The first time Lan Wangji meets the one that is to be his treasure, the young man is carrying his dragon's pearl - Safely ensconced inside its warded pouch and liberated from the hands of Jin Guangshan.
He had been careless and complacent, thinking the pearl would be untouched within the secluded cold caves of Gusu, where his essence had always lingered the most. Once he felt the bereftness pulling on his core, his pearl is halfway on the road to Lanling, and stuck in his human form without its power, Lan Wangji had to rely on his too-human network of rogue cultivators and spies to get it back.
And now his pearl glows on the crook of a stranger's arm, this stranger who glows with life and quicksilver energy and a smile that awakens something inside him. Lan Wangji wants to reach out with his tail and wrap it around the narrow cinch of this young man's waist, wants to draw him close and feel the golden beat of his core against his own.
"Where is Luo Qingyang?" He asks instead.
"Oh, Mianmian?" The stranger cocks his head to the side, "Don't worry, Lan er-gongzi, she's fine! She's just like, very pregnant right now and probably won't make it this far East without popping a baby on the way, haha! So I'm doing the heavy lifting for her in the meantime!"
Lan Wangji rebukes himself that in his worry over his stolen pearl, he had failed to remember that his friend must have been heavy with child already - But his interest is piqued all the same. Luo Qingyang doesn't trust easily, having spent most of her life in Jinlintai before the senseless intrigues made her escape the Jin clan with Lan Wangji's help. Whoever the stranger is must be quite the exception, for her to trust him with something this important.
"Oh, speaking of which, here's the thing the Jins stole from your family! I must say, your ancestors really had a way with wards, you know? Took me almost a sichen just to wrangle this thing out of that huge stone coffin thing. Here, I didn't peek inside, no worries!" the young man grins, three fingers to his brows, and Lan Wangji feels his own brows furrow. He had not taken into account that, failing to dismantle his wards, the Jins would simply take the whole of the heavy stone altar to Jinlintai. Yet this young man had managed to do so in under a sichen, and Lan Wangji feels the want in his veins burn impossibly brighter, wanting to delve and flick through the brilliant mind behind those brilliant silver eyes.
"You have my lasting gratitude," Lan Wangji bows, and hears the young man sputter as he tries to get him back up again. Interesting.
"And as your ordeal in Lanling and the subsequent journey must have been draining, may I also offer you lodgings here in town as you recover?"
The townsfolk know him merely as the Lord of the surrounding lands, a second son who chose the quiet of the mountains over the bustle of the city - Someone fair and amicable, if rather reclusive in his habits. Over the centuries, his Clan has maintained such small towns and settlements, moving in and out between them with the passing of time, as not to raise questions with their ageless bearings.
"Oh, you don't have to! I can just camp around or find a nice shack for the night!"
Lan Wangji feels his frown deepen, and he levels the young man with his gaze - Often said to be intimidating and strange in its coloring. It's the only thing he is unable to mask, in this human form of his. The stanger looks at him unflinchingly back, silver against gold. Lan Wangji decides to change tactics.
"It would sadden this one to not be allowed this simple courtesy," he says, and watches the young man flail at his words with some amusement.
"I, no it's not like - Of course, anything Lan er-gongzi wants - I just, don't want to be a bother."
"Not a bother," Lan Wangji says softly, already thinking of all the ways he wants to take him apart, to see what drives him, what makes him flinch away from kind words and gratitude, what could ease this silver-eyed man into accepting, accepting everything Lan Wangji would eventually give him.
"Never a bother."
His name is Wei Wuxian.
Wei Ying, he offers with a grin, bright as sunlight over the dinner they share, and flushes like the sunset when Lan Wangji echoes the name back at him - As if he had expected the offer of his name to be rebuffed. Ridiculous.
There are many things Lan Wangji finds ridiculous about Wei Ying. He finds it ridiculous how kind and giving Wei Ying is, while recoiling from any kindness and gifts directed his way, how brilliant his mind is while simple memories and courtesies slip from its grasp like water. He finds it ridiculous, but perhaps a little enlightening, that Wei Ying had been Head Disciple of a prominent clan, who simply threw the position and his home away to give a chance for his adopted family to mend and grow without his allegedly interfering presence.
He finds it ridiculous how good, how right his own name sounds in Wei Ying's voice, how he says Lan Zhan with a lilt so teasing yet so fond - As if Lan Wangji's birth name is both a precious secret and a joke between friends.
Wei Ying is like a tome both ancient and groundbreakingly new, pages upon different, riveting pages to peruse from and Lan Wangji is hopelessly, ridiculously endeared as the days pass and he reads more of the young man. Wei Ying flits around the familiar streets of the town and somehow weaves himself into it - Teaching the children to read, helping farmer Zhou with a pest infestation and solving the Yangs' construction problem with some well-placed weight-reducing talismans that Lan Wangji has never seen before.
"Oh," Wei Ying grins sheepishly when asked, fingers raking through his already tousled hair, "I just tinkered a bit with some radicals in the standard levitation talisman, it's no big deal - Hey, don't you think it would make bridge constructions easier if modified a bit more?"
Ridiculous, Lan Wangji thinks, the want slithering and curling inside him as Wei Ying sets off into a whole array of possible talismans to ease constructions in more remote areas, silver eyes bright like the moon.
Luo Qingyang sends a letter informing them of the birth of her daughter - Named Mianmian, after her long-standing jest with Wei Ying. And then a shorter one for Lan Wangji's eyes only, asking him to keep an eye on Wei Ying.
He's a good one, probably the only clan cultivator I'd trust with my life, but Heaven knows trouble follows him like lovesick maidens! I hope Lan er-gongzi will care for him well.
Luo Qingyang's worries are however, quite in vain. Days, and then weeks pass, and Wei Ying becomes something of a fixture in the small town of Lan Wangji's home - A bright smile and a ready, helping hand that the people around him revolves around like one would towards the sun. Lan Wangji wonders, if it wasn't Wei Ying himself that was the problem, but rather the Cultivation Clans he and Luo Qingyang had previously mired themselves in.
"Lan er-gongzi," Lao Peng laments as he serves their tea, his small tea house a quiet bustle around them, "Isn't there a way for you to keep Wei-gongzi here? What would this old man do without a proper weiqi opponent if he goes off adventuring again?"
Wei Ying laughs openly as he pours his own wine, a local brew from Caiyi he seems inordinately fond of and Lan Wangji had gladly, discreetly paid Lao Peng to stock up more on.
"Aiya, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, You heard what Peng-shushu said! Will you do that, hmm? Will gege keep me?" Wei Ying's tone is teasing and familiar, something the young man wears almost like a duck's feathers, for everything to glance off him like water.
"Is that something that Wei Ying would like?" Lan Wangji asks softly, carefully, "To be kept?"
Wei Ying blinks, a flush riding high on his cheeks. For all his teasing and flirting, it is much too easy to fluster the young man, given the right words. It's a knowledge Lan Wangji is quite fond of.
"I mean, I- I. Lan er-gongzi has been a most gracious host, and this is such a lovely town too, of course it's a delight to stay," he draws a deep breath, not quite meeting Lan Wangji's eyes, "But I really don't want to be a bother."
There's that fleeting, lost look in Wei Ying's eyes once more, and Lan Wangji thinks it's unacceptable - That Wei Ying had not felt welcomed in his own home, so much so that he decided to wander the world away from it. So much so that he is afraid that he would be unwelcome as well elsewhere. Lan Wangji barely stops himself from hissing, from letting the steam of his icy breath escape in the close air between them.
He only vaguely remembers the Jiangs, a young Cultivation Clan barely a century old, but his disdain towards them feels ancient now in the wake of all this. How foolish of them, to simply let go of someone so bright, someone so unfailingly kind and giving.
How convenient, for Lan Wangji's own gain.
But Wei Ying as he is right now is skittish, prone to flight - Like hatchlings left too long without a nest. Lan Wangji needs his hands to be light and steady if he were to draw Wei Ying closer to him, his words not to feel like they would ensnare or bind.
"Your talismans and arrays had been most useful for the townsfolk and the people of the surrounding areas," Lan Wangji offers, knowing the change of subject to be something that Wei Ying would welcome. "I must admit I have not seen many cultivation techniques applied for such mundane problems, but now I could see how much potential it holds."
"Oh, oh that's good to hear! I'm glad I could do something to help," Something in Wei Ying's face perks up at that, and Lan Wangji hoards that information too, secreting it away along with the small, bright pieces of Wei Ying he's accumulated through their brief time together, "And I know, right? You kind of grow up being taught to use cultivation for beating up restless spirits and curses and such, but there's just so many other things you could do with it, you know?"
"Mn. There is always much to solve across the land, as you might have seen from the missives I receive. It's hard, sometimes, for even if the knowledge and library my family possess are vast, I have no penchant for invention or unorthodox problem solving as Wei Ying does."
"Library?" Wei Ying pipes up, eyes bright, "Lan Zhan, you have a library in your home? A vast library? How vast are we talking about? Like a whole room?"
Lan Wangji hides a smile behind his cup, watching the teeth of his trap clasp gently around Wei Ying's ankle.
"Wei Ying can see for himself, if he likes."
There is something truly delightful in seeing Wei Ying flit around the library pavilion, eyes wide and bright as his fingers dance along the rows of book spines and scrolls. There is another kind of delight still, coiling heavy and sated in Lan Wangji's gut, at the fact that Wei Ying is in his home, the sandalwood scent of his abode now clinging to the tips of Wei Ying's hair and the sleeves of his robe.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, this is amazing," Wei Ying breathes as he looks up at him, lips drawn in a smile so bright Lan Wangji almost feels like he should look away. "There's just so many texts. And I've never seen a lot of these copies before, not even in Jinlintai!"
"Mn," satisfaction glows warmly in Lan Wangji's chest, "It's the result of many centuries of travels and collections," which is not entirely a lie. Knowledge is knowledge - Does it matter, in the end, whether it is collected by his supposed ancestors or by his own hands?
"Gah, this is so great! Lan Zhan, your family inheritance truly is the best!" Wei Ying crows, before he clamps a hand over his mouth, voice pitching down into a guilty whisper, "Ah - Sorry! Sorry sorry, I'm making a disturbance, am I not? I'll be quiet, I swear!"
There is that look again in Wei Ying's eyes, the inwards set of his shoulder, as if he's trying to make himself smaller. Lan Wangji would have none of it.
"Wei Ying can be as loud as he wants," he says airily, picking out a volume of poetry before folding himself in front one of the low tables spread around the pavilion, "There is no one here to be disturbed."
"Hmm? And what does that make you?" Wei Ying's voice picks up on its former brightness, and Lan Wangji swallows a smile, "What if I disturb Lan Zhan in his reading?"
"Wei Ying won't. I was told by my teachers that I have excellent concentration."
"Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan! Has anyone ever told you how funny you are? You just say the darnedest things with such a straight face!"
No one has, in fact, ever told Lan Wangji that he's funny in all the centuries that he's lived. No one has ever sat so closely next to him as they read, knees brushing together and eyes meeting over turned pages. And so these memories of Wei Ying too, he keeps and hoards with him.
It takes surprisingly little coaxing to get Wei Ying to move his lodgings to Lan Wangji's home, up the steps of the small hill just at the edge of town. He still prowls around town, to teach the kids and deal with small, everyday mishaps and whatever the townsfolk and farmers need help with. Sometimes, people from nearby towns and villages would come to seek him - The Daozhang in red and black who helps people so freely and smiles so brightly, who wrought miracles with but a few strokes of his brush and tosses children up in the air until they shriek with laughter.
Sometimes, Lan Wangji would come with him, simply watching the other man in motion, a quiet, white shadow to the lively black blur that is Wei Ying. Sometimes, they'll go to larger, nearby Caiyi, where Lan Wangji quietly delights in watching Wei Ying flit from one stall to another in the marketplace - Eyes bright with wonder and excitement. Lan Wangji has lived centuries amongst humans, blending in their midst but never quite fitting in. But with Wei Ying on his side, it's easier to simply sit down and mingle, to strike up conversations and get people to pour out their needs and small happiness alike. With Wei Ying, he is not simply the kind yet reclusive Lan er-gongzi, but also Lan Wangji - and with the passing of days, the townsfolk too gets closer to their Lord.
But the moments Lan Wangji delights in the most are ones spent within his own home, after all his servants had gone home for the day and it's just the two of them on Lan Wangji's porch. When his pot of tea lies side by side with Wei Ying's jar of wine and the trill of his dizi mingles with the chords of Lan Wangji's own guqin.
Lan Wangji takes in the sharp lines of Wei Ying's face against the gathering dusk, takes in the warm curve of his smile, and thinks that he would not mind living like this for centuries to come.
Asking for things doesn't come easily for Wei Ying.
Wei Ying is shameless with his affections, flirts and whines for attention as easily as he breathes. But for things that matter, for things that he truly wants and thing that pertains to his comfort, he is silent and tight-lipped, burying hurts and wants under the bright, easy screen of his smiles and laughter.
But Lan Wangji is used to waiting, has spent decades doing so when it mattered, and he picks up Wei Ying's tells soon enough as the days pass. There is a certain timbre to Wei Ying's voice, a certain dissonance to his laughter when he is hiding hurt and discomfort. There's a certain way he doesn't look at something he wants, a certain way his shoulders go rigid and draws into himself when he's trying not to impose on someone else. And all these, Lan Wangji takes and keeps carefully inside him.
Lan Wangji is careful, in giving things to Wei Ying, always making sure that everything serves a purpose, always making sure he gets something similar, as if his offer to Wei Ying is something of an afterthought. A whetstone here for his sword as Lan Wangji purchases oil for Bichen, a set of colored inks and a fine, bone-handled brush after Lan Wangji asks Wei Ying to draw him a landscape, a length of white silk for his hair after Wei Ying lost his ribbon on a night hunt.
But sometimes, it's hard to be careful when Wei Ying's eyes flicker longingly towards a passing tanghulu seller, or when their little sojourns take them past a lotus lake, their pods heavy and laden for the picking. It's hard to be mindful of boundaries and propriety when Wei Ying's feet shuffles just the slightest bit, when he briefly thins his lips with a determined huff of his breath, as if his little fancies and wants are things to forbid and reprimand.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying laughs as Lan Wangji hands him a small parcel of dragon's beard candy, pressed neatly between two sugar wafers, "You can't just buy me everything I lay my eyes on! You're going to spoil me rotten!"
This ridiculous, ridiculous man. Lan Wangji would, and could move mountains for him if ever Wei Ying desires it. To think that mere sweets would count as spoiling him makes something shift uncomfortably in Lan Wangji's chest, makes him want to coil himself tightly around Wei Ying's small form and whisper just how much he's worth spoiling into his ears until he cries.
"Wei Ying ground ink for me yesterday, just before I had to write my letters," Lan Wangji says lightly, following Wei Ying's gaze out of the corner of his eyes, "And this morning, Wei Ying made tea just the way I prefer it after my meditation. In that way, is Wei Ying not also spoiling me?"
"That's different!" Wei Ying sputters, and Lan Wangji has to look away to hide his smile, "I just wanted you to be comfortable while doing things you have to do!"
"Likewise, I merely want Wei Ying to have things that makes him smile."
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying shrieks, face aflame and wisps of sugar clinging to his lips, and oh Lan Wangji is truly, truly too far gone to ever come back from this, from the whole of Wei Ying.
When Lan Zhan picks up a bushel of fresh loquats for him later in the afternoon, Wei Ying merely smiles, bright and warm like sunlight.
"Does Wei Ying always wear red and black?"
The cold comes early, in this part of Gusu Lan Wangji's settled into. And more and more, he realizes that Wei Ying's robes are clearly made for the warmer riverlands of Yunmeng, where even the winters are mild and the wind does not carry the chill of the mountains.
Golden core or no, Lan Wangji does not want Wei Ying to be cold, and he's been contemplating on commissioning a new set of robes for Wei Ying. Or two.
"Eh? I've been wearing it ever since I was in Yunmeng, I guess. It's easy to clean, and black fabric is just easy to get in general," Wei Ying shrugs, plucking at the sleeves of his travel-worn robes.
Lan Wangji waits, pours the brazier-warmed wine into the empty cup by Wei Ying's hand. Knows that there is always more, when it has to do with Wei Ying's life before.
"It's easier too," when he speaks again, Wei Ying's voice is smaller, quieter, "Madam Yu never really likes seeing me in Yunmeng Jiang colors. Like sure, she'd let me wear it for formal occasions where I have to represent the sect, but for the rest…yeah, it's just easier."
Lan Wangji hums noncommitally, and pours Wei Ying another cup. Once again, he is tempted to barge into Lotus Pier and see for himself the people who had seen it fit to raise a child so, solely for the shadows of people long gone.
Instead, Lan Wangji sweeps his gaze upon Wei Ying's form, gauging the fit of his robes and the cinch of Wei Ying's narrow waist. The width of his shoulders and the length of his legs.
The next time they go to Caiyi, Lan Wangji leads Wei Ying to his seamstress, an old woman whose own grandmother had sewn robes for Lan Wangji many decades past. Her face lights up upon seeing Wei Ying beside him, her seemingly frail hands pulling Wei Ying easily behind a folding screen.
His measurements are proven accurate as Wei Ying emerges in his new robes - Dark blue and white with a subtle pattern of drifting clouds, red peeking from underneath. There is a flush high on his cheeks, the silk draping beautifully over his lean frame, swirling heavily around his ankles.
Lan Wangji stares. Somewhere behind them, he hears the old seamstress laugh.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying breathes, eyes holding his own tentatively, almost shyly, "These are your colors."
And then, louder, his voice steadier, "I'm wearing your colors."
It takes everything within Lan Wangji's reserve of self control not to growl, not to let his tail flick out and wrap itself snugly around Wei Ying's waist, not to coil around Wei Ying's fragile form and let the white and blues on his robes echo his own scales. To show the world that Wei Ying is his, his, his.
"Wei Ying looks good in it," he manages to say, and is rewarded with a smile that Lan Wangji fancies is just for him.
For centuries, Lan Wangji has lived a quiet life. He's travelled and settled in equal measures, but his days had always been serene and regimented, the way he was brought up by his Clan. The humans he knew, he knew but briefly, as if he is a stone in an ever-flowing river - Unchanging and unyielding as everything else passes him by.
Now that Lan Wangji has met Wei Ying, he is not sure whether that life is something he could come back to anymore. Now that his days are suffussed in Wei Ying's voice, Wei Ying's laugh and his warmth often pressed close to him. And this is how Lan Wangji's heart almost stutters to a halt when Wei Ying brought up the subject of travelling once more. The grey morning sky is speckled with light snowfall - Early to fall even by Gusu's usual cold. Soon the wind too will pick up the chill from the North, and the land around them will be blanketed in white.
"Lao Shang told me that the pass down South often gets closed off during winter," Wei Ying continues, his eyes seemingly fixed on the distant mountains. There is a sudden heaviness in the air between them, unfamiliar and making something crawl under Lan Wangji's skin.
"It often gets snowed in, or simply becomes to slippery," Lan Wangji says, even as his heart thunders against his too-small, too-human ribcage, "So travellers and trade caravans are advised to either leave early or wait for spring thaw."
"I see," Wei Ying nods, the slightest of tremble in his voice, and Lan Wangji can't have that. Can't have the balances tipped away from him when they're both standing in this abrupt, delicate precipice.
"It's much too late in the season to travel now, the roads are dangerous and it might be more difficult to find a warm place to sleep at night," Lan Wangji marvels at how steady his voice sounds, despite the tempest whirling inside his chest. He draws a deep breath, and tries to soften his tone, tries to draw all the care and longing raging through his veins into it, "It would greatly comfort me for Wei Ying to stay safe here."
Wei Ying finally, finally turns to look at him, something vulnerable and almost afraid in his eyes. Lan Wangji draws another sharp, stuttering breath.
"For the winter?"
"It would greatly comfort me as well, to have Wei Ying stay here for as long as he likes," Lan Wangji says softly, cradling Wei Ying's gaze gently against his own, bading the young man to understand, "If that is something that Wei Ying wants."
Emotions seem to chase each other rapidly across Wei Ying's silver eyes, and when he finally speaks, his voice is small and rough, "Are you sure? Lan Zhan, you can't just say things like that. I'm loud and uncouth, and I always make such a mess of your library, what if I wanted to stay foreve-"
Wei Ying clamps his mouth shut, eyes horrified.
"Then Wei Ying could stay forever," Lan Wangji says, and takes his hand.
And then Wei Ying just crumples, like a silk handkerchief falling to the tiles, his frame falling into Lan Wangji's ready arms and finally, finally Lan Wangji gets to hold Wei Ying the way he's always longed to. Gets to curl around him and keep him, make him stay.
"Lan Zhan," he whispers into his chest, "Lan Zhan, you can't just say things like that."
Lan Wangji smiles, and merely draws Wei Ying deeper into his embrace - Keeping him warm, keeping him close.
Jiang Wanyin came with the first spring thaw, landing on the town square before loudly demanding to see Wei Ying. His jewel-encrusted sword gleams in the faint sunlight, his robes of jade and violet silk edged with gold, clearly meant to denote his place in the world as one of the Great Clan heirs.
Lan Wangji is far from impressed.
The townfolks watch from afar, eyes suspicious and frowns on their faces. Liu Popo had told him that before Lan Wangji settled in town, their area had always been left to the mercies of whatever spiritual mishaps would befall them - None of the nearby cultivator clans deeming their pleas important enough to answer, lacking as they are in both gold and influence, too far removed from the main trade routes. How ironic must it seem to them, the sight of this lavishly dressed cultivator finally descending from the sky, only when he chases after his own needs.
Jiang Wanyin glares at Wei Ying and at everything in his path as Lan Wangji led him to his own home, shaking his head minutely as his maid moves to serve tea. A dragon's courtesy is earned, not owed. If Jiang Wanyin could not be civil in his abode, then he would not be obliged to reciprocate in kind.
"Wei Wuxian!" Jiang Wanyin snaps the moment the door closes behind them, and Lan Wangji could feel Wei Ying's minuscule flinch beside him. His own hand tightens around the skirt of his robes, "What kind of backwater town have you been hiding yourself in? Do you know how hard it's been to track you down?"
"Ah, hah! You know me, Jiang Cheng, always have to try every place at least once!" There is false cheer in Wei Ying's voice that Lan Wangji hasn't heard in months, before even that drops and Wei Ying looks beseechingly at his once- sect brother, "Is..is something the matter, though? Is Un- Is Sect leader Jiang, is your family fine?"
"Is something the matter," Jiang Wanyin snorts, "The matter is that your little stunt of breaking into Jin Guangshan's treasure room has consequences! What the fuck were you thinking? You're lucky the Jin clan agreed to merely request your services in their court so the whole matter could be resolved."
Wei Ying's eyes widen, even as cold slithers along Lan Wangji's spine. He had thought that after having failed to take his Pearl, Jin Guangshan would simply retreat and nurse his failures in private. For the Jins to think that they could implicate and ensnare Wei Ying instead -
"But - But what does it have to do with the Jiang Clan? Jiang Cheng, I seceded, remember? Why are you -"
"Well much good did it do!" Jiang Wanyin cuts him off, and Lan Wangji has to curl his fist as the sharp tips of his talons start to dig into his robes, "The Jin Clan has been pressuring us for months for your whereabouts! Looks like wherever you are, I have to keep cleaning up after your mess, huh? So maybe just this once you might want to do the responsible thing and answer Jin Guangshan's summons so everyone could finally live in peace!"
In the split second that it takes for Jiang Wanyin to finish his tirade, Lan Wangji knows that Wei Ying would come with him. Knows that in a few moments, Wei Ying would hang his head before lifting it in a smile, grasping Lan Wangji's hand in what he knows would be a goodbye. This is how Wei Ying was raised, this is how Jiang Wanyin and his family had seen Wei Ying - as a piece in this tangled web of debt and duty, to be used and to serve, to ensure the safety and comfort of those higher than himself by blood and birth.
Lan Wangji can not let that pass.
"Is it common in those of the great clans to speak without knowledge?" He speaks before anyone else could, one hand firm and quelling on Wei Ying's, the familiar warmth trembling ever so slightly, "Jin Guangshan created this "mess" when he stole my family's heirloom from my ancestral home. What Wei Ying did was merely to return it to me."
Jiang Wanyin's face turns a shade of purple at the unexpected intrusion, his wild eyes zeroing on Lan Wangji, "So you're the one who got him to do it? You're the one who dragged Wei Wuxian into this whole mess while he should have known how dangerous it is to cross the Jins!"
"The Jins are powerful and wealthy and dangerous. And so you bow and scurry before them like dogs," Lan Wangji intones flatly, "Believing everything they say and taking their words as law even when they clash with your own values. Or are these things that Yunmeng Jiang stand for? Are theft and false slander and ignorance condoned by your Clan, Jiang Wanyin?"
"You!!" Jiang Wanyin shoots to his feet, eyes wild even as his hand twitches abortively towards the jeweled sword in his hips. For a fleeting second, Lan Wangji almost wishes that he does.
"Lan Zhan-" Wei Ying's hand latches unto his sleeves, his gaze bouncing between Lan Wangji and his erstwhile shidi.
"Leave," Lan Wangji grits out, barely managing not to snarl, not to shed the constrictions of his human skin to wrap himself safely around Wei Ying's form and bare his fangs at this pompous Jiang child.
"Wei Ying is of your clan no more, and he is not a thing you could simply hand to others the moment your own safety and reputation is threatened in the slightest bit. You might have no care if he is to suffer or even lose his life under Jin Guangshan's hands, but I do. And Wei Ying is going nowhere."
Jiang Wanyin's face pales at the insinuation, his feet faltering to take a step back, "I don't - Jin Guangshan won't -"
"Leave," this time, Lan Wangji does snarl as he too rises to his feet, cold crackling under his skin as he advances on the young Jiang heir.
Lan Wangji does not remember exactly what Jiang Wanyin said before he sets off, and frankly he does not quite care. But soon enough it's just Wei Ying and him in the room, the silence between them almost deafening, bereft of Wei Ying's usual chatter and flurry of movements.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says softly, kneeling beside the young man before laying a hand carefully on his shoulder. Lan Wangji hates it, hates seeing Wei Ying like this, dimmed and drawn into himself, shrunk into something unobtrusive and quiet, something that's not a bother.
How he longs to sink his talons on the wooden deck of Lotus Pier, how he longs to look those who've beaten this quiet into Wei Ying's being in the eye as he wrecks their fledgling Sect with the mere whip of his tail. It is only fair, he thinks viciously, one swipe for every scar that Zidian has whipped into Wei Ying's back.
"Forgive me if I overstepped," Lan Wangji says instead, "I could not stand by and have him demand things of you when it was my family heirloom Jin Guangshan took and Wei Ying got back."
"I know," Wei Ying whispers, eyes still locked downwards, "But it's never as simple as that, isn't it? That's why I left in the first place, Lan Zhan. I know a lot of the things Madam Yu did to me were not right, but it's not that simple. I thought-"
"Wei Ying did the right thing," Lan Wangji cuts him off firmly, "As the political status quo stands right now, the Jin Clan could not do much to hurt the Jiangs, not without provoking the ire of the other clans. Yunmeng Jiang's territory is vast, and they have too many subsidiary sects and trade exports to be brought to heel so easily, especially for a disciple they are no longer in charge of. Wei Ying should not worry."
"So smart, Lan er-gege" Wei Ying sighs, his voice thin and watery as he shuffles closer to Lan Wangji. He opens his arms readily, and Wei Ying falls into him, almost like a reflex.
"Mn," he murmurs into Wei Ying's hair, placing a firm, placating hand on his back, drawing him close, keeping him safe, "I know a few things."
It takes a few days until the shadows of his former home lifts from Wei Ying's shoulders, until Wei Ying is again bright and smiling as he goes about his day around town.
It doesn't stop his mind from puzzling out their encounter, however, ever curious, ever sharp as he is.
"I wonder what Jin Guangshan is trying to have me do," Wei Ying mentions casually enough, as he's pouring Lan Wangji's tea after dinner, "I mean, was it because I managed to break the wards around your family heirloom that he couldn't? But what sort of thing is he trying to do anyway?"
"It is none of your concern anymore," Lan Wangji accepts the cup Wei Ying profers, trying to pitch his voice as gently as he could. Luo Qingyang had been wise to get out of the Jin clan while she could, to live a life unconstrained by the arbitrary rules of a world where she'd always be a commoner's daughter first before a capable and righteous Cultivator. Over the centuries, Lan Wangji had seen one too many good men and women sacrificed in the name of honor and duty, wrung out to dry to then be discarded or reviled by a world that only knew how to demand and take.
"What Jiang Cheng said-" Wei Ying stops, ducks his head as he fidgets with his own cup, "Do you think it was irresponsible for me, to leave? And to turn a blind eye on whatever Jin Guangshan might be doing?"
"Luo Qingyang left the Jin sect knowing of all the schemes and wrongdoings that it harbors. And now the smaller trade roads around Sanghoju is safe from bandits and all manners of restless spirits that the Clans previously didn't deign to handle," Lan Wangji gently lays one hand on the edge of Wei Ying's jaw, "Do you think it was irresponsible of Luo Qingyang to do so?"
"That's -" Wei Ying protests, "That's not the same-"
"The people of this town has never been safer, their crops never flourished as much and the children never so delighted and learned. The people of Caiyi and the surounding lakes no longer fears the threat of water ghouls, and that is all because of Wei Ying," he runs his fingers slowly along Wei Ying's face, "Are these not good things as well? Are these somehow lesser from the things you could do under the Jiangs, under Jin Guangshan's command? The people here less deserving?"
"No!" Wei Ying shakes his head vehemently, silver eyes wide against his, "Of course not, everyone, everyone here deserves only the best!"
"And Wei Ying too, deserves to live as he wants."
Wei Ying doesn't protest him on that, merely holds the hand Lan Wangji has on his face, as if reassuring himself that it's real, that it's there, that Lan Wangji is there.
Lan Wangji is glad to oblige him.
They took Wei Ying on his day in the fields.
It's little Yang Guo who tells him, running barefooted all the way to Lan Wangji's home, eyes wide and face streaked with tears, clutching at the white of Lan Wangji's robes as he burrows against the silk.
"The - the men in gold threatened to hurt the uncles and aunties there if Xian-gege didn't go with them," Yang Guo sobs, and Lan Wangji could see it clearly in his mind's eye, Wei Ying stepping forward to let himself be led away by the Jins, still smiling and placating the others who must have tried to stop him.
Lan Wangji finds that he is barely surprised by the Jins using the farmers against Wei Ying like that. Luo Qingyang had made it quite clear, even in her fleeting stories, just what manner of people the Jins are.
How dare them, his mind seethes, how dare them take Wei Ying in his own home, take him against his will -
Cold crackles beneath his skin, rebelling against the constraints of his human body as the very blood in his veins rages and claws for him to get Wei Ying back. Lan Wangji draws a deep breath and turns back to Yang Guo, kneels before him to hold the boy's gaze firmly.
"A-Guo, you did well to tell me," he says slowly, as gently as he could, "Now you must not worry, I will get Wei Ying back from the men in gold and have him home. Meanwhile, I need you to do something for me, would that be alright with you?"
Yang Guo's round eyes widen before his lips set in a straight, determined line and he nods.
"I need you to tell Headman Shang and the elders what happened, and make sure no one goes out of town until we return. I'm going to set up some wards to protect the town while I'm gone, just in case any of the men in gold return, and this is why no one can get in and out for a while. Do you understand me?"
And then it's just Lan Wangji, alone on the steps of his home, rage simmering under skin too thin, to fragile to withhold it all. He all but runs to the back hills behind his home, to the clearing obscured by rocky peaks and thick foliages, and finally, finally sheds his skin.
The wind around him picks up, frost spreading across the budding grass beneath him as Lan Wangji uncoils himself, an endless cascade of blue-white scales shrouded in mist, the sheer, unadulterated chill of his rage freezing the air around him.
Lan Wangji raises the barrier around the hills that are his home and his town, and sets off towards Lanling.
Lan Wangji had tore through the skies above Jinlintai expecting a worthy fight, expecting the might of the great clans and the feared Jin Guangshan. Lan Wangji had expected to shed a river of blood, only to have scores of cowering cultivators bowing down to him, frost rimming the gilded tiles and columns all around them.
It had been an almost laughably short ordeal, even with the combined might of the many cultivation clans present in Jinlintai's conference. Their swords had glanced off his scales like leaves against a storm, the words of their talismans dying against the mere whiff of his breath before the first cultivator had screamed for mercy and fell on his knees.
To think that these are the greatest the revered Cultivation world has to offer. To think that these are the selfsame Clans who had set Wei Ying aside for the circumstances of his birth and for daring not to bow towards the shine of wealth.
"You have someone of mine, and something of my kin's" Lan Wangji rumbles, lowering his head to pin his gaze at Jin Guangshan, sprawled as he is on the proud steps of Jinlintai, his golden robes soiled in fear, his courtiers and subjects scattered around him like pieces of a storm-wrecked ship.
There is a brief, urgent scuffle, and a Jin cultivator returns with Wei Ying in tow, looking dishelved but otherwise unharmed. Someone else scurries with a heavily-warded box, aglow and thrumming with energy even from afar, and Jin Guangshan's eyes widen in rage, mouth opening briefly before he seems to remember the predicament he is in.
The box is laid out before Lan Wangji by a cowering disciple, his hands shaking so badly it's a wonder he did not simply keel over and let the box tumble down the stairs. Lan Wangji reaches out one of his claw to touch, feeling the familiar energy of his kin even through the heavy wards of the chest. Rage flares anew within him at the lone pearl, at the dragon who must be feeling the loss of it deep in their core.
"And how did you come into the possession of this?"
"For-forgive me, honored dragon! It- it was taken from a lair in Dafan," the same disciple from before stutters, bowing flat against the floor with every few words, "The-the dragon guarding it was already sick, and we-we were instructed to - to kill it-"
The whole courtyard gives a collective flinch as Lan Wangji's growl cut through the disciple's wavering narrative. He feels his claws curl around the chest protectively, cradling the last remnant of a kin he did not even get the chance to know.
"This would be the second time you have stolen a pearl from our kind," when Lan Wangji spoke again, his voice is cold and sharp, reverberating against the gold and marbles around them, "And the first time you slaughtered one of our own for powers you do not even understand. Know that you are not the first to do so, child of Jin. But for all of you gathered here, know that his is an example not to follow."
The assembled cultivators titters and shuffles in their places, fear and unease thick in the air. Already, some have inched away from the gold of the Jins, as if that would somehow absolve them from their prior subservience to Jin Guangshan. Lan Wangji snorts, and turns his attention to Wei Ying, who stands apart from everyone - Looking almost bemused at the whole thing.
"This mortal child had returned my own pearl when the Jins took it from me, and his name was slandered for doing so. Tell me, honored cultivators," he sweeps his golden gaze across the courtyard, "For ones who would easily believe such simple lies, for ones who would so easily bow down to the slightest shine of gold, do you think yourself worthy, or even capable of inheriting such powers as ours?"
Silence embraces his question, and Lan Wangji scoffs in a gust of cold wind before he reaches out a clawed hand gently at Wei Ying. Wei Ying's eyes widen in surprise before the bemused expression is back on his face, a light chuckle adorning his lips as he carefully steps into Lan Wangji's waiting hand. It's only after Wei Ying is securely atop him, hands a warm, comforting grip on the furs behind his antlers, that Lan Wangji again rose to his full height, the sinuous lines of his tail trailing along the stairs of Jinlintai.
"Let it be known," Lan Wangji bellows, letting his voice carry through the air, past the walls of Lanling and beyond, as cold wind picks up around him, knocking over stone basins and ripping banners of gold, "That the Jin Clan had dared to steal from us and persecuted the one who dared bring our pearl back to us. Let it be known that they have displeased the Heavens and the dragon clans."
"Let it be known that anyone who bows to them still would answer to us."
He spares one last glance at the cowering Jiang contingent to glare at them, knocking them back with a gust of wind before he takes off to the skies, Wei Ying safe on his back.
They land on the hills behind his home, stirring the grasses and leaves as his claws touch ground and he bows his head to let Wei Ying climb down. Just like that, with all the excitement and rush of danger gone, it is merely the two of them in the quiet of the clearing. And Lan Wangji is suddenly, unwittingly beset by unfamiliar nerves.
Truly, it's a ridiculous notion in itself, to worry after all these times. It's not like he had lied to Wei Ying about his true form, about his deep desire to keep Wei Ying ever close to him, to hoard him. But he had not told Wei Ying openly either.
Lan Wangji is snapped from his musing when a soft, familiar warmth alights on his snout, and he blinks large golden eyes to see Wei Ying smile up at him, fingers gentle as they run through the furred lining beneath his jaw.
"Lan Zhaaan," Wei Ying calls, almost sing-songs, "Why are you so silent all of sudden, hmm? What's with you? Are you actually getting shy after all this time? I've been waiting this long to see Lan er-gege in all his draconic glory, but now he won't even look at me?"
"Wei Ying…already knew?" Lan Wangji rumbles, surprised at the admission.
Wei Ying laughs brightly, and Lan Wangji latches on to the sound like a bud towards sunlight, even if it's barely a day since he'd heard it last.
"Aiyah, Lan er-gege, you can't just give me access to the best library in the land and then be surprised that I found out about your little secret!"
Fondness floods Lan Wangji's veins, and he closes his eyes to let the cold swirl of his energy coil back into himself, folding his true form into the human skin he could use to embrace Wei Ying readily - This ridiculous mortal man who smiles like the sun and has the brilliant mind of the ancients.
Wei Ying yelps in surprise as the cold mist around him clears and he is pulled into Lan Wangji's embrace, laughing into Lan Wangji's chest - bright and warm and alive, so alive.
"Forgive me, for not telling you sooner," he whispers, when they finally part and Lan Wangji could regard him fully, "I was not sure of how to best approach the subject. I merely wanted Wei Ying to be comfortable, and didn't know if telling you would upset that balance."
Something bright and mischievous glints in Wei Ying's eyes as he tilts his head at him, a smile on his lips, "Wanted me to be too comfortable and willingly be part of your hoard, you mean?"
Lan Wangji blinks, feeling his own mouth part without his comply as Wei Ying's grin widens.
"Aiyaaaa Lan Zhan, books tell you a lot of things, you know! Wait, why are you so silent-" it's Wei Ying's turn to gape as he grips Lan Wangji's shoulders, "Heavens, am I right? Does Lan er-gege really - really want me to -"
"Yes," Lan Wangji says, his own voice sounding uncharacteristically small, "Wanted to keep Wei Ying. If it's something Wei Ying would want, of course-"
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan ah!" Lan Wangji is cut off by the rush of Wei Ying's warmth against his body, lean arms circling his shoulders before a hand reaches out to touch the tip of his antler "Do you know that your antlers actually blush when you're embarassed? So cute, Lan er-gege! You're really too cute for this Wei Ying!"
Lan Wangji's breath stutters, cold steam escaping from his flared nostrils as Wei Ying's fingers all but fondles his antlers. His clever, clever fingers, ones that Lan Wangji has observed and longed for for months now.
He finds it a testament of his self-control that he merely growls in response, his hands grabbing a handful of Wei Ying's robes to disentangle the man from him.
"Oh," Wei Ying's silver eyes widen, a blush of his own now high on his cheekbones as he draws his fingers back from his antlers as if it burned, "Oh, sorry - Sorry, oh Heavens, I read about this too, but I totally forgot that your antlers are-"
The sight of Wei Ying like that undoes him, and Wei Ying has no hope of continuing any of his sentences as Lan Wangji pulls Wei Ying towards him and finally, finally kisses him.
They barely make it to the house, and only reaches the bed by some small miracle and by the grace of Wei Ying's nimble legs. Legs that Lan Wangji readily strips of the robes covering them and hoist over his own shoulders.
They lose themselves in each other for sichens, limbs and breaths tangling together as they let the sun glide across the skies to be replaced by the moon before they finally fall against each other - the flames within them simmered into embers that nevertheless still keeps them warm.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying whispers in the crook of his arm, as if afraid that too loud a noise would crack open the womblike darkness surrounding them, "You once asked me if I'd like to be kept, didn't you?"
"Mn," Lan Wangji murmurs, running his fingers down Wei Ying's flank, drunk still with the liberty to own, to simply touch whenever he wants to, "I did."
"I - Before that, I've always thought that I would like to live my life unbound to anything," Wei Ying muses, his voice quiet and pensive as he rarely hears it, "No clans, no cultivation world and nothing tying me down. But when you said - When you were the one asking me that, I thought-"
At this, Wei Ying turns in his arms, silver eyes unerringly finding his own golden ones even in the dark, "I thought that it really is something I would like, to be kept. But only by you. Only yours."
"Only mine," Lan Zhan whispers, and coils his arms and the length of his tail around Wei Ying, his Wei Ying, just the way he's always longed to.
They only managed to get a proper look at the stolen dragon pearl much later, after they're both finally sated and well-rested. The wards yield to Lan Wangji's touch, and they open the chest to a beautiful orb of pale red - glowing dimly and pulsating with life.
"It's not a pearl like yours, isn't it? It…feels different," Wei Ying whispers, ever sharp and observant, voice almost reverent as he circles the softly glowing orb.
"It's a dragon's egg," Lan Wangji says, just as quiet in his own revelation. A dragon hatchling had been unheard of for almost two centuries now - The inherent solitude of their kind and their own dwindling numbers not conducive for matings to happen, much less ones that took.
"Oh," something breaks in Wei Ying's expression, his eyes clouded over with the sudden realization, "The dragon guarding this weren't sick at all, weren't they? They're probably weakened from laying their eggs, and the Jins-"
Lan Wangji draws Wei Ying close to him, squeezing his hand in comfort. He knows that Wei Ying barely remembers his own parents, taken forever from him during a Night Hunt gone wrong.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying looks up at him, his silver eyes wide and carefully hopeful, "There's a way that this little one could still live, right? Is there anything we could do?"
Warm fondness floods Lan Wangji's chest as he takes in Wei Ying's hopeful, tremulous gaze. Wei Ying, who sees the pain and worthiness of everyone he meets, and gives over so much of himself for them. Of course his beloved would see this lone hatchling and reach out so readily as well. He draws a deep breath.
"There is something we could do," Lan Wangji says slowly, skimming a hand along Wei Ying's jaw, "Something Wei Ying in particular could do, actually."
He's seen how gentle Wei Ying is with the children he teaches, the longing way he looks at the families they meet on the road. For centuries, it's something that Lan Wangji had secretly longed for as well, memories of his human mother he keeps well-hidden in his heart.
"If Wei Ying is amenable," Lan Wangji says softly, cupping a hand on the flat of Wei Ying's stomach, even as Wei Ying's clever eyes widen in realization, "Then Wei Ying could give life to this little one himself."
Wei Ying takes on the life thrumming inside him with boundless warmth, and a happiness that bleeds into his very being, and consequently Lan Wangji's.
He had been thankful beyond belief when Wei Ying's golden core accepts the pearl readily - the swirl of his Qi strong enough to support the both of them, and would grow stronger still as the life inside him lends its own vast life force. Lan Wangji's heart is giddy with the implications, with the knowledge that his beloved would be able to be beside him for centuries more to come, that the life growing inside him would be spared Lan Wangji's own grief of losing a parent too young, too soon.
Wei Ying delights in going through all the complaints and outlandish demands he's probably ever heard from women who are expecting, and Lan Wangji is all too happy to comply with his wishes, to the amusement of the townfolk upon having to help their Lan er-gongzi look for ripe loquats on the dead of night.
"It's been so long since I've seen a soulmate's blessing," Liu popo smiles, eyes crinkling with age and warmth as she gently carresses Wei Ying's burgeoning middle, even as Wei Ying's students crowds around them and tells him what games they'd play with the little one when they'd eventually come out, "You boys are very very lucky, aren't you?"
Lan Wangji doesn't correct her, feeling the sentiment to be as true as anything.
A-Yuan comes to them in the beginning of spring - Wide, round eyes blinking at them as he peeks out from the cracks on his egg. Wei Ying cries as the little dragon hatchling slowly climbs out of his former home, his husband's exhausted body propped up and safely ensconced on the crook of Lan Wangji's own.
A-Yuan curls around Wei Ying instinctively, chubby tail wrapping securely along Wei Ying's wrist even as his little head snuggles against his chest.
"Look at that, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying chuckles, voice wet and brimming with fondness, with so much love Lan Wangji could probably touch it, "He definitely takes after you, already claiming his first hoard."
"Good thing I have claimed both of you first, then," Lan Wangji smiles, and the spring wind blows gently on as a dragon curls himself around his hoard - Two treasures that are worth more than anything else in the world.