another deep breath, and this one is clean and true. He tilts his chin up, and Lan Wangji watches the fine, wispy hairs around his face dance in the sunlight. It feels almost dangerous to be doing this in the middle of the day, amidst the everyday kerfuffle of Lotus Pier, and something in Lan Wangji thrills at that, at people being able to hear just how much Wei Ying is loved, how much he is wanted, and how much he wants in return.

Lan Wangji steers them to the bed, behind the flimsy pretence of the privacy screen that will do nothing to muffle Wei Ying’s cries. He slips Wei Ying’s robes from his shoulders, crouches to tug down his trousers, kisses the knobbled jut of his kneecaps as he lifts each foot. It would be so easy to lean forward, to take Wei Ying’s soft cock in his mouth, to replace the nervous tremble of his thighs with shivering arousal, but Lan Wangji resists, stands up, pushes Wei Ying down instead. He pushes down his trousers, his kun, but leaves his robes to fall around him, bracketing Wei Ying’s upturned face. He’s half-hard already, has been since Wei Ying pulled him up in the practice yard, and Wei Ying hums, pleased, at the sight, leans forward to nuzzle at him.

“You will finish me,” Lan Wangji tells him. “And then I will prepare you to be fucked.”

Wei Ying groans, tipping his head against Lan Wangji’s thigh. They haven’t, yet. Lan Wangji has been too conscious of Wei Ying’s fragility, his own size. Wary of the animal thing inside of him that wants to disregard both of those things entirely, to split him apart, to have him. But Wen Qing’s letter had been very clear that a true joining was the most efficacious way to share his energy, and so there is no further reason to deny himself.

“Begin,” he says, and Wei Ying groans again, deep in his throat, takes Lan Wangji in his mouth, licking over his slit, flicking his tongue against the sensitive skin, reaching up to slide one of his hands over Lan Wangji’s length. His hands look small like this, narrow-boned and delicate, and Lan Wangji bites his lip against the juddering arousal that rockets through him at the sight. There will be time enough to last, later, and so he surrenders himself to the sensation, to the hot wet grasp of Wei Ying’s mouth, so eager for him, and allows his qi to flow freely, down past his lower dantian. Wei Ying approaches sucking cock like he does anything he truly enjoys — with overwhelming enthusiasm, and little regard for his own safety or limits. He gags around Lan Wangji’s cock as he attempts to take it deeper, and pulls off for only a moment before taking it down again, brow furrowed in determined concentration. Perhaps Lan Wangji should stop him, perhaps Lan Wangji should tell him there is no rush, but he only winds his fingers in Wei Ying’s hair and helps him, feels the flutter of Wei Ying’s throat close around him. It does not take much after that, Wei Ying’s other hand fumbling at his balls, the sweet peek of Wei Ying’s gaze as he looks up through lowered eyelashes, and Lan Wangji is falling, hands spasming in Wei Ying’s hair as he comes.

Wei Ying does not swallow it all, looks up at Lan Wangji with the end of Lan Wangji’s cock still in his mouth, come spilling out of his mouth and dripping down his chin.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji is relieved when his voice comes out as he intends, chiding. “You must take it all. Eat it up for me, my love.”

Wei Ying squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, and Lan Wangji looks down to where is cock is pressed, hard and twitching, against his stomach. It will be hard to stop him coming; Lan Wangji will have to do something about that. Wei Ying brings his hand up to his mouth, scoops up the come with shaking fingers and pushes it into his mouth, his fingers brushing against the end of Lan Wangji’s cock. He doesn’t seem to want to let it slip out entirely, even as he swallows, throat visibly bobbing with the movement. He’s not glowing again, not yet, but there’s a shine to his skin that wasn’t there before, and Lan Wangji watches it spread, satisfied.

He moves backwards, and Wei Ying whines as his cock falls from his lips, shuffles forward on his knees. Another day, Lan Wangji will let him keep it there until he is hard again, repeat the process until he is oversensitive, dry and aching, but today is for other things.

“Up. Stand between my legs.” Wei Ying wobbles upwards, and Lan Wangji unwinds his forehead ribbon from his head, and reaches for Wei Ying’s cock.

“Ahh!” Wei Ying startles, wide-eyed, when he realises what Lan Wangji is planning to do. “Fuck, fuck, Lan Zhan we can find something else, I don’t want to — you shouldn’t, right? This is not —”

“I want to. You are my husband. It is your ribbon too, since they would not give you one.” A bridge too far, giving the Yiling Patriarch something so sacred. At the time Lan Wangji had not hoped to push for it. Now, he wishes he had. Wei Ying cannot seem to look away from his hands as he wraps it tight around his cock, tying a slipknot with quick, practised movements. Wei Ying gets on the bed for him, ass in the air, and Lan Wangji traces along his crease, relishing the whine he gets in response. He already knows Wei Ying will be so greedy for this.

By the time he’s fingered him open, Wei Ying is rubbing himself against the mattress, begging. Lan Wangji strokes his own cock, spreads his fingers wide one last time, and sinks into him. It is just as well he has already come once today, because the hot, tight heat of Wei Ying, pressed all around him, is almost unbearable.

“Lan Zhan, please, you’re so cruel to your poor husband!”

“Mn. You will not come,” Lan Wangji reminds him.

“I know, I know, I just need —” Wei Ying bucks up, pushing himself back onto Lan Wangji’s cock, and Lan Wangji growls, stretches up to bite savagely into Wei Ying’s shoulder.

“You will take it when I am ready,” he says, and then immediately moves, which he recognises, distantly, plays exactly into what Wei Ying wants. It is impossible to do anything else, impossible to stop once he has started, Wei Ying pliant underneath him, taking every vicious thrust like he was made for it.

“You have to let me come, Lan Zhan, you have to, please, you have to let me come,” he says, half a chant. “Twice is fine for the first go, Lan Zhan, you have to,”

“I do not have to do anything.” Lan Zhan manages through gritted teeth. Wei Ying clenches around him, and Lan Zhan digs his nails into his sides, feels his qi flood outwards and through Wei Ying, and his hips stutter as he does so, as he flows outwards too, tripping headfirst into his release.

He slips out as soon as he has finished coming, presses three fingers back into Wei Ying and flips him quickly, sliding back into him half-hard. He will stay in Wei Ying as he softens, until he is ready to fuck him, plug and source both. Wei Ying’s eyes are swollen, a mess of drool and tears on sheets beneath him. His cock is purple-red, leaking steadily on his stomach, straining against his ties. It looks fitting, Wei Ying’s colours against Lan Wangji’s own, and Lan Wangji smiles to see it.

“So cruel!” Wei Ying exclaims, seeing him smile. “So much joy in your Wei Ying’s suffering.”

“Mm.” The shine is stronger now, and Lan Wangji spreads his fingers over Wei Ying’s middle dantian, feels the pulse of qi, the floating influx of new yang energy, the way the resentful energy seems to have quietened. It had not come out, when he had bitten Wei Ying. He moves his hand to Wei Ying’s lower dantian, still cold, but perhaps less alarmingly so, a cool autumn day, crisp rather than frozen. There is an odd sort of buzz in between of his eyes, in his upper dantian, a sympathetic kind of ache, an undercurrent of wanting too desperate to be his own. It feels — familiar. Warm touch of skin, a burning mind he has felt before, frenzied in battle, now pitched to a softer temperament.

Wei Ying?

He feels foolish, but they spoke in their minds in the cave, and they have been joined so often since then, energies intertwined, Lan Wangji’s own spiritual energy running through Wei Ying’s meridians. Beneath him, Wei Ying jerks, startled, and they both hiss as the movement jostles Lan Wangji’s cock inside of him.

...Lan Zhan?

It’s not exactly his name, more a flashing collage of images: his profile, his hand on Bichen, wanting and safety and longing and hope all piled up and stitched through the sketched lines.

Wei Ying watches his face, sees the flicker of recognition and understanding, and grins bright and wicked, sends bursts of his want and frustration and need; he moans, loud and wanton, when Lan Wangji twitches inside him, as if that is not just what he had been aiming for. Lan Wangji doesn’t think he can feel exactly what it does to him, that movement. For now, it’s just the general rising tide of emotions, a watercolour wash of landscape, not a map.

Just touching? A question, a stretching line. Wei Ying wondering if, in time, they could feel each other apart, as they had done in the cave.

I think so.

“We should write to Wen Qing,” he says, aloud.

“Don’t ta— you’re inside me!” As if Lan Wangji needs reminding. “But yes. Lan Zhan, if we can, if we can figure out a way to share this, to share each other whilst apart —”

Lan Zhan would not need to touch him, to give him energy. He can already feel the way it coils within him, the way it wants to reach out, the way it wants to suffuse Wei Ying entirely. And, he thinks, there is an answering response, a dark tickle at his own meridians, one that feels a little too welcome. Perhaps, he thinks wildly, there is a balance there, too. He feels Wei Ying seize at the idea, pick it over, push it away — frightened? Defiant?

“You can’t.” Frightened, then, his voice thready. Frightened that Lan Wangji will become less than he has been, with both of their power curled inside him, as if Wei Ying has ever made him less, as if Wei Ying hasn’t been pushing him into more since the day they first met. He strokes Wei Ying’s sides, reassuring.

“We will practice.” He is hard again, Wei Ying’s frustrated arousal mingling with his own desire. “For now, I have a more pressing concern.”

Wei Ying sits next to him, bruised and weary, golden-shining and happy, propped up on the cushions. Lan Wangji helps him drink the soup, draws back when Wei Ying flexes his left wrist and yelps in surprise.

“Wei Ying —”

“No, it’s. It’s a good yelp. Surprise, not pain. I broke it, when I… fell.” They both wince at the euphemism. “It healed badly, always twinged when I twisted it. But it’s as good as new, now.”

Lan Wangji stares at him. Wei Ying has played the dizi with that wrest flexed, has spun the practice swords, has… has gripped Lan Wangji’s cock, even though it must have pained him to do so.

“You did not say.”

“What was the point?” Wei Ying laughs, hollow. Lan Wangji had hoped to never hear that laugh again. “I didn’t think it could get better. I didn’t think you cared, before, and then when I knew you did, well. I knew you’d make the face you’re making now.”

“I always want to know, regardless.” Wei Ying looks down, away, his eyelashes casting shadows across his cheeks. The afternoon is drawing to a close, the light stretching thin. “Wei Ying. You did not think I cared?”

Wei Ying shrugs uncomfortably, fiddles with the blanket.

“I thought — before we got married, when Jiang Cheng came to find me. I was going to die. It was a problem. The wards would have collapsed, if I’d died, and nobody else was strong enough to maintain them.”

Lan Wangji bites his lip against the instinctive protest that that was not the problem with Wei Ying dying. Not the central one, anyway.

“And then they came with the offer, and I knew what the Emperor wanted. Or what his advisors wanted, anyway, I don’t want to —”

“Ge is not naive. He knew what they were asking.”

“Right. So. I thought it didn’t matter. I’d have guaranteed the Wens’ safety, and I knew that the Emperor would uphold that, that he would keep that promise. So I’d fixed that, and it didn’t matter that I was burning out, because I was going to burn out before they’d got any use out of me, before I could hurt anybody else. And you didn’t — the Wens were safe, and you didn’t —”

“I did.”

“Right. I know that. It’s just been — I was sort of looking forward to it, you know? Not in — oh, sweetheart, don’t make that face. Not like that. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to rest. It had been so long.” He laughs again, shakes his head. “Fuck, that’s mawkish. What kind of self-pitying bullshit, I’m sorry.”

“Do not apologise, if it is true. I want to hear what is true, even if it hurts to hear.”

Lan Wangji sets the bowl aside, and takes Wei Ying’s hands.

“I am sorry, that you did not know peace for so long. I am sorry it took me so long to come to you.

“Don’t —” Wei Ying looks tired, the glow faded from his skin now. Just him, human and battered at the edges, still the faded lilac of his dark circles. “Lan Zhan, you’re so good. I don’t deserve you.”

“You do. If you try to believe that, I will try to believe that I can be worthy of your trust.”

“Deal.” Wei Ying squeezes his hands, and tilts his head up for a kiss.

“We should try and stretch the bond,” Wei Ying says a little later, when he’s had time to think, when he’s had time to be kissed, slowly and thoroughly, had time for that endless curiosity of his to resurface. “The thought thing, I mean, but also to see if we can pass energy through it when we’re not touching.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji can see the sense in it — they cannot always be this close, and if they need to fight, as it is almost inevitable they will, they cannot rely on touch alone. There is still part of him that flinches away from the thought anyway, the wild, impractical part of him that wants to tear in two anybody who would separate them.

“So much thinking happening in there, huh.” Wei Ying places his thumbs on Lan Wangji’s temples and stares at him, as if he might be able to see the exact track of Lan Wangji’s thoughts. Lan Wangji does not think he can, not without him giving it to him, but even so.

“It should be a mutual transfer.”

“I don’t —” Wei Ying laughs, high-pitched and confused. Deliberately misunderstanding, given his earlier horror. Hoping Lan Wangji will back down in the face of it. Lan Wangji will not. “Lan Zhan, sweetheart, I don’t have anything to send back.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji opens the bond, closes his eyes, feels the places where the smoke swims through Wei Ying, keeping him buoyant, keeping him drowned. Both true at once, somehow.

“No!” Wei Ying draws back, wraps his arms around himself. Tries to laugh. Fails. “No, Lan Zhan, we’re not — I’m not letting that anywhere near you. You’re. No. No. We’re not even gonna try that.”

Lan Wangji looks back at him, undeterred. Lets him feel the certainty, the underpinning of faith.

“Perhaps not immediately. Small amounts, at first. Easy enough for me to dissolve within my core if I need to.” He does not think he will need to. There is too much in Wei Ying, but it is the balance that is the problem. Wei Ying has said it ten dozen times: the resentful energy will always be there, in the world. It is part of the natural order of things. Why should it not be used? Why should it not exist alongside the energy they cultivate? Lan Wangji had not known his own darkness, before Wei Ying, and now he cherishes it. That anger, that grief, that need — they are all a part of him, too. This can be, also, he thinks. “Wei Ying.” He holds his hands out, and Wei Ying takes them.

“We’ll… try. In the spirit of academic endeavour. But, Lan Zhan, you have to promise me —”

Lan Wangji kisses him. He will not let either of them suffer, if he can help it.

 

15.

They’re up to something. Skulking around the edges of Lotus Pier where they think he can’t see them, like he didn’t also grow up here, doesn’t also know all the best hiding spots. He makes awkward eye contact with one of the Emperor’s spies, sometimes, and after the third time they stop pretending not to see each other and just exchange eyerolls instead.

No matter how much he watches, Jiang Cheng can’t figure out their game plan. They kiss (which, they have an entire house in which to kiss, and yet they must persistently do it silhouetted against the sun, leaning into each other. Why.), and they stand further and further apart, Wei Wuxian glowing slightly. At least, Jiang Cheng thinks he’s glowing. He can’t be one hundred percent sure that all the soppy atmosphere isn’t rubbing off on him.

He stops watching them quite so closely after a week or so. He has the rest of a wedding to plan, and a sect to run, and the spies are quite literally paid to do nothing but mooch around after the two of them (Jiang Cheng hopes, for their sake, they get nights off), so there doesn’t seem to be much point watching them make meaningful eye contact across the ponds for hours on end. He still checks in sometimes. ‘Wei Wuxian is up to something’ is enough to send up alarm bells ringing that echo for days, and he can’t — if Lan Wangji is trying to —

He’s there, then, when it happens. When Wei Wuxian reaches out with smoke instead of light, and Lan Wangji’s eyes are closed, and then he’s jolting, his hand on Bichen swinging round, and Jiang Cheng is running before he’s even fully taken in what’s happened, not sure who he’s supposed to be attacking, a snarl on his lips before he looks again.

Wei Wuxian is cupping Lan Wangji’s face in his hands, whispering to him, not breaking contact even as Lan Wangji opens his eyes and looks directly at Jiang Cheng. Zidian sparks in the air, the only movement in the frozen tableau.

“What the fuck,” Jiang Cheng says, succintly.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji tries to incline his head, but Wei Wuxian still hasn’t let go of it, so it’s more of an awkward bob than anything else. Lan Wangji reaches up to disentangle himself, and Wei Wuxian grabs onto his hands instead, looking dazed and guilty. Jiang Cheng does not trust that guilty expression on Wei Wuxian’s face.

“What,” he repeats “the fuck. What are you —” he’s not sure who he should be blaming here, and settles for them both, “doing to each other, exactly. And why is it happening here, where anybody can see, including your brother’s fucking spies —” he looks up, and makes direct eye contact with one of them, the one who likes to give Jiang Cheng a friendly wave. Now is not the time for that, and he hastily looks back at Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, who are back to staring intently at one another. Jiang Cheng sort of wants to start waving in their faces.

“Jiang Cheng —” Wei Wuxian starts, voice queasily appeasing, and Jiang Cheng will not be appeased, not before he finds out exactly what is happening. Wei Wuxian must see something of that on his face because he grins instead, broad and cheeky and wholly insincere. “We were dual cultivating,” he finishes instead, presumably hoping that Jiang Cheng will be so revolted at the whole concept that he’ll give up and leave them alone. He sort of wants to, but also they’re outside, not even holding hands most of the time. Whatever dual cultivation actually consists of, outside myth, Jiang Cheng is pretty fucking sure it involves some kind of touch.

“I’m not blind, Wei Wuxian. You’re just standing on hilltops, glowily pouting at each other, that’s not —”

“I’m actually. It kind of is? I —” another piercing look at Lan Wangji. Married people are supposed to get less unbearable, but Wei Wuxian has, as ever, not taken note of that particular societal cue. “It’s easier if we show you, probably. We’ve only got it down one way, we were — um. We’re working on it being reciprocal, but it’s a bit. Well, you saw. Lan Zhan can you —” he flaps his hands, and Jiang Cheng thanks the gods for the hundredth time that Lan Wangji is as gone on his shixiong as Wei Wuxian is on him, because it’s the kind of dismissive gesture that would get another man executed on sight.

Lan Zhan nods, mounts Bichen, and flies away, vanishing behind the central buildings.

“Perfect, that should be far enough that he can’t hear. So, um. So, tell me something, like a stupid phrase, something he shouldn’t be able to guess, and we’ll —”

“Wei Wuxian, you absolute moron, are you —”

“No, no, Jiang Cheng! Something he won’t be able to guess!” Wei Wuxian is laughing, bright peals of genuine laughter at a joke that Jiang Cheng still doesn’t understand.

“I. Very well.” He tries to think of something that won’t result in his imminent death if Lan Wangji has to repeat it. “Lotus Pier is grateful for your presence,” he says, eventually, which has the dual benefit of being, unfortunately, true, and of making Wei Wuxian splutter, wide-eyed. He goes distant for a second, vacant, and then Lan Wangji is flying back over the water, and landing, and repeating back to Jiang Cheng exactly what he’d said.

“What.”

“Dual cultivation! We were — the glowing was energy transfer. Look!” Lan Wangji reaches out, not even touching Wei Wuxian, just directing the flow of his qi, and Wei Wuxian lights up, golden-bright. Looking at him now, Jiang Cheng realises that Wei Wuxian looks healthier. His face no longer gaunt, his movements easier, more free. He’d thought — he’d thought it was just being here. Eating well, being where he belonged, out of the stifling embrace of Gusu Lan. It’s the exact opposite, as it turns out, Wei Wuxian twining himself even closer to the Lans, immersing himself in his husband’s energy entirely.

“So I see,” he manages through gritted teeth. “I look forward to welcoming you back to the sword path in that case, Wei Wuxian.” It’s calculated, a pointed reminder that he’d seen more than that, had seen the resentful energy. It’s meant to hurt, but Wei Wuxian’s flinch still feels like a visceral blow, a noose around his own neck. Wei Wuxian laughs, strangled this time, and Lan Wangji’s face goes utterly blank.

All of a sudden, Jiang Cheng can’t look at them anymore. Can’t look at the way they look at each other, like they can just say things, and it’s fine. He turns on his heel and storms away.

Dinner that night is a frosty affair. Jiang Cheng thinks they won’t show at first, but Lan Wangji’s shadow falls across the table mere moments before their lateness could be considered rude. He bows to Jiang Cheng, short, as his station befits, and Wei Wuxian is so close behind him, lingering in the darkness, that Jiang Cheng almost doesn’t notice him sit down too — doesn’t, until the ringing sound of metal shatters the silence, and he whips round.

Wei Wuxian is wearing a sword.

It isn’t Suibian — Jiang Cheng still has that locked in his rooms — but it’s definitely a spiritual sword, one of the training ones, emanating a low hum of energy. Wei Wuxian looks back at him, head half-ducked, eyes blazing, and Jiang Cheng nods.

“You should take it back,” he says, “I’ll have someone bring Suibian after we’ve eaten.”

Wei Wuxian looks panicked almost, glances quickly at Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng attempts to tamp down his instinctive annoyance — what does it have to do with him, it’s Wei Wuxian’s sword — and tries instead to look commanding, and sure of himself, and like it’s the normal thing to do, to give one’s sect brother back his sword after he’d been sort of thrown out and then dark lording it all over the place for five years.

Wei Wuxian’s hands do not shake when he takes Suibian back. He sags though, at the weight or something else, Jiang Cheng isn’t sure, takes half a stumbling step back, and Lan Wangji is there before Jiang Cheng can be, an odd reversal of their positions at the wedding, Lan Wangji’s hands on Wei Wuxian’s arm and Wei Wuxian’s pale face looking up at his.

If someone had offered Jiang Cheng Wei Wuxian’s silence — or Wei Wuxian’s silence when it came to bothering the Second Son of Jade, at least — all those years ago, he does not think he would have hesitated to take it. So why does the silence ring so violently now, why is the absence of Wei Wuxian’s chattering rejoinder to Lan Wangji such a hollow, such a visceral shape that Jiang Cheng’s mouth forms around a scornful dismissal even as he realises nothing has been said. Not out loud, anyway. Jiejie watches them smiling, as if what they are doing is romantic.

When, later, Jiang Cheng points out the danger is courting, she only hums, thoughtful.

“A-Xian should wear his sword to the wedding. A public statement, the two of them walking the sword path together. It will be harder to have him go back to being just a weapon, after that.”

“They’ll still — even without all that bullshit, they’re still, together.” Jiang Cheng stilled, his jaw working. “They’re powerful,” he managed, not even painful to say, after all that. “Powerful enough apart, and together I don’t know what they could do. The Emperor would be a fool not to recognise that. He isn’t, and neither is Meng Yao.”

“No. But people don’t want to want another weapon, not now. They don’t want to remember that they used one in the first place. If they see — Xianxian looks so much better. If they see that, that physical reminder, and that reminder that Lan Wangji is with him —”

“People don’t trust Lan Wangji anymore.”

“All the more reason for them to forget. They want to. Things were easier when they were unassailable.”

“The Jins do not believe the dynasty unassailable,” Jiang Cheng said, and then cursed himself immediately as jiejie’s face tightened, a shifting flicker of pain in the corner of her mouth. “I’m sorry, a-jie.”

“No. No, A-Cheng. Jin-zongzhu is not, after all, a wise man. But the other sects would prefer not to back him, I think. Not if they feel like they have another option, not if things are at peace again.”

“Do we know — I haven’t asked him. About the Seal. I —” Jiang Cheng does not know if Wei Wuxian would tell him. Isn’t wholly sure which is worse.

“He has destroyed it.” Jiejie cracks open a lotus pod, knuckles white, and the seeds glisten. “He told me, the first night he was here. He thought,” her eyes fill with tears, and she shakes her head, swallows them down. There is so much she has swallowed down, over the years, and Jiang Cheng feels the rage rise like bile: unfilial, unwanted, earned. He kneels down, and buries his face in her shoulder, where she can stroke his hair and pretend that he cannot feel her cry. Their brother, a little more human than they had hoped, a little bit more theirs than they ever thought he could be again.

 

16.

Wei Ying finds it difficult to look at him as they walk back from the evening meal. Suibian rests heavy on his hip, and Lan Wangji can feel it there, reaching out for him, for the places of him Wei Ying has touched.

He should not have closed his eyes. It may have been easier to sense Wei Ying’s mind that way, the first tentative, flickering trails of amber light in his upper dantian that leapt joyfully at his touch, but it was too much — there’d been the touch of smoke against his cheek, and he had been back in the Wen Administration Office, watching black flood the room and Wei Ying’s blank face turn from him again and again and again. He’d sat through enough of Wei Ying’s screaming nightmares to know just how much that blankless was covering up, and in his own dreams it is stripped away: torn skin, bleeding eyes, and Wei Ying’s soundless agony, a schism through his heart.

Lan Wangji stills himself, finds the golden pulse at his core and aligns himself with it. Reaches one tentative hand out to find Wei Ying’s, even if he looks away. Lan Wangji is almost glad that he knows that he can look away, that Wei Ying no longer finds the waterlogged smile he shows his brother, the frenzied cheer when he had tried to pretend that all they were doing was dual cultivation. It should be strange, to have got to the point of dismissing the stuff of myth and legend as just, as another thing they have leapt past, superceded, but when Lan Wangji looks at Wei Ying it is not. It feels right, that this is another thing Wei Ying’s mind — and Wen Qing’s, and Lan Wangji’s own, but mostly Wei Ying’s desperate, leaping drive towards invention — has conjured to wrap around himself. He is glad that, at last, this will be something he can truly share in.

Wei Ying’s hand is limp in his own, but he does not pull away until they get to their quarters. Then, Wei Ying turns from him, digs into his pocket, blows, and slumps into Lan Wangji’s arms, unconscious. Lan Wangji feels panic run through him, the same lightning-bolt certainty as before that everything has gone wrong, that they are not free, after all, that the same dogged disaster that has haunted them is wrapped around them still and then —

Wei Ying’s paper hand touches his cheek, and shows it to Lan Wangji. The hand is sodden with Lan Zhan’s tears, flopping, useless. The paperman shakes its head, and runs along his shoulder, straddling his ear, pressing paper kisses to his temple.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes. The paperman taps his temple again, and Lan Wangji probes for it, that thread of connection. It is still there, more… compact than before, flattened to fit this little paper shape, but still Wei Ying, still pushing the edges.

Wei Ying

It’s me!

A brush along his forehead, and the little paperman leaps into Lan Wangji’s waiting hand.

Look!

I am looking.

How far do you think it goes, like this? Do you think it’s the same?

Mm. I cannot imagine otherwise.

Wei Ying sends him little sparks of delight, and turns to face the flesh-and-blood Wei Ying, still leaning against Lan Wangji’s side. He leaps onto his elbow, and touches Wei Ying’s unconscious face. Lan Wangji waits for the spark of mischief, for the ‘handsome!’, for the lewd remark, but all that happens is that the paperman flops backwards, and Wei Ying opens his eyes.

“You were scared of me,” he says. It is not accusing. Perhaps it should be.

“That is not exactly —”

“Lan Zhan,” he extracts himself from Lan Wangji’s arms, and stands with his arms across his chest, face determined. “Lan Zhan, don’t bullshit me on this, alright? I could feel it. You were scared, of — you didn’t want it touching you. I don’t blame you! But we should stop. You shouldn’t have to feel like that.”

“I was scared. It was not of you.”

“Lan Zhan —”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan takes a step towards him, wraps Wei Ying’s hands around his own skull. “For you, always. Of you, never. I have my own nightmares, Wei Ying, and in mine, you do not wake up.”

“Lan Zhan —”

“No. My fear is not yours, Wei Ying.” Wei Ying’s face stiffens, and Lan Wangji recognises his own blankness. Wonders, for the first time, if he is who Wei Ying learnt it from, and wants to rip the thought from his own mind. “Wei Ying,” his voice softer this time, reaching even as Wei Ying tries to step further away. “Wei Ying, we should try again.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You will not.”

“You don’t know that.”

Lan Wangji does, knows that Wei Ying could tear him apart and that he would bear it. At least I will die by your hand has never been entirely one-way.

“Try. I promise I will tell you, if it is too much.”

“You have to stop me, if I can’t stop myself.” Wei Ying holds his wrists out, so breakable in Lan Wangji’s grip. “You have to promise me you’ll stop me, or I won’t do it.”

Wei Ying has not lost control since they have begun the process of dual cultivation — even his nightmares are gentler now — but Lan Wangji knows that fear takes longer than that to unlearn. He shifts his grip so that Wei Ying can feel the pressure, can feel the place where Lan Wangji could snap his bones, and Wei Ying’s shoulders relax, his weight tilting forwards into his feet.

He starts slow, soft. A little touch of darkness, a whisper in the night, and there is no creep of crimson in Wei Ying’s eyes but Lan Wangji still feels the wet pulse of blood through his body, aware of all the places he could be flayed. He breathes through it. It is Wei Ying, just another thing of Wei Ying’s, and he lets it wrap itself around his lower dantian and squeeze.

It is hard to fight the instinct to dissipate it entirely. Hard not to do what he has been trained from birth to do: to vanquish the darkness. Hard to look at it instead, look at the pain and rage that fuels it, and see the natural reverse of the peace and springing joy that emanates from his golden core. Slowly, he breathes, and slowly, they twist together, and slowly, Lan Wangji realises something: whatever his initial academic justifications, this is not the same resentful energy that he has spent his life fighting. This is energy that has spent years inside of Wei Ying, holding him together, and as he is absorbed it, so it has absorbed him. There is Wei Ying inside of this, too, and Lan Wangji has never been afraid of Wei Ying.

He opens his eyes, and sees Wei Ying looking back at him, tears pooling in his eyes.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Wei Ying, can you feel it?”

Wei Ying shakes his head. He’s shaking from the effort of keeping it slow, and Lan Wangji wants him to stop, wants the rush instead. He tries to show him, to show him how they’re entwined, the thread between their heads, between their chests, between their stomachs, how easy it would be to knit those threads together, to have them become one. Wei Ying stumbles at the push of qi, falls into Lan Wangji’s arms properly, losing his grip on the flow and there is a tearing in his lower dantian — no, not a tearing, not anything as permanent as that, a stretching, sore muscle not broken bone — and Wei Ying is gasping, screaming, and Lan Wangji thinks he maybe is, too, somewhere.

Together, they fall.

Three hours later, Lan Wangji wakes up in a bed, with Wei Ying’s sect siblings hovering over him. He blinks, his vision still doubled, and fumbles for Wei Ying’s hand. Doesn’t fumble. Knows exactly where it is, despite not being able to see him, or feel him. He knows exactly where Wei Ying’s body is, how the sheets feel against his skin, his burgeoning headache at Jiang Wanyin’s unwavering stare. Can see Jiang Yanli’s shrewd, thoughtful gaze, even though she is on the other side of the bed.

Wei Ying takes his hand, squeezes, and his vision wobbles, solidifies itself. Lan Wangji closes his eyes and the room spins, and he is looking out of Wei Ying’s eyes, instead.
“What,” Jiang Wanyin’s voice is quaking with barely contained fury, “have you done?”

“Your Royal Highness,” Jiang Yanli comes round the bed and bows, lower than she should. “We apologise for moving you, but we heard you both screaming, and found you both unconscious. A healer has been sent for.”

“There is no need,” Lan Wangji says, feeling Wei Ying’s sharp, fracturing alarm. “I believe — I believe we have solved our problem.”

“Even so. It would put us at ease.”

Wei Ying says nothing. Lan Wangji can feel the way his mind tumbles in search of a suitable lie, the low throb of resignation and dread.

“Jiang-furen. I cannot allow a healer to see us.” He tries to imbue his voice with all the authority he can, but Jiang Yanli is unmoved. Lan Wangji’s heart sings for her fierce love, but it is, admittedly, inconvenient at this present moment.

Wei Ying rolls over onto his side. “Shijie. Shijie, I have to —” he grits his teeth against it, but he is resolved. He sits up, faces his siblings. “Lan Zhan has been sharing his power with me, to help me counteract the effects of the resentful energy. It has been difficult, not a permanent solution. I have been — I don’t have —” he stops. Please, he says, in Lan Zhan’s mind, please, you’ll say it right. You’ll make it sound better.

“Wei Ying did not have a golden core, when he returned from the Burial Mounds,” Lan Wangji says. He lets himself stress ‘returned’ and ‘Burial Mounds’: if Wen Zhuliu can melt cores with his hand, it is not so odd that there would have been a creature of resentment that could have destroyed Wei Ying’s core when he was already fighting for his life. Jiang Yanli’s face does nothing: only her hands tremble. She is waiting for the rest of it. Jiang Wanyin, however, leaps forward, mouth stretched in a snarl, as if he can do anything now, as if he has not already made all the mistakes he can make.

“Wei Wuxian! You should have —”

“He saved his life.” Lan Wangji will not apologise for speaking over his host. “He saved his own life, and those of the Wens, and he won the Sunshot Campaign for us, whilst it was killing him from the inside out.”

“Lan Zhan —”

“You should be proud of him.” He has to fight to keep his own voice from a snarl. He is not Jiang Wanyin, and he will not allow what he says to be anything other than the level, absolute truth. “We should be begging for his forgiveness. I should be.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying is begging now, and that’s all wrong. “Lan Zhan, that’s not. That’s not important now. What’s important is that we fixed it —” Lan Zhan is not sure which of them is shaking. Perhaps both. “We found a solution. We just, didn’t, ah, expect to. Quite so soon. But we can’t talk to a healer about this, not even the ones here. We can write to Wen Qing —”

Lan Wangji does not think Wei Ying sees the way his brother flinches at the mention of Wen Qing’s name, but Lan Wangji recognises his own face on Jiang Wanyin’s. A patchwork of agony and guilt and hopelessness, the same flinch Lan Wangji had turned inside, a hundred little artery bruises every time someone had mentioned the Yiling Patriarch. They have both done what they can, then. They have both failed, and Lan Wangji has been forgiven by fate. Been forgiven by Wei Ying. The same thing in the end, perhaps.

“Are you — but you have it back? Did you —”

“Not quite. Not — Ah, Jiang Cheng, aren’t there things it is better not to know?”

“No.” Jiang Wanyin’s gaze is hard, and Wei Ying laughs into the brute force of it, bends his body around it like a blow.

“Ah, well. Lan Zhan?”

“We are sharing my core.”

And Wei Ying’s own power, he does not say. There are things it is better for them not to know. He knows what they are, now. Knows what they could do. It would be better for the world to believe that he is halved than to know the weapon they could be.

“Thank you, Hanguang-Jun,” Jiang Yanli says, as her brother splutters. “Thank you. A-Ying, A-Cheng and I spoke earlier. I wondered if you might wear Suibian to my wedding. As the First Disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.”

“Yes,” Wei Ying gulps, shivers, stands up. Wraps himself in his sister’s arms. The sensations through their shared core have resolved themselves, and even now they are no longer touching Lan Wangji can better feel the boundaries of himself, the places where he ends.

“Your Royal Highness.” Jiang Wanyin holds out a letter. “This is why I came — well. This just arrived.”

Lan Wangji takes it. Thick paper, marked with the crest of Gusu Lan, and his brother’s Imperial seal. Lan Wangji knows what it will say: Wangji, we look forward to seeing you at the wedding, and hope you can join us for the journey back, or, Wangji, I hope you and Wei Wuxian have had a restful trip. I look forward to hearing what you have learnt. Nothing that would acknowledge that Lan Wangji has been watched this whole time — although Xichen must know Lan Wangji can sense even his best spies. No orders, not exactly, that is not Zewu-Jun’s way. A hint, a little pressure, an understanding, and he and Wei Ying will be back in Cloud Recesses.

Lan Wangji knows it is not Lotus Pier that has eased Wei Ying’s nightmares, not Lotus Pier alone that has brought them closer together. But Cloud Recesses is wreathed with shadows, and if they are watched here then that is doubly true of the Imperial Palace.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying takes the letter from him. He has not opened it, but he nods, and Wei Ying does it for him, scans it, and Lan Wangji feels him come to the same conclusion as he had.

“What is it?” Jiang Wanyin asks.

“Nothing. We knew — Lan Zhan. We knew we had to go back, after the wedding.”

Jiang Wanyin does not say anything, and Lan Wangji is glad for the lack of pretence. They leave shortly after, Jiang Yanli giving Wei Ying one last, lingering hug.

“Lan Wangji,” she says. “I would be honoured if you would sit with us, at the wedding. As part of our family.”

“The honour is mine.”

They’re ours, too, she’s saying. They’re ours, no matter what you want to make them.

Wei Ying is on him as soon as the Jiangs have left the room, his hands almost violent in their clumsiness, tearing at Lan Wangji’s robes, catching on the folds.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji catches his hands, stops himself from returning the violence twofold. “Wei Ying, breathe.”

“You’re inside of me,” Wei Ying says, his same words from the other week, but with a wholly new intonation. “And I’m inside of you, we — are we stuck together, now?”

Lan Wangji prods at the stretch in his lower dantian. It does not feel finite, and, after all, he and Wei Ying are capable of anything.

“No. Not if you do not wish to be. You may still roam.”

“Right, right,” Wei Ying seems distracted, wiggling in Lan Wangji’s grasp, “but you’re — this is forever, Lan Zhan. What you’ve given me.”

“As was your decision.”

“This wasn’t — we didn’t know!”

Ah. Lan Wangij tightens his grip.

“I would do it again, had I known. Had I known this was possible I would have made it five years ago. Before then, even.” The same promise he has made before, the same promise he will make again, about whatever it is Wei Ying needs. He lets Wei Ying feel how much he means it, feel the underpinning of his sincerity, the wash of his love, his regret. Something dark, something of Wei Ying’s, something of his, curls in his stomach, and he feels it echoed in the ferocity of Wei Ying’s grin.

“Can you feel — Lan Zhan. They won’t be able to kill us.” Me, he means, Meng Yao’s silken threats still lingering, the eyes of the cultivation world still narrowed, still watchful. There is no separating their deaths now, though, and Lan Wangji cannot be anything but grateful for the fact.

“No. Do you want to give them cause to try?”

There’s a thousand injustices that Lan Wangji has seen since Wei Ying opened his eyes to the possibility of seeing them. He would not be opposed, he does not think, to the kind of upheaval their power could bring. If there is a way —

“You don’t want to hurt your brother.”

“No.”

“Then we will do our best not to. We can be smart about this, Zhan-ge.” He smiles, more fully now, a rueful tilt to it. “Well. You can be smart about it. And shijie and Jiang Cheng can be smart about it. I’ll just feel very strongly about things.”

Lan Wangji kisses their joined knuckles.

“We made a vow together. We have upheld it separately for too long.”

“Mm. When we return, then. We will think of something.”

Lan Wangji tilts his forehead against Wei Ying’s and closes his eyes. Like this, their upper dantians pressed close together, the thrum of the bond is overwhelming, and Lan Wangji lets himself drown, lets himself feel the messy tangle of Wei Ying’s emotion and the steady, astonished love at the heart of him.

“Hey, Lan-er-gege?”

“Mn?”

“We fixed it. Does that mean you’ll stop being so cruel to me?”

“No.”

He drops Wei Ying’s wrists, brings them up to his neck instead, and drags him into a kiss. They are almost equally matched, and Lan Wangji’s blood sings with the renewed challenge, with Wei Ying’s strength arched against his as Wei Ying struggles, kicks, bites at Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji topples them sideways, gets his weight on top of Wei Ying, who kicks at the mattress, tries to shove himself backwards and up, spitting out vitriol — and all the while Lan Wangji can feel his soaring glee, and shoots back his own vicious delight.

“Show me what you would have done to me on our wedding night, Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Ying spits. “Show me how you would have tamed the Yiling Patriarch.”

He laughs when Lan Wangji shudders, grinds up against him, not quite able to hold the mocking sneer in the face of Lan Wangji’s obvious arousal.

“Show me,” he says again, softer this time, more request than demand.

Lan Wangji hauls him up, divests him of his robes, Wei Ying squirming, scratching his nails along Lan Wangji’s arms until Lan Wangji grips his throat again, thumb pressing against his artery, and Wei Ying shivers in his arms and slumps, blinking wide up at him. He does not manage to fight again until Lan Wangji has him back down on the bed, spreading his legs, pushing his face down onto the mattress. He swings out wildly with one fist, and Lan Wangji lets it bounce off him, absorbs the dull thud of pain.

“It will not matter, in the end, how much you struggle,” he says. “You have promised yourself to me, and I will take what is mine.”

“You — I cannot, you cannot —” Wei Ying appears to have lost his train of thought, and Lan Wangji takes advantage of his distraction, pulling his wrists tight and securing them with Wei Ying’s own belt.

“I can.”

He reaches for the slick, and slides two wet fingers into Wei Ying, relishing the way he opens up easily. The Wei Ying of their fantasy would not have done so, however, and so he adds another finger, Wei Ying yelping, turning his head to scowl at Lan Wangji.

“So — so cruel, do you think I am just, just a body to be used for the great Hanguang-Jun’s entertainment, is this why you married me, er-gege, to satisfy your appetites, nobody would believe —”

Lan Wangji leans down and bites the plush curve of Wei Ying’s ass. It sinks satisfyingly beneath his teeth, and Wei Ying whimpers.

“They do not need to believe, Wei Ying. You and I both know what I am capable of.”

And with that he thrusts into Wei Ying, who cries out beneath him, back twisting cruelly where his hands are bound. He has no purchase, nothing to hold his torso up, is forced to submit to the push and pull of Lan Zhan’s hands. Even so, he attempts to struggle, each desperate, wriggling shove a sweet, clenching tension around Lan Wangji’s dick. He is crying, his breath wet and panting, and Lan Wangji tightens his grip around his hair, shoves down hard on his shoulder, brushes his throat again, a warning.

“I do not need you to be conscious, Wei Ying,” he says. It is a guess, mostly, but underneath him Wei Ying goes entirely still, his thoughts emptying out like water in a bath. “Perhaps I should choke you. Perhaps I should take your helpless body. Perhaps, then, you would learn what you are to me.”

Wei Ying is now completely incoherent, only able to utter half-syllables of Lan Wangji’s name in between choked-off sobs. Lan Wangji speeds up, watches Wei Ying’s closed, tear-blooming eyes, the way he turns his head to bite his own arm, curled up against the scream in his chest, and the steady beat under it all of yes, yes, yes as Lan Wangji builds to his own relief. He comes with a shocked, startling gasp, bracketing Wei Ying’s body with his own, stays in Wei Ying as long as he can, circling his hips through his own aftershocks, pushing Wei Ying’s hips up to reach for his dick. Wei Ying makes no noise at all when he comes, just opens his eyes, contorting himself to stare up at Lan Wangi. For a moment, everything between them is ringing, astounded silence, and then Wei Ying collapses forwards.

“Fuck. Fuck, oh gods, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangi slides out, and reaches for Wei Ying’s belt, rubs life back into his sore, reddened wrists. Wei Ying stares at him blankly as he turns him over, looks up at him with uncomprehending eyes as Lan Wangji licks the come off his stomach, rubbing along his cramping arms as he does so.

“Lan Zhan?”

“Shhh.” Lan Wangi kisses the tip of Wei Ying’s dick, still flushed, still pinkly curving upwards. “I have you, my Wei Ying. I have you, my love.”

There’s a flicker of amusement through the bond, half a joke that Wei Ying doesn’t commit to making. Lan Wangji settles back alongside Wei Ying, kissing as much of his skin as he can reach. They fall asleep like that, naked limbs entwined, Wei Ying’s heavy breathing in Lan Wangi’s ear.

When Lan Wangi wakes, it is light, and Wei Ying is still asleep. They have slept through the night.

 

17.

Two weeks later, on the morning before jiejie’s wedding, Jiang Cheng wakes up to Wei Wuxian practicing sword forms.

He hears the grunts, the slice of metal through the air, and steps out to find Wei Wuxian dripping with sweat, Suibian in his hands. His movements are less steady than they once were, less fluent, and Jiang Cheng is pretty sure a couple of the senior disciples would find gaps in his blocks, but it’s still —

“You get kicked out of bed?” he yells, and Wei Ying shrieks, and only just doesn’t drop the sword. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, and waits for Wei Ying to scamper across to him.

“Well?” he asks again. “What are you doing up so early?”

“I’m practicing, Jiang Cheng. You remember that, right? You remember how I’d —” he breaks off, and laughs awkwardly, scrubbing his hand through his damp hair. Jiang Cheng reaches out, and swats him with the back of one hand.

“Getting all dirty just before jiejie’s wedding is what you’re doing. Go! Go, get ready, I don’t need to be worrying about you being covered in dust in front of the entire cultivation world on top of everything.”

Wei Ying smiles, and does not mention that the cultivation world has seen him dressed in far worse than dust. Does not mention that they have a long sword-flight ahead of them, that they will land windswept and red-cheeked. He turns, Suibian still swinging from his hand, and Jiang Cheng fights the instinctive surge of nostalgia at the sight. He will not be distracted from jiejie’s wedding by — by swooning over his idiotic brother being able to pick up a sword again. (Able he thinks, he was unable, he wasn’t — he was never trying to — but he cannot, he cannot, not when they must all depart at any moment, not when he has received word that the Emperor arrived at Lanling Jin the night before. Not whilst Wei Wuxian is still here, finding his way back to the prince, and tying himself to him in a way that Jiang Cheng will never be able to touch. Not —)

Jiang Cheng spins on his heel, and goes in search of his steward.

Jiejie had left a week ago, along with the bulk of her retinue, and everything she will take with her to her new home. The days since have felt unbalanced, and Jiang Cheng’s steps have been heavier than normal, as if trying to prove the ground is still solid. Lanling Jin had given them five years to mourn, to rebuild the sect side-by-side, and a week is not long enough to adjust. If five years had not been enough time to forget how they’d once been a three, Jiang Cheng cannot be expected to learn how to govern alone in a week. And yet, the requests keep coming, the calls for aid, minor sects already profferring their daughters, as if Yunmeng Jiang can afford a third wedding so soon. As if Jiang Cheng has time to think about matters of the heart, when there is so much to be done, and his sister is —

He wrenches the thought away. It is not the same. It is 10 hours by sword to Lanling Jin, and the butterflies take even less time than that. She will write, share her steady wisdom in her sloping hand, and she will visit in the summers. The summers are for Lotus Pier, they’d written that into the marriage contract. The winters will not seem longer for her absence, they will be exactly as long as they have always been, and Jiang Cheng will see them through as he always has: with a heart ready for spring, and wood aplenty in the storehouses.

Wei Wuxian does not ride Suibian to Carp Tower, and Jiang Cheng bites his tongue against the instinctive comment when Wei Wuxian wraps his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist, and climbs aboard Bichen instead. He received a second chance, and Wei Wuxian was not so lucky. Perhaps there was only one favour Baoshan Sanren was able to grant.

The Jin guards who greet them at the gates to Carp Tower are skittish, watching Wei Wuxian with wide eyes. Jiang Cheng glares at them, and demands to be received by Jin Guangshan, as is his right as sect leader, as his right as the brother of the bride. The man may be despicable, but Jiang Cheng will be treated with respect. Even so, he gets through the bows as quickly as he can, and drags Wei Wuxian out to find jiejie, who is resting in her rooms. She opens her arms, and smiles, widely, enfolding them both in her embrace.

“It’s not too late to get out of it, shijie,” Wei Wuxian says, entirely serious. “Jiang Cheng will have a heart attack, but he’d still help you to.”

“I am happy with the decision I have made,” jiejie says, firmly. “I am glad you are happy with yours, too, A-Xian. A-Cheng —”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, already backing away. “Absolutely not. I have a sect to run.”

Jiejie’s face breaks open into laughter, and Jiang Cheng watches her, his heart bursting in his chest.

Later, Jiang Cheng will remember very little of the actual wedding. Wei Wuxian’s own remains oddly clear in his mind, crystallised by fear, the frail, veiled shape of his sect brother haunting the periphery of every moment, but jiejie’s is a different affair immediately: a bittersweet blur, a release of five years of building pressure, and Jiang Cheng allows himself to get happily, blissfully drunk. In the morning he will mostly remember Nie Huaisang’s uproarious laughter, and spinning jiejie around, and Wei Wuxian’s arm around his waist as he carries him back to his room.

Before that — before the shape of the event fractures into smaller conversations, into feasting and drinking and laughter, before jiejie disappears into the wedding chamber, before Jin Guanshan’s endless, pontificating speechifying — they walk into the hall, and all eyes turn to watch Wei Wuxian. His hand rests on his sword, and Lan Wangji narrows his eyes at the unconcealed wind-rustle of whispers that runs around the room. Wei Wuxian smiles, and holds out his hand, and Lan Wangji takes it, lacing their fingers together. He bumps his shoulder against Jiang Cheng’s. This was not the plan — not the show of unimpeachable righteousness that they had envisioned — but perhaps it is better. Wei Wuxian is not just his return to the sword path, not just the Prince’s husband. He is somebody who holds hands, and teases, and laughs. A person who rankles, perhaps, but nevertheless a person. A little harder to make into a monster.

Jiang Cheng catches the Emperor’s eye, just before he sinks into a bow. He thinks, perhaps, that this time the smile is real. He is not sure how much it matters. In the morning, he will be gone, and he will have taken Wei Wuxian with him.

“Wei Wuxian!”

Jiang Cheng stumbles out of Carp Tower, resisting the urge to clutch his head. His tolerance had gone up, some time during the war — odd, given how little time they’d all had to drink — but last night had been something else, and his golden core is struggling to leech the effects of the alcohol from his blood. The Emperor’s carriages are clustered in the dusty road, Wei Wuxian’s bobbing red ribbon visible from the steps.

“Wei Wuxian!”

This time he does turn, one hand still in Lan Wangji’s, pulling his husband with him. Is it not enough that they are married, that they are returning to live together? Must they comport themselves in such a manner? But then Wei Wuxian is tugging his hand out of Lan Wangji’s grip, and walking towards him, hands behind his back, head tilted, smiling.

“I didn’t expect to see you up this early.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jiang Cheng bites back a burp as the last of the ill-advised baiju makes itself known. “Were you going to leave without saying goodbye?”

Wei Wuxian shrugs, and laughs, which means yes. “I didn’t think you’d be awake! Shijie certainly won’t be.”

They pull twin faces of horror at what that implies, and then Jiang Cheng is laughing too, he can’t help it, Wei Ying’s scrunched-up nose and wide eyes and twisted mouth are so familiar, so dramatic, so ridiculous.

“You’d better come back for her first visit.”

Wei Wuxian holds three fingers up, and nods hard. Jiang Cheng knocks him on the shoulder, and watches him stumble, and feels off-balance himself. He still hasn’t learnt how to say goodbye to Wei Wuxian, even with all his practice. It still feels like something he shouldn’t have to say.

“Well then,” he manages.

“Well then.” Wei Wuxian rocks back on his heels, readjusts his stance. “Tell shijie I’ll come and rescue her whenever.”

“Tell her yourself. You can still hold a brush, can’t you?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile gentles, and Jiang Cheng has to look away. “I’ll write to both of you.”

“I’ll be busy.”

“I know.”

Jiang Cheng sways forwards, quite without thinking. He’s not sure how his arms wrap around Wei Wuxian, or when his treacherous chin tucks itself against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, but somehow they are still hugging, Wei Wuxian arms coming tentatively up to hold him back. There is a squeeze, a moment of stillness, and then Wei Wuxian claps him on the back, and they step apart.

Behind him, the Emperor is watching them. Lan Wangji too, but that is to be expected, and Jiang Cheng has grown almost used to his gaze, these last few weeks. He bows his head to the Emperor, and looks behind him, where Meng Yao hovers like a shadow. He would do well to keep watching, he thinks. He would do well to understand that Wei Wuxian is Yunmeng Jiang’s as much as he is Gusu Lan’s.

“Be seeing you, Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian takes a step back, hands back behind his back.

“Try and stay out of trouble, this time.”

He only laughs, and turns, and prances back down to Lan Wangji, who does not look back at Jiang Cheng, but only opens the door of the carriage, and helps Wei Wuxian step inside. Jiang Cheng does not stay to see them ride away. He has seen it before, after all. The dust cloud they will leave behind is not a reminder he needs.

He, too, has a long journey ahead of him.

 

18.

Lan Wangji is cold. Cold and — small, somehow, or maybe everything around him is big, and nobody will look at him, or perhaps there is nobody to look at him, anymore, or perhaps both are true all at once, and he’s so cold, cold in a way he hasn’t been since childhood, bone-deep ice-saw gnaw of it, and —

“Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji turns, movements sluggish through the snow. There is a boy there — about his age, although he hadn’t been aware of his age until just now, seeing him. Black, straight hair, thinner than he should be.

“Lan Zhan, it’s me, it’s Wei Ying. Can I —” and the boy steps forwards, and wraps his arms around Lan Wangji, his heart beating fast against Lan Wangji’s chest. Something in Lan Wangji settles, but it’s not enough. He wants — he wants his Wei Ying, he thinks. His —

“Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji blinks awake, Wei Ying’s worried face taking a moment to resolve itself into clarity above him. They are in the jingshi, and it is morning, the pale light washing Wei Ying’s face like a wave.

“I apologise,” he says, stiffly, and makes to move away, but Wei Ying pushes at him, shakes his head.

“Don’t be an idiot. I’m glad I was there — also, it’s fucking awesome that we can share dreams now, but — I’m glad. Is the point.” Wei Ying is so good. As if he doesn’t have enough to carry, without having Lan Wangji’s childhood misery permeate his bones.

“I wish I could have been there, for yours,” he says. Wei Ying looks horrified, reels back with a scoff.

“Um, no! No, haha, Lan Zhan, nobody needs to see that, wow, absolutely not. I am. No. It’s all good, anyways! No nightmares!”

‘No nightmares’ is not quite true, Lan Wangji thinks. He doesn’t think it will ever be entirely true for either of them. Less, certainly, and Wei Ying falls into sleep much more easily than he used to. Lan Wangji will take the victories where he can find them. He frowns at Wei Ying, and Wei Ying laughs, and caresses the stubborn lines of his face.

“I wish I had met your mother, er-gege,” he says, voice soft and honest. “I wish we had both had the chance to know her, as we are now.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji swallows around the painful lump of the thought. “You would have liked her. She also liked to tease me.”

“A woman of excellent taste then. Ahhh, I wish we had known each other as babies, Lan Zhan. You were so serious and cute! Just like our little A-Yuan is turning out to be.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. He had been quiet because he’d had to be, because there was no other way to express the turmoil in his heart without screaming. He had tried screaming, once. He had tried biting, he had tried having the kind of tantrums that left him red-faced and light-headed, and none of it had mattered. He had merely been punished, and she had been gone. After a while, he had kept quiet, as he had been asked. The world did not want his grief. A-Yuan is silent because he understands the peaceful places silence can sit, and because he wants to learn. With Wei Ying and the Wens — and, sometimes, even with Lan Wangji — he is chatty and bright.

“Happier than you,” Wei Ying says, correctly interpreting Lan Wangji’s disagreement. “But just as smart. Just as good a little scholar.”

“And as good with a sword as you.” Wei Ying has been teaching him, in the month they’ve been back, sneaking Jiang sword drills along with the Lan techniques that Lan Wangji has begun to share.

“Yes! Our brilliant son.” Wei Ying beams, and Lan Wangji must kiss him for that, for making the claim despite everything they have been denied. Wei Ying says something into the kiss, but it does not seem as important as licking into his mouth, as feeling the sharp prick of Wei Ying’s canines against his tongue, as the slow grind of Wei Ying’s hips into his, and so Lan Wangji ignores it until he must break for air.

“We’ve been back a month,” Wei Ying says.

“Mn?” Lan Wangji rucks up Wei Ying’s sleep robe and runs his hand over Wei Ying’s ass. He is warm and soft, and still a little loose from where Lan Wangji had fucked him last night. Lan Wangji dips one finger into Wei Ying’s hole, and watches his mouth fall open, slack.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, I am trying to make a serious point —”

“Why?”

“Lan — Why? Why — oh —” Lan Wangji slides in two more fingers and Wei Ying arches into his touch, his head falling against Lan Wangji’s, panting hotly into his mouth. “OK, OK, point taken, serious stuff later, fucking Wei Ying time now.” Wei Ying moans as Lan Wangji starts moving his fingers in earnest, and Lan Wangji smiles, and bites his neck in reward.

“Good,” he says, and rolls them both over.

Lan Zhan leaves Wei Ying in his bed to drowse, busies himself with getting ready and preparing for the day. This is not so unusual a morning — a fact astonishing in and of itself. He expects to wake up warm, Wei Ying’s limbs strewn across him, expects to press his love against Wei Ying’s mouth and find space for himself afterwards, time to luxuriate in the waking stretch of the early morning. They are brought breakfast, and Lan Zhan looks at where Wei Ying dozes, and affixes a warming talisman to his bowl, indulgent. Perhaps he will go and see the rabbits before classes, or take his meal with A-Yuan. Easy, too easy, maybe, to slip back into this. Easier, even, than the first time he’d returned to find himself useful and needed, now there is nothing he lacks. Still, Lan Zhan was not raised for easy. It twinges at him, there in the rough-edged healing of old wounds, there in the dreams of the battlefield, there in the whispered memory of their vow.

He leaves Wei Ying in their bed, and finds A-Yuan in the breakfast hall. The future feels more pressing when Lan Zhan looks at his bright eyes, at his trust, listens to the questions he is already beginning to ask.

Meng Yao is in the breakfast hall, too, and Lan Zhan catches his eye, and does not look away until Meng Yao does, ducking his head in pretended deference. Lan Zhan will make a point of taking more meals here, he thinks. He turns, rests a hand on A-Yuan’s shoulder. Yes. It is good for Meng Yao to know he has not forgotten.

“We’ve been back a month,” Wei Ying says again, later, mumbling it into Lan Wangji’s chest as the evening begins to weave its darkness closer. “A month, and nobody’s — I mean, if we didn’t go and see A-Yuan, and do classes and things, I’d think people had forgotten we exist.”

They’d been forced to remember, at the wedding. To look at Wei Ying’s shining face, and Lan Wangji’s hand in his, and to squash their rumours into his regular-sized body, to find a way to fit their cruelty into the joyful smile on his face, or to banish them entirely. Lan Wangji is not naive enough to think that everybody had chosen the latter, but a few. Enough to make Wei Ying a little less dangerous in their eyes. Enough to make sure that, if he turned to darkness again, suspicion would be cast upon Cloud Recesses, and upon the Emperor. Meng Yao hadn’t quite managed to hide the flicker of rage when he’d seen Suibian at Wei Ying’s side. Perhaps that is why they’ve been ignored for all this time. He needs time to rework his plans, after all.

“They will find another use for us,” Lan Wangji says. “Eventually. Or we will find one for ourselves.” The latter would be infinitely preferable. They have needed time to be a family, to be quiet, but the world will not let them rest forever. Lan Wangji would not want it to do so. He can only hope that this is not another prison, one they have forged for themselves, this time. Building themselves into watchtowers, as rigid as any timber. Wei Ying will not let it be so, he thinks. Not anymore, not now he knows he is allowed to live. They will have to trust each other, in this.

“Does he know that I destroyed it, do you think?”

“I do not know.” Lan Wangji shakes his head, rethinks that statement. “I suspect so. There would have been servants, close by, when you spoke to your sister.”

He has never asked Wei Ying when it happened, or why it happened. He does not ask even now, although Wei Ying props his head up on his elbow, and looks straight at him.

“You don’t want to know?”

“Not unless you wish to tell me. I trust you.”

Wei Ying blinks at him.

“Huh. I — wow. Wow.” He flops back down for a moment, and then lifts his head again. “You’re too good, Lan Zhan. Too good to me.” A deep breath, and then, mostly into his own cupped hands, “I did it when I went back to collect the Wens. Once I knew we were going to marry. It was — stupid, actually, probably. To throw it away so soon. But I wanted to give them a little less of the weapon that they wanted. Just me, hollow straight through.”

“You did the right thing.”

“I think so, in the end.” Wei Ying rolls over again, and drums his fingers on Lan Wangji’s stomach. Lan Wangji wants to catch them, to kiss them, but Wei Ying has more to say. “I think — if we see him, let’s not talk about it. Let’s just. See.”

“See?”

“Watch. He knows we’re watching, now. And the world has seen us. I think we could start going places again. People can hardly object to the great Hanguang-Jun visiting his people, and dropping in on a little chaos, can they?”

“Mm.” Lan Wangji stifles a smile, but does not bother to stifle the great swelling joy inside of him. A home, with Wei Ying, to return to. A steady path of righteousness, of knowing, of reaching out to save a life. Wei Ying alive, alive, alive and bright and everything Lan Wangji had always known he was, by his side, smiling with blood on his teeth and victory in his eyes.

“Yes,” he says, and reaches out. Wei Ying is above him, under him, joy pulsing through his mind, a road stretching before them. Lan Wangji is no fool: he knows Meng Yao will need careful monitoring. Knows that the tensions fracturing the kingdom are not vanished. But there are things he can do there, too, now. Deficiencies they have both observed, stands they can both now take. Chaos to quell and to embrace.

A future, after all.