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It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the exact week he arrives at Gusu’s southern border happens to be the same week of the first discussion conference hosted by GusuLan after becoming the new seat of the Chief Cultivator. This is unfortunate for Wei Wuxian, who does not have the best track record with large gatherings of cultivators and probably also for Lan Wangji, a man he cannot imagine enjoying any aspect of the process, except for perhaps watching everyone leave.

Wei Wuxian knows his presence at any cultivation conference is likely to be met with the same response as an errant water buffalo walking into a teahouse. So, he endeavors to behave in as un-buffalo a manner as he possibly can.

His first thought is to sneak in for nostalgia’s sake, but he quickly discards that idea. The teenaged Wei Wuxian that had scaled the walls of the compound with two jars of liquor had never been an enemy of the cultivation world. The Wei Wuxian that was either twenty-two or thirty-five, had. So, he’s going to have to just waltz up and ask for a moment of Hanguang-jun’s time and hope that eventually, someone deigns to tell him he has a visitor. He’s gotten a lot of places by pretending to belong there, shoving his foot in the door before it can be slammed in his face, and only two have been burned to ash.

He’s already figured out his excuse for being there accordingly, for when Lan Wangji asks.

‘Oh, Lan Zhan, I heard about the conference and had to come and rescue you ’ is a lot easier to say than letting the truth of it all see the light of day, which would sound something a lot like ‘ I have missed you like a part of my own self, but I am unsure of my place in your life and I am afraid I’ll  find that there isn’t one.’  Or  ‘ I am much older than I thought and so tired. I want to return home, only I’m not sure where that is, I hope it’s with you.”

So, obviously he’s going to tell Lan Wangji he’s here to liven things up or perch menacingly on the roof after sundown, depending on whether the sect leaders are behaving themselves for him.

That’s what he’s going to tell him, but what he wants is to throw his arms around him, call his name and hear it called back, see that there is someone left in this world who is happy to see him. 

Even in his daydreams, because that’s what they are,  he doesn’t dare think of Lan Wangji’s arms around him in turn. Wei Wuxian has been managing his expectations for a very long time and he knows better than to stop doing so just because he’s gotten a little comfortable.

There’s a twist in his stomach that pushes him near to sickness the moment he finds himself treading the same path that led him into the wide open world nearly a year ago, in the opposite direction.

It’s getting late in the day anyway. At the pace Lil’ Apple can take him, it will be long past the Lan curfew by the time he makes it to the foot of the mountain. It wouldn’t be considerate to arrive at night. No need to wake Lan Wangji. He has enough to deal with, not that this used to stop him from bothering the man when they were young. Maybe he’s finally grown up from three to a respectable four or five.

He waits until the third inn he passes. It’s the only one with sufficient space to stable his horrible donkey without cramming her in too close to the horses already boarded there and risking a scuffle. It also happens to be the nearest thing to him when he starts to struggle at keeping his eyes open.

The proprietor barely even looks at him, which is sort of rude but also a bonus. He doesn’t want to be looked at too closely.

Wei Wuxian’s money pouch is looking pretty pathetic lately, it lies almost completely flat on the table after he shells out for a room and a hot bath. He’s not quite sure why he feels so nervous or what he thinks he’s preparing for. It's just normal to not want to smell like road dust and sweat and donkey when visiting a friend. He’ll have to pick up another job or two before he sets off again, but it’s worth it to sit in the too hot water and scrub at his skin like he’s trying to shed it for something better. 

In the absence of the scars he’d earned in his first life, the raw feeling it leaves behind is grounding. It’s probably not considered healthy for him to be nearly boiling himself in the tub, but it’s better than the chill that’s been stuck in his bones since Lotus Pier burned all those years ago.

Mo Xuanyu’s body, no matter how the ritual had reshaped it in his image, had not made him an exact copy of his former self. He thinks he might be one or two ticks shorter and his fingers don’t look like they’ve healed crookedly. It is his body, except for the absence of all the ways he had broken it down to nothing over the slow crawl of  two decades. Of the most importance, there is a golden core sitting inside him where once there was a churning void.

 It had taken him months into his wandering to even notice it for how faint it was, and it did little to keep him warm or sated. It feels stolen. It feels like something he shouldn’t have despite his completion of Mo Xuanyu’s last request, and so he lets it sit and lets himself shiver and ache and hunger. He’s not sure if he was ever supposed to stay, after it all. Maybe Mo Xuanyu only gave up his body because he expected him to directly murder his enemies and die for it.  He doesn’t know what he’s for. 

The warm weightlessness he feels now is a relief well worth the last of his money.

When the bath water begins to grow cold, he reaches into the sleeve of his discarded robe and withdraws a warming talisman, slapping it onto the side of the wooden tub with such force he almost tips himself out.

He will have to come crawling out eventually. His fingertips are already wrinkled with how long he’s soaked and it’s not even really comfortable anymore but, he can’t bring himself to get on with it.

A bag full of unsent letters that no one is ever going to read, Wei Wuxian trying to dissolve himself in the bath. Same difference. 

It’s very late by the time he emerges from his wallow and the air on his wet skin sets him shivering. He finger-combs his sodden hair and throws on his cleanest inner robe and trousers before wriggling under the quilt and curling himself into a tight shell, facing the door.

He doesn’t relax. The knot in his stomach only pulls tighter and tighter until he thinks he might be sick.  His body curls around it until his knees are level with his chest where his heart gives a sudden and fearful jump like he’s missed a step.

There’s always the possibility that he’ll be sent away. He can always be sent away. Some may be kinder about it than others, but this has always been the truth of it. There is nowhere that he is not a visitor or a large household pest. The closest he’d ever had was those few years on the edge of death, surrounded by those already dead and those soon to die.

The sun is warm on his face and insistent through his eyelids before he even manages to even out his breathing enough to rest.

He unfurls, feeling as though he’s been put together incorrectly. His back aches from the tension of rolling himself into a ball and his head aches around the eyes. He lays there, one arm and one leg dangling over the edge of the bed, like he has to convince someone that he intends on leaving it. His reluctance has nothing to do with comfort.

Eventually, he dresses in the nicest set of robes he has. Nicest in this case meaning the fewest faint bloodstains, no tears in the fabric and no singe marks. He combs his hair a little too roughly and doesn’t wince when he yanks a tangle free. He’s not sure it’s worth the effort, since he’s going to be on the road for a good portion of the following day, but it’s the ritual of the thing. A little dust and sweat are inescapable, he’s not getting a bridge of magpies.

With his expectations sufficiently managed, he sets off early in the morning with a generous half hour of sleep under his belt. He shoves his unsent letters and the ugliest ceramic tortoise anyone has ever seen into his saddlebags, pauses to take a bite of his apple and then stretches to crack his back.

There’s an obnoxious crunch he dearly hopes did not come from anywhere on his body. He opens his eyes to see Lil' Apple with her namesake in her mouth, plucked right out of his hand.

She is not sorry about it, her big, innocent donkey eyes staring straight into his as she crunches most of the apple he’d fully intended to eat, but she is pleased enough to allow her humble servant a ride on her back. Wei Wuxian is grateful, considering the dull twinge in his own back. A tentative peace is achieved and his expectations are further managed.

Unfortunately, the slow plod of his stubborn donkey gives him more time to actually think about what he’s doing than he’d like. As the scenery changes from farm fields in the early morning to the busy canals and vibrant colors of Caiyi town in the warm glow of the late afternoon, he wonders if he’s been, once again, too presumptuous.

Lan Wangji is very dear to him. They once called each other zhiji, but thirteen years is… well, that’s a long time. 

The months they spent together following the bloody tracks of Jin Guangyao’s machinations had been, in a twisted sort of irony, some of the best in his admittedly fractured memory. Working toward the truth at Lan Wangji’s side, learning how he’d grown since they last parted and playing music together, it had given him a kind of peace he hadn’t experienced since years before his departure, and he knows it was more than he deserved.

It was only natural for their paths to diverge, the Chief Cultivator and a (mostly) formerly disgraced practitioner of demonic cultivation. Even if Lan Wangji hadn’t accepted the position he would still be Hanguang-jun, someone made for light, and Wei Wuxian would be, well, himself.

He’s not a complete fool. He knows that Lan Wangji doesn’t pour liquor for just anyone, nor does he smuggle it into the Cloud Recesses for anyone else’s benefit. He knows, logically, that he must like him at least a little bit. More than a little bit, he admits. There were times he almost thought, maybe--

He didn’t ask you to stay , a voice that lingers in his head reminds him as it often likes to. Humble yourself, Wei Wuxian.  

It’s his own voice he hears, but he recognizes  the layers, the tone, the inflection from places outside of himself. Hateful boy, son of a servant, traitor, Yiling Laozu.

Wei Ying.

He breathes, not realizing that he’d stopped. The air in Gusu always seems heavy with the promise of rain, and it makes him feel a little like drowning. 

He knows himself and knows when he’s making excuses. Wei Wuxian knows what he might be able to have if he wasn’t so afraid to lose it. There are things that he thinks have a good chance at being true, but there are things he knows to have been true in the past and for the life of him, he cannot get them to play nice with each other.

People are starting to look at him a little funny. A man sitting sideways on a donkey looking dazed while his mount stomps the ground and tries to yank the reins out of his hands, having grown bored while he wasted time getting himself all upset for no good reason.

 It had been his idea to strike out on his own, follow in the footsteps of the parents he could scarcely remember. He has no reason nor right to be upset about something he’d chosen for himself. It wasn’t the open road or the back of a donkey that he’d missed. 

It’s nearly dark by the time he arrives at the foot of the mountain, cricket song and rushing water the only thing giving him any reprieve from his racing thoughts.

He considers taking Chenqing from his belt and playing that song that Lan Wangji still won’t tell him the name of, calling to him to complete the verse. He thinks better of it.  If he wants to avoid trouble he’d better not play while so many other people are around. Leave it to him, he thinks, to ruin the reputation of a musical instrument for years to come.

There are no disciples posted at the gates, and they’re not warded. They must’ve moved the barrier further inward to accommodate the influx of visiting cultivators. If any of the elders had an inclination that Wei Wuxian might show up, he’s sure that there would be at least two guards and perhaps some warding a few li back down the path he’d ridden up.

He swings his legs over Lil’ Apple’s side, grunting when his feet hit the ground, a painful jolt sent up through his stiff legs. She immediately takes the opportunity to bodycheck him out of the way to get at the first patch of grass she sees.

“No loyalty!” He throws his hands up, completely ignored, and settles them on his hips when it becomes apparent that she’s going to continue pretending that he does not exist. He was even going to be nice and take her to graze in that nice spot she likes on the back mountain. While he stands there, tapping his foot with all the indignation he can muster, he hears what could count as a small commotion up ahead, faint over the sound of the river and the distant falls.

Wei Wuxian knows commotion. He’s a bit of a commotion expert. Lil’ Apple isn’t going anywhere as long as there’s grazing suitable for her refined palate, so he should really go see what’s going on. If he had any money, he would bet on it being related to Lan Jingyi. 

A warm, hopeful thing bleeds from his chest and settles his nerves. He hasn’t been in touch with anyone given how often he moved from place to place, but he hopes that Lan Sizhui has returned by now, even if Wen Ning has elected to keep trying to find his own way. He still can’t entirely believe it. All that time he really believed that he’d been lost forever, and here he was, strong and kind and loved. When he sees Lan Wangji, he’ll ask him every question he has the strength for, and he’ll thank him again no matter how many times he insists that there is no need for it.

It’s funny, being in this place that once seemed so dreadful to him has taken away the cold weight that’s been coiling up in his insides for days and left him feeling so much lighter. Of course Lan Wangji won’t turn him away, he’s never done so before. They’re friends. Even if that’s all they’re allowed to have or all Lan Wangji wants, it’s enough. It will have to be enough.

He’s trotting up the path towards the source of the noise when the strong smell of liquor hits him. He knows the Lans as a whole haven’t gotten any more lenient on that particular front, even during discussion conferences. He wouldn’t be too offended otherwise, but it’s not even the good kind. He frowns as he rounds the corner to see three men, cultivators by the look of them.  He doesn’t recognize any of them, nor can he quite pin down which sect the colors of their robes indicate.

They’re laughing, sitting around a small fire and swilling straight from the jar, and if he were thirteen or so years and a trip to the Burial Mounds younger, he might have wanted to join them. But, he’s learned that people in general are far more likely to spit in your face than offer you a drink, as a rule. Maybe it’s different if you were not once considered a living plague upon the world, but probably not. And he is, or was, so he doesn’t.

Wei Wuxian turns to go on his way, sans the miserable beast ripping up the foliage, when one of them calls out to him.

“Running away, are we?” 

He freezes, clutching Chenqing so tightly that his knuckles go bloodless. There is something familiar in the tone, something that echoes a cruelty he thought he’d forgotten. It’s three cultivators and his golden core is still so weak, but they’re drunk and he’s fast. He could take them, if it came to it. Take them all out or take his chances running up the mountain. It’ll be a mess. He won’t do anything unless they draw swords--

“Can’t say I blame you! We got sick and tired of sitting up there all day,” The voice trails off into a laugh. “Come! We were just trading stories! You’ll certainly want to hear Yao-xiong lie about his exploits again.” The sound that follows is also strikingly familiar, and it’s the sound of a good natured thwack on the arm and the subsequent whining that comes with having not been wounded at all.

This eases him back into something like personhood, helps him to tuck his dizi into his belt against his back. It manages to break his heart as well.

It’s so much like the conversations he used to have with all of the disciples back at Lotus Pier, back when he trained with them every day and took them out on the lake when Madam Yu’s wrath could be avoided. It’s so much like everything he’ll never have again.

He paints a smile on his face from nothing and goes to join them by the fire. He doesn’t sit in their circle, but he leans up against a tree and lingers. Close enough to engage, far enough to get out of the way.

“Young masters, what is that you’re drinking?” It isn’t any good by Wei Wuxian’s standards, going by the smell alone, but it’s a nice way to start a conversation. Plus, he’ll know what not to ever buy for himself or anyone he actually likes.

“It’s a brew from Moling,” One of the men supplies, seemingly very pleased with himself. Ah, so Moling is zero for two on it’s exports. Oh well. The scenery is probably pretty, and the non-cultivator folk are probably decent. “It’s not cheap, but it’s strong. Heavens know we need it.”

“Isn’t it a bit overpowering?” Wei Wuxian drums his fingers on his belt, considering. Not everyone likes an opinion, even and sometimes especially regarding liquor. “While you’re in Gusu, you should give Emperor's Smile a try. It’s the best.”

“The best?”

“Strong, but not overpowering. Subtle in scent, rich in taste.” And now he greatly wants some, but he’ll have to wait until he next scrounges up some money. That is, unless Lan Wangji has some stashed away for him. That man. Suddenly, an ugly tortoise made by an artisan who had perhaps never seen one seems a terribly unworthy gift to give him. “Surprisingly mellow,” he continues. “Pure, but with a sweet note you only really notice after you’ve had it.”

An obnoxious guffaw follows after his very thoughtful recommendation and he folds his arms over his chest, not truly offended but in high-enough spirits to play at it. It’s really fine if no one shares his good taste. More for him. When he can afford it, of course.

“Are you sure that you’re still talking about liquor?”  One of the men, with broad shoulders and a smirk on his face that appears permanent, asks him. Of course he’s talking about liquor, that’s what he said, wasn’t it? What else could he possibly- “Or are you talking about the maiden that sells it to you?”

Wei Wuxian is, by numerous accounts, shameless. People have been calling him this, and ill-bred, and a scoundrel, for years. Still, he feels his face heat to an almost unbearable degree, and the others join in on laughing at his misfortune. There is no maiden who sells him liquor, but he feels sorry for the way they speak of her anyway.

Before everything, he did have a reputation as a flirt, but that’s all it ever was. Everyone likes compliments. He says something nice, they say something nice and maybe he gets extra of whatever he was buying, everyone goes home happy.

He’d never even so much as held anyone’s hand before he died. After that, well. He’s not sure if it counts the same when it also involves fleeing from over a dozen armed men. He wished, at the time, that it did. He still wishes now.

“Ah,” he waves his hands like it might dispel the embarrassment like swarming bugs, “Young masters! It really is just the liquor!”

They either don’t believe him or just find his floundering too entertaining to leave alone. It’s better than having weapons pointed at him, but it still feels like an unwelcome prod too close to something he doesn’t want to expose, tender flesh beneath a shell he once thought unbreakable.

“So, Gusu is home to fine liquor and fine women.” The youngest of the three and possibly the drunkest sighs from his place by the fire. “It’s a shame our Chief Cultivator would have us go without a taste of either, if he had his way of it.”

It’s not news to Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji isn’t popular among any cultivator that doesn’t care for actually doing their job. As GusuLan’s master of discipline at fifteen he certainly hadn’t been popular, so now that everyone has to listen to him regardless of clan affiliation, he can guess that it’s much the same. It does not escape him that Lan Wangji at fifteen was also terribly lonely, and he hopes that this, at least, has changed.

Wei Wuxian laughs and it’s so forced that he’s sure even these strangers can tell they’re an audience.

“Well,” the smile he offers feels more like a baring of teeth, “What good is a discussion conference if everyone is in town or drunk? It seems reasonable enough.”

“Have you ever met him?” The young man that Wei Wuxian has decided to internally refer to as The Worst of them, asks. There’s an arch to his brow and a slimy quality to his words that he definitely doesn’t like.

“This humble one can’t claim to have spent much time in the company of Hanguang-jun,” he lies straight through his teeth, like it’s breathing. They already seem to have a poor opinion of Lan Wangji, and he will not make it worse by claiming to be associated with him. “But, I have met him in passing.”

“In passing,” the man echoes him. “So you haven’t had the misfortune.”

Wei Wuxian bristles. He’s well acquainted with misfortune and Lan Wangji does not qualify. He’s never cared much for the opinions of the cultivation world at large and he still doesn’t. For everything they’ve gotten wrong, they can think and feel however they choose about him, as is their right. He thinks that there is much they would agree on, in that vein.

But to hear people speak of Lan Wangji like this feels a far greater offense. Would they rather someone capable of killing his own kin? Would they rather a man that preys on anyone unfortunate enough to catch his eye? It’s with a sick feeling that he realizes they might, if only because they are accustomed to getting their way and now Hanguang-jun stands between them and it. He’s the profane one here, he’s the one that’s earned scorn.

“There’s a lot of people I’ve had the misfortune of meeting,” Present company likely to make the cut, he thinks. “I can’t count Hanguang-jun among them.”

“So polite!” he laughs in the face of his honesty, like it’s such a difficult thing to believe. "Maybe he could stand to meet more people who tolerate him.”

The other two take this as an invitation to start in, and Wei Wuxian feels like even his blood sours. People tolerate him , that’s always how it’s been and how it will be. He’s been lucky to even get that far, some people kick strays instead of bringing them home to raise alongside their own children.

Lan Wangji, never tolerated him. He drew his sword on him, poured out his liquor, and told him to piss off. He also bandaged his wounds and played healing music for him even when it was like pouring water into a jug with a hole struck through the bottom. He saw him face the world, step backwards into death, and he still tried to catch him. He doesn’t tolerate Lan Wangji, he--

His blood isn’t sour. It’s boiling.

“Maybe if he had any care for the finer things,” he takes a gulp of his sub-par expensive liquor and Wei Wuxian briefly entertains the idea of  smacking the bottom of the cup so it spills all over his face. “He wouldn’t spend so much time concerned with our business.” 

“I wonder if marriage would make him more agreeable.” The older man, now fighting his companion for the top spot on Wei Wuxian’s shitlist, almost tips over with his gesturing. It’s a reasonable assumption that he’s miming something carnal, but it’s not a maneuver that Wei Wuxian has ever heard of nor seen in traded spring books. “I can’t imagine him with a wife. Poor woman would be sleeping beside a stone pillar every night.”

 Wei Wuxian cannot imagine Lan Wangji with a wife, either. He doesn’t want to. If he wanted to feel like that, he’d go stick his hand in the fire. 

They’re wrong about all of it. They only think him unyielding because he’s a good man, strong in his convictions.  He’s about to ask them why they’re so invested, but someone else speaks before he can.

“It doesn’t have to be a wife.” The third and thus far only reasonable man says perhaps the only acceptable thing that’s been said in a good ten minutes. He immediately ruins it by continuing to speak. “If it would put him in a better mood, maybe we could all chip in for a whore worthy of the great Lan Wangji.”

“Shut up.”

In unison, three flushed faces turn to look at him in silence. The fire crackles on, unbothered. It goes on for too long, and he’s never been good at keeping quiet when he feels that someone has been wronged.

“Oh? Are we too crass for you, young master?” The slimy one continues to live up to his first impression. 

“Are you so deprived of companionship that you have to worry about Hanguang-jun’s private life?” Wei Wuxian can make anything sound as if he’s laughing about it, even if he isn’t. And he’s not. “Getting him laid won’t gain you his favor, and he doesn’t need your help. Lift a finger once in a while and maybe he won’t be so cold to you.”

“What sect did you say you were from again?”

“He didn’t,” The burliest of them adds in, like it’s something he’s only just noticed. “ This young master didn’t introduce himself at all.”

Fuck.

The man who had first called out to him leans forward to peer at him as if it will help him to see more clearly, and in the dim light given off by the fire, Wei Wuxian sees a much delayed spark of recognition. His face is a bit different now, but there must be enough of him left to pick out. Maybe it’s the black robes he favors.

“Oh,” the man starts to laugh, an unkind thing. He sets down his jar and then moves it further out of the range of his foot. “I wouldn’t introduce myself either if I was Yiling Laozu.”

The amiable mood of the gathering has turned into the raised hackles of pack animals. He raises his chin, defiant, calling on some of the played up arrogance he’d fashioned around himself as both weapon and shield all those years ago. He stays right where he is, folds his arms and plants his feet. He hopes he hasn’t lost his touch.

“Maybe we should take it up with you then,” he slurs, “Seems like you haven’t been doing your job.” 

Wei Wuxian assumes this means that he has once again wrought disappointment by no longer being dead. That’s truly not his fault, and if they want to rectify that, they are welcome to give it a try.

He knows better than to make the first move. Even as they start to wobble to their feet he doesn’t budge. If they’re that mad about it, they’ll have to come to him.

“Is it my job to boss around the Chief Cultivator?” He had, on two occasions, had to steer him back inside because he was completely incapable of holding his liquor and prone to petty theft when drunk, but that counts more as common courtesy than any real authority. The idea that anyone could make Lan Wangji do anything is laughable at best and offensive at worst.

“It’s your job, to keep him off our ass,” the slimy one stumbles up to him, jabbing a finger into his chest, “and on yours.”

“Well, sorry. I don’t raise the dead for the fun of it,” he says, and steps to the side to be rid of the unwelcome touch. “Do you really want me to be out and about causing problems?”

“Not causing,” he insists. "Solving.”

“You crawled your way up into the gentry somehow.” The sneer and accompanying slide of the man’s eyes up the length of his body makes it abundantly clear how exactly he thinks Wei Wuxian managed to ever be head disciple. So, this man has never seen him wield a sword. Good. “It’s clear Hanguang-jun is… quite fond of you as well. Why don’t you finally do something useful for the sects?”

“You think I can bat my eyes and change his mind?” Wei Wuxian snorts with no amount of grace at all. “Even if I had that kind of sway, I wouldn’t do anything for you.” He wouldn’t, so it’s not even posturing. They don’t need his help and they certainly don’t want it, considering his idea of assistance would be to dump their expensive liquor in the fire and send them on their way. His friendship with Lan Wangji is of no concern to anyone else.

“You know, we all wondered why he stood by you.” The other two have closed in, settling on either side of their companion. It’s against every instinct he has to let them block him in, but he can tip over a few drunks quite easily. “He had so much to lose and nothing to gain by speaking for you, at least that’s what we thought.” 

That was true, as well. Or rather, it would be true in their eyes. Lan Wangji had nothing to gain but the knowledge of at least having tried to save people who were guilty in name alone. He had a lot to lose. His standing, the support of his sect, his place in their world. All things that Wei Wuxian had already lost at that point, if he’d ever really had them at all.

“We’ve all done regrettable things for something warm to lie next to, eh?  Maybe we have more in common with our Chief Cultivator than we thought.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t have the temper he had as a teenager, nor the volatility and desperation that followed him out of the Burial Mounds and festered, nor the burning kind of fearlessness that only came from having the worst things he could’ve imagined already happening to him. But, he’s also sore and tired and suddenly very short on patience. 

“There’s nothing in common between you.”  He can’t keep the sneer off of his face. He usually makes it a point to be pleasant and accepting in the face of anger, but that anger is usually directed at him. This, he cannot stomach. No wrong has been done to them save for being told ‘no’. “Each of you could cultivate for a thousand years and still never come within a hundred li of him.”

“What high regard you have for him! And even after all those spats people were talking about during the Sunshot Campaign. Everyone said you were corrupting him.” He levels him with a look full of false pity, the kind someone might give to a person they’d just shoved to the ground. He looks too young to have ever fought in the war, to ever know the truth of anything, how they all still had one foot in childhood and one firmly planted in the grave. “Didn’t he used to hassle you whenever he met with you? Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe it was him corrupting you.”

There is something wild and burning in him now. They couldn’t possibly be more wrong, and he knows this. He knows it’s not true, that they probably don’t even believe it themselves. It still makes him sick, the feeling of an awful freefall. Lan Zhan did what was right because he believed it was right, not for anything else. He is not Jin Guangshan and he’s not someone who cares on condition. He’s never demanded anything of Wei Wuxian for himself.

Wei Wuxian tugs Chenqing out from under his belt almost reflexively. He’s not sure what exactly he intends to do with it, and considers blowing into it to create the most obnoxious shrieking note he can manage, but when a hand settles on his arm he switches his hold to something that doesn’t quite befit the use of a musical instrument.

Yes, he did swear to himself that he would be on his best behavior. That would have to wait until the next time he passed through, assuming he didn’t get himself permanently barred from entry.

At the first jerk of fingers on his sleeve, he whacks Chenqing across the man’s forehead. He’s cracked himself in the jaw by accident enough times to know it hurts, and judging by the way the sound seems to echo, he’d put money on it being a damn sight more painful to take directly to the skull.

The man gives a startled squawk while he topples backward and his much larger companion makes a grab for Wei Wuxian’s wrists. He picks up his leg and drives his boot into the man’s knee, causing him to make a noise not unlike that of a pheasant when the arrow strikes.

“You little bastard!” The man that he can now see is clad in the grey and gold of the Yao sect bellows like a wounded boar. Given whose body he’d come back in, he’s not even wrong. 

Wei Wuxian ducks out of the way of a swinging fist, still brandishing his dizi as a reminder that he is not unarmed and doesn’t need a sword to win a fight. Even if they manage to take it from him, he’s not above biting, scratching or clocking someone in the jaw with a bare fist.

The frenetic energy of it makes him feel a little more alive than he’s been feeling. Not necessarily good, but alive. All of the frustration of his thoughts not playing well with his feelings, all of the anger he insisted that he did not carry, all given a chance at escape.

On nighthunts, he can’t be angry, not when he’s up against things that will feed on it, on him. But these men are not restless dead. They are very much alive and there’s nothing for them to take from him anymore.

The only one taller than him finally gets enough control of himself and reaches over his shoulder to grab at his collars, yanking him back into his chest and toward the fire, too drunk and too pissed off to realize that he’s putting himself in danger as well. Wei Wuxian claws at his hands mercilessly, and when that doesn’t work, he pitches his entire body sideways and away from any potential burns, taking his assailant with him to the ground.

He rolls to his feet, crouched like a cat and ignoring the dull pain in his side from the impact. Wei Wuxian is going to bruise, but so is he. If he so much as moves a muscle, he’ll pin him to the dirt.

There’s a sound like the slow roll of distant thunder followed by a flash of light. The fire abruptly goes out, leaving everyone shrouded in the dark with only the faint glow of the moon to find each other by. Wei Wuxian freezes where he is and prepares to be thrown right out on his ass.

A flicker of white light from the ignition of a fire talisman swells and illuminates the entire riverbank, casting everyone into sharp relief. The Yao sect disciple is holding a particularly large rock with intent and stays there with it in his hands, about to drop it directly onto his own friend’s head rather than the intended target of Wei Wuxian.

“Young Master Yao! What are you doing?” There’s an extra layer of drama to the new voice joining them, as if to imply the whole scene is somehow the fault of this Young Master Yao. The optics are not great, and Wei Wuxian is an expert on poor optics.

Young Master Yao. Does Sect Leader Yao have a son as awful as he is? Is the Yao sect known for poor opinions the same way that QingheNie is known for their sabers?

“I-- this man here, he’s--”

“Lan Jingyi,” The name being called isn’t even his and it still rocks through him so that he can feel it in his palms against the ground. He would know that voice anywhere. He would know that voice even buried in the earth, sunk into the depths of the sea. “Return to your rooms. I will handle this.”

Wei Wuxian picks himself up, still on his knees but straightening his back and tilting his head up to have a proper look.

Lan Zhan .

He looks just the same as he did the day they parted on the ridge. He should, it’s only been a year, but Wei Wuxian has gone without his presence for so long with only daydreams to go by. He’s forgotten the whole picture, forgotten the set of his jaw when he’s not going to be cowed, forgotten how his voice sounds so much better from his lips than from memory.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lan Wangji  asks, and everyone, save for Wei Wuxian, scrambles. It’s at this moment that he realizes someone will have to confess that there was a debate over his virtue that devolved into fisticuffs. And that it will probably have to be him.

“Hanguang-jun, we were just-,” The man stops to pry the rock from his companion’s hands while he remains  shocked still and frozen into the incriminating position.

“Out after curfew. Drinking. Fighting.” His eyes are steely but he appears generally unbothered, as if they’re all students again and he intends to drag them all before Lan Qiren for punishment.

The man stammers in response, looking for an excuse he’s not going to find. It’s like looking into a broken, dusty mirror and seeing a younger and dumber version of himself.

“Return to your sect leaders,” he keeps his gaze very carefully away from Wei Wuxian and it makes him want to cry out, to demand his attention. He can’t. “Now.”

Belonging to no sect and thus, having no sect leader, Wei Wuxian assumes that he is excluded from this command. His jaw clicks. 

There will be more rumors of favoritism, more complaints about the rigid nature of the Chief Cultivator. It would be a miracle for him to go one day without making things more difficult for someone, wouldn’t it?

 He spent a year wandering everywhere that he could and the only fights he’d gotten into were with stubborn spirits, yao and exactly one donkey. Yet, the moment he set foot into Cloud Recesses, into Lan Wangji’s home , he’d started hissing and spitting.

Wei Wuxian stays right where he is as the others pass him by, at least having the decency to look a little embarrassed. Humbled in the silence left behind.

The sound of footsteps fades while Wei Wuxian stays there on his knees, head down like he’s back in Lotus Pier’s ancestral hall. With the stubborn ache in his back, it’s even closer to the real thing. He should probably say something like ‘hi, Lan Zhan’ or ‘hello’ or ‘sorry for brawling on your doorstep, I’m not going to elaborate’. He has missed him so much  and already he’s ruined this. He opens his mouth, closes it and opens it again.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji speaks first. He does not say his name with anger, only with something that sounds almost world-weary. “Come with me?” he asks.

And he does ask, like there’s a possibility that Wei Wuxian will say ‘no’ and turn the other way. Wei Wuxian cups his hands over his face and takes a deep breath. He scrubs at his eyes like it will do anything at all to keep him alert and on his guard. When he goes to stand up, Lan Wangji’s hand is outstretched toward him, an offering.

He blinks at it before he takes it into his own. The calloused qin player’s fingertips feel like a luxury against his skin and he kneels there for a few moments under the feel of them before he realizes that he’s meant to use it to help him off the ground. Lan Wangji doesn’t pull away from him or nudge him along, only tugs when Wei Wuxian untucks his legs and pops to his feet.

He still can’t find his words, misplacing them somewhere between telling a group of strangers to shut up about his- about Lan Wangji, and clocking a man in the head with his dizi. Distantly, he knows he’d better get it together and find them, quickly. Instead he stands there with a knot in his throat and too much of something in his chest.

Lan Wangji watches him as he bends to pick up Chenqing where he’d nearly forgotten it on the ground. He misses his belt twice trying to tuck it against his waist before he finally manages it and takes a tentative step onto the path behind Lan Wangji’s white-clad back.

They don’t move again until Wei Wuxian eyes the path and realizes it’s not so narrow as he thought. Sheepishly, he ducks out of Lan Wangji’s shadow to stand at his side. 

The path they’re on isn’t one he used as a guest disciple, so he doesn’t know where it leads, but it doesn’t take them close to any of the main buildings. It’s dark by now, but he hears the sound of water dribbling over stone and sees two lanterns in the distance. It makes sense that Lan Wangji wouldn’t want anyone to know he’s here, especially not after the chaos he just caused.

There is so much that needs to be said, yet they walk shoulder-to-shoulder in silence.

When they get closer, he realizes that the glow of the lanterns belongs to the archway marking the perimeter of the Jingshi. The sight of it pulls at something in him, a fishhook snuck under his ribs.

Lan Zhan, he thinks, I start a fight at your doorstep and you walk me to your home.

The billowing fabric of Lan Wangji’s sleeve brushes against his hand. They’ve been close enough to touch this entire time and he hasn’t once tugged at his sleeve or his sword tassel. He hasn’t thrown his arms around him like he wanted to either, but he’s known since before he even arrived that he wouldn’t have the guts to do that.

Lan Wangji only stops to toe off his shoes and set them neatly to the side of the door. Wei Wuxian follows, not at all paying attention to how his own beaten pair look tucked beside them. It’s only then that he realizes he’s left Lil’ Apple to her own devices with nearly all of his scant belongings on her back. He winces, not because there’s anything worth stealing, but because he doesn’t think he’ll survive anyone rooting through all the letters he’d written to Lan Wangji. The ones he couldn’t bring himself to send and could not bear to destroy.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji finally says after they cross the threshold of the Jingshi. “Are you well?”

What a thing to ask after all of that. It feels like he should be the one asking.

“Ah.” Wei Wuxian pins half a smile to his face, not quite managing to hammer in the other half. It falls like a torn banner. “I may have misplaced a donkey at your gates. Other than that, aren’t I always?”

The look that Lan Wangji gives him is withering, but perhaps not intended to be. He already knows that he should know better by now. He doesn’t, but he’ll try.

“I mean,” he says, not having meant anything other than what he’d first said, “I’m not hurt, or anything.”

He follows Lan Wangij’s line of sight to one of the cushions around the low table they’d once sat at to discuss much graver things than this. He sits down and somehow still manages to be surprised when Lan Wangji follows. Only, he doesn’t sit across the table from him. He kneels down at his side in a graceful swoop, close enough to feel the warmth of him. He removes his silver headpiece with a practiced ease that Wei Wuxian will never understand and sets it on the table.

“May I see your hands?” he asks.

Wei Wuxian nods, pivots on his knees to face him and lifts them up for display. His teeth sink painfully into his tongue when Lan Wangji turns each one over in his own palms and examines them. There’s some damage, but it’s nothing worth any attention. His knuckles are just a little scraped and stinging. They were cold, too, before now. Lan Wangji frowns at the state of them.

The loss he feels when Lan Wangji places his hands on the table and draws back is something he’s not quite sure he has the words for. They’re not even talking around it, they’re not talking about it at all.

“Wei Ying, whatever was said to you--.”

“Lan Zhan, I’m sorry I--.”

They both stop when they realize they’re speaking over each other. Wei Wuxian allows himself to smile, a weak and faded thing. Lan Wangji never interrupts. He tries to piece together a suitable explanation in his head, one that avoids divulging that there was a discussion of his bedroom habits. He doesn’t have time, because Lan Wangji continues.

“Whatever was said,” he says, ducking his head to catch Wei Wuxian’s eye, to draw his gaze off of the table and back to him. “Those men do not know you.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan.” They know enough. Nothing they had said about him, directly or indirectly, was really wrong aside from the implication that he had seduced his way into anything. Far more people had wanted to kill him than kiss him, but he thinks they know that. It wasn’t him they didn’t know. It wasn’t him they were wrong about. “It’s nothing. You know my temper.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, damning. “I do. You are not someone who lashes out over ‘nothing’.”

Wei Wuxian chews at the inside of his bottom lip, pulling the flesh between his teeth. This isn’t at all how he wanted to meet with Lan Wangji again. He wanted to be teasing him and draping himself over his shoulders. That doesn’t seem like something he should get to have now.

“They were young, drunk and stupid. I should know better.” He should, really. But he can still hear the venom they spit as they spoke of Lan Wangji, the implications of it all. He had to say something, after all Lan Zhan had done for him, for everyone.

“Did they touch you?”

“Well- yes. But I had Chenqing out--”

“Did they attempt to harm you?”

“I mean, attempt is pretty generous, and I did smack one of them with a dizi first. I’m not sure which one, but there might be a mark.”

“Wei Ying,” 

“I know. No fighting-”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji’s voice comes out sounding more like a sigh. “What did they say to you?”

There’s no real way out of it. He doesn’t want to start anything, but that boat is already halfway down the river and no amount of standing on the dock and waving his hands around will turn it back to him. 

Lan Wangji doesn’t care much for reputation, but maybe he should. The things they’d said, leveled with the story Zewu-jun had told him of their parents… it doesn’t feel like the typical cultivation standard slander and gossip. Maybe it won’t hurt Lan Wangji at all, but it hurts Wei Wuxian to think of hurting him, to think of anyone wanting to.

“It’s nothing you should have to worry about,” he says, a little rough and shaking, like something is caught in his throat. “You know how things are. Everyone jumps to their own conclusions about everything, no matter what evidence gets in the way.”

“Did they accuse you of something?”

Maybe it’s better to get it over with, cauterize the wound before it can fester. Lan Wangji’s worry is not something he feels worthy of now that he’s added to his troubles.

“Only of not doing my job,” he swallows, the levity he’d intended going with it, “We had a disagreement about what exactly that was.”

Lan Wangji is quite obviously waiting for him to continue, the quiet patience of him is more than he can bear to look at. He thinks about what it would have been like if he asked him to stay. Worse, he thinks. If their friendship, his standing by him, was enough to drip dark water and stale blood all over his reputation, what would they say of him if he’d allowed Wei Wuxian to stay?

A fiend who claimed righteousness, yet kept the Yiling Laozu as his bedwarmer. A lecherous fool, easily deceived. A reflection of Qingheng-jun, who caged a murderer to be his wife and shunned his own sect in penance until he burned along with it.

Lan Wangji is still waiting for him.

“They were just complaining,” he says. “Mouthing off because you don’t let them get away with what they’re used to. Stuff they shouldn’t have gotten away with doing in the first place, anyway.” He drums his fingers on the table as he speaks, directing the charged buzzing he feels in his head and in his veins into something that he hopes won’t come out of his mouth. “I was nice about it at first, I swear. They didn’t even recognize me.”

“What changed?”

It does not escape his notice that Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow, his gentle expression going darker. Ah. Wei Wuxian has always had a knack for testing the patience of everyone around him. It only stands to reason that even someone with such a deep well of it to go along with their admirable restraint would eventually have enough. He was a nuisance to Lan Wangji once, and he can go back to being just that if he has to.

“They, um. Well, I told them to shut up.” He feels like he’s eleven years old at Lotus Pier, explaining just how the scorch marks in the kitchen suddenly appeared. It should be easier than this, between them. He’s not going to tell him that three strangers were debating how bad of a lay he’d be. It’s no one’s business and it’s probably not true, either. “They started to say things about you, Lan Zhan. None of it was any of their business and I couldn’t stand it.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, steady. It’s not an admonishment. “There is no need.”

“I know, they don’t matter. But,-” he curls his fingers underneath his palm, nails digging crescents into the skin. “It got worse. When they found out who I was, they got worse.”

At this, he swears he can hear Lan Wangji’s jaw click. 

“They said it was my job to distract you from them and I wasn’t doing it. At first I thought they meant, you know, being a menace to society.” He tries not to flinch at the way the furrow in Lan Wangji’s brow deepens. Menacing society can occur on a micro scale, apparently. “They meant, uh. They sort of implied that I was supposed to… service you.”

On the bright side, Lan Wangji’s frown disappears. Unfortunately it gives way to a gaping shock. Disgust. Wei Wuxian needs to get the rest of it out before he loses his nerve.

“They said you only helped me back then, and-- now I guess,” Gods. He wants to swallow his own tongue, “because you wanted something in return. That all those talks we had during the Sunshot campaign were you hassling me because of it.”

He’s never seen such a horrible look on Lan Wangji’s face. Well, with the exception of That One Very Memorable Time That We Would All Like To Forget. The breath that leaves him quivers, like he’s been struck.

 It makes him feel so sick he thinks he might just shrivel up like a rotting peach and then puddle onto the floor. Unfortunately, Lan Wangji would have to clean him up, again, so that’s off the table. He’s obviously repulsed, and Wei Wuxian tries very hard not to be hurt. At least it’s a different kind of revulsion than other people have for him. Conditional revulsion, only disgusted by the idea of sleeping with him. That’s fine.

“Wei Ying. Y-”

“So, uh,” he cuts in before the thought is fully formed. He doesn’t want to be rude but there are some things he’s just not ready to hear spoken directly to him yet. “The thing that- um. So, the last thing he said before,” he waves his closed fist by way of explanation “was that they thought I had been corrupting you the whole time, but they changed their minds about it and somehow got the idea that it was you corrupting me.”

Wei Wuxian has never seen Lan Wangji cry, but he thinks he might be about to. It’s not something he ever wanted to check off his list.

“So, you see why.”

“Wei Ying, I--”

“I couldn’t just let them keep saying awful things about you.” His voice is louder now than he’d let it be thus far into his account. He’s ashamed of how it played out, but he’s not embarrassed to have defended Lan Wangji, despite the circumstances.

“Wei Ying, you did not have to.”

“Lan Zhan, of course I did. You’ve been nothing but kind to me,” Wei Wuxian says this with every scrap of conviction he has packed away in his new bamboo pole of a body. He remembers a shattered white jar, biting words in a courier’s post that would never be the same, “Well, sometimes you were a little mean, but that was deserved. Good. You’ve been nothing but good to me.”

“I stood with you because it was right,” Lan Wangji says, “As I should have, long before it came to--” they both know what it had all come to. There is no need to say it now. “There is nothing to repay. You are in no debt to me. Not ever.”

Wei Wuxian thinks of the map of scars he knows is hidden underneath Lan Wangji’s robes, knotted and crossing over each other, wound over wound. He won’t deny Lan Wangji his own choices, but he can’t help the tangled mess of guilt and anger that sits heavy in his chest when he’s reminded of what Lan Wangji bears. It’s not something he bears just for him, and it makes Wei Wuxian feel even guiltier to think that, to assume more than is his rightful place. It feels even worse to think of this and hope that Lan Wangji’s disgust was not for him.

“Lan Zhan, I disrupted your life from the moment I met you.” He smiles, and it’s a real one, if not a happy one. He does wonder, sometimes, what Lan Wangji’s life would look like if he hadn’t gotten his grubby paws all over it. There is little use in wondering what might have been, but it’s a difficult habit to break for someone who had lived on nothing but  ‘what if’ and ‘how long?’ for quite a few years.

“My life was in need of disruption.” 

“Yes, I’m sure you needed someone to bother you every single day for a month and then keep bothering you even after you thought you were free of him.”

“I did.” Lan Wangji nods his agreement, completely ignoring Wei Wuxian’s intent to make fun of himself. He does this sometimes, takes his theatrics or his overblown nonsense complaints and treats them as something real and important underneath. He knows him.

And if Lan Wangji knows him, then it really seems too much to ask that he love him as well.

“And I’m here yet again to ruin your peace and silence with all my noise,”

"Your noise does not ruin my peace,” Lan Wangji says, with room for the assumption to be made about who exactly is capable of ruining his peace, “And, I have had enough of silence.”

“Lan Zhan! Are my efforts not enough? Should I serenade you?” He’s given him an opportunity without meaning to, but Wei Wuxian will still take it. 

“It is enough to hear your voice.” He turns that gaze on him again, a softer version of the one that had always been able to see him a bit too clearly when he was trying to muddy the waters. “I have missed it.”

He knows that Lan Wangji missed him while he was gone. The first time, the long time. When it was merely land between them and not the uncrossable void between life and death, it seemed too presumptuous to think that he still could. Jiang Cheng used to tell him that he was only tolerable in small doses, so it seemed better not to pour out the whole jug of himself in Lan Wangji’s lap when a cup was already bordering on too much.

“Ah, Lan Zhan. You’ll regret telling me that,” he laughs and picks at his own nails, already ground down as a result of his work. 

“I have missed you.”

To hear confirmation of it does nothing to calm the fears that have been swirling around in his head for weeks, or if he’s honest with himself, since the moment he left. It should help, it should knock the two separate truths in his head together with the force of it and make them get along. Lan Wangji had not asked him to stay. Lan Wangji had missed him both times he was gone. Had he missed him as he was fading? Slipping further and further out of reach and pushing anyone and everyone away from the truth of him?

Everything on his tongue feels too sharp to hold there. He’d been writing it all down and shoving it away, unable to read any of it over. “I miss you,” is what he manages to get out. It’s quite a thing to say to someone sitting right in front of you. Things are different now between them, without a crisis looming, with Lan Wangji’s position and responsibilities. He looks at him with a question in his eyes, so Wei Wuxian corrects himself. “I missed you, while I was gone.”

So that’s out of the way, and with less pain than he thought. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed, but he has, at least, given his real reason for being here.

He’s gotten pretty good at reading Lan Wangji’s expressions, but he’s not too sure of this one. He knows what he wants it to mean and he knows better than to hope for it. He’s not stupid, he knows that Lan Wangji must be somewhat fond of him, but he can’t make sense of it through all the tangled spider’s silk in his head.

He knows that what he feels for Lan Wangji is beyond the normal scope of friendship. He has thought frequently about being in his arms, and in the aftermath of the Guanyin Temple, he thought it could be so easy for them to keep going as they were. The two of them together, nighthunting with a donkey in tow until they tired of it and returned to wherever it was that they called home. He has thought, less frequently, of kissing him, of cupping his face in his hands and brushing their lips together.

Wei Wuxian has never been kissed, so it’s not something he can imagine clearly. He tries not to, like even the phantom image of it will somehow paint Lan Wangji’s lips with blood and smear his face with grave dirt. Lan Wangji must know it, the ruin he brings in his wake.

He’s only meant to be a visitor, yet he has always wanted more.

“I’m really tired, Lan Zhan.”  No one has to know exactly how tired. He could stay awake for hours into the night with his sore back and puffy eyes, but if he leaves again to wander alone in a world that knows all of his worst mistakes, he might just crumble. It’s a different kind of fatigue. He is tired of loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that Lan Wangji has to indulge him.

“Then you may rest here.”

“Ah, I couldn’t take up any more of your time than I already have.”

Lan Wangji looks at him as though he has said something more ridiculous than anything else he’s said tonight, which is saying something.

“I will always have time to spare for you.”

It hurts and he has no earthly idea why. It should make him happy to hear that Lan Wangji will still humor him after their time apart. It turns something inside of him against him. For nearly a year, he’s been telling himself that Lan Wangji does not want him and now the man himself says that he will always have time for him. Maybe absence has made his heart grow fonder, has made him forget just how much Wei Wuxian is. Besides that, he’s the Chief Cultivator. He can’t possibly.

“You don’t have to humor me, you know,” he says. It sounds so much sadder than he intended, really a bit pathetic. He winces.

If he thought the last pointed look from Lan Wangji was withering, this one is barely survivable. It’s sad.

“Wei Ying, you must know.”

“No.” He feels all of the terrible dread of these past few weeks as his taste for wandering dwindled come crashing down upon his head. “Lan Zhan, I left for a year and you let me. You let me leave you behind.” He can’t stand the thought of being the one who left again, but he knows it’s true. He can’t get upset over being turned loose, it would be far too selfish. If he doesn’t acknowledge it, he does not feel it.

“Wei Ying, how could I ask you to stay in a world that called for your death?” He sounds so tired, and Wei Wuxian hates to be the cause of it. “I would not cage you. I would not ask you to tie yourself to me.”

“And if I want to be tied to you?” If Lan Wangji  truly wants a scrawny necromancer nipping at his heels at all hours of the day, needy Wei Ying, always too much, never letting him have a moment’s rest.

“You wanted to see the world.”

“With you.” The filter he’s spent months tuning to catch all the detritus from his head before it slips out of his mouth is gone in less than the time it takes to blink.  “I wanted to see it with you. Everyone else needed you more, it’s fine.” It doesn’t feel fine, but if he keeps saying it enough then maybe he’ll start to believe it. “ I’ve already done enough damage without dragging the first decent Chief Cultivator we’ve had into all the trouble I get into.” 

“Wei Ying…” There’s more he wants to say, but Wei Wuxian has learned to recognize the look of Lan Wangji choosing his battles. “I hope to abolish the position. By the end of this week.”

“Lan Zhan!”

“It should have never existed. It was meant to serve one sect, one person.” He’s thought about this. How long has he been thinking about this? Wei Wuxian thinks he might know, and it’s all he can do not to throw up on the table. “What happened in generations past cannot be allowed to happen again.”

“How can you be so good?” he asks, anguished. After everything, after thirty-three lashes that will never heal and three years wounded and alone. He will always admire him for that, for walking back into the world and deciding what he wanted to make of himself, for never turning his nose up at any opportunity to help.

“I could ask you the same.”

No, he really couldn’t. He knows himself, he knows he’s no good. Trying to be doesn’t count for anything when it all collapsed on top of him and everyone else in the end. Then, he thinks of Sizhui, of tiny Wen Yuan in chains before he could even read.

There is no point in thinking about things that cannot be changed. All he can do is be grateful that somewhere, wrapped up in all the wrong, he’d made a right move. 

“Stubborn,” he says. “Lan Zhan is so stubborn.”

Lan Wangji, for his part, doesn’t disagree. He only blinks at him, slow and catlike, as if he’d been patiently waiting for Wei Wuxian to realize this. 

“I should have explained,” Lan Wangji says, dropping his gaze. “I never meant for you to feel unwelcome or unwanted.”

“Lan Zhan, I should have said something. How were you supposed to know if I didn’t say anything?”

“I should have known.” It makes Wei Wuxian feel strange, to think that there is someone who can tell when he feels unwanted and will give a shit about it, like it matters. “I didn’t wish to burden you with,” he pauses to search for the right words, a rare thing for a man who speaks so intently, “my personal feelings.”

It sounds familiar. It sounds like the sorts of things he’s been telling himself for months while he slept alone under the stars and tried to convince himself it was for the best. 

It feels like his heart is swelling painfully in his chest and pushing the air out of his lungs. There have always been moments where he thought maybe . By the time they'd parted, it had grown into something like an incessant birdsong always chirping away in the back of his mind no matter how he tried to sleep through it.

“Your feelings, of…” He isn't trying to be cruel, only to be sure. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he’s wrong about this, if he’s misunderstood yet again. Lan Wangji looks pained and Wei Wuxian cannot abide this. He’s not teasing him, he’s not rejecting him. He reaches his hands toward him, palms up as he had earlier, asking Lan Wangji to place his heart in the open shell of them.

“Wei Ying,” he whispers, like anything louder would gut him.

“Are they the same as mine?” Wei Wuxian realizes this does not give Lan Wangji much to work with in terms of context, so he has to elaborate. If he rolls over now, soft underbelly exposed, only to have gotten it all wrong, he might knock himself unconscious with whatever blunt object is nearest. If he can beat Lan Zhan to it. “As in, I want to be near you. I want to nighthunt with you and play music with you. I’d do anything with you.”

And he does mean anything. Lan Wangji could ask him to sit with him while they watch grass grow and he would do it. He’d make an absolute nuisance of himself, but he’d still do it! If Lan Wangji wanted to drag him around by the wrist to indulge in another evening of petty crime, that would also be great! If Lan Wangji wanted him, he could have as much as he could take. If Lan Wangji wanted to kiss him right now, that would be… that would be…

He stares at Lan Wangji’s pink mouth, the startled part of his lips. His eyes flick up to Lan Wangji’s own, finding them wide and shining damp.

“I want to do everything with you,” Wei Wuxian realizes that his voice has gotten almost uncomfortably loud in the peaceful quiet of the Jingshi. It’s hard to modulate the volume of his spilling his heart out of his mouth. “If you want that, too.”

They must stand at the same time, because no sooner has Wei Wuxian felt the impact of the low table on his poor shins than his head makes contact with Lan Wangji’s. He blinks rapidly in succession to clear the fog from his eyes, skull still ringing with the impact.

Wei Wuxian has never been kissed before and there’s more teeth involved than he thought there would be. None of that matters. It’s Lan Zhan biting his lip and grabbing his waist so hard that he might find handprints the next time he bathes. He’ll take it, he’ll take whatever Lan Zhan gives him.

He pulls away, eyes wider than Wei Wuxian has ever seen. In the aftermath, he’s too dazed to see that he’s searching for something, some kind of response. By the time he takes a step back, Wei Wuxian steps forward into his space to follow him. His hands land on his broad shoulders so heavily that it’s audible, and he kisses him again. He’s worried that he’s not doing it right, but it really doesn’t seem to matter when Lan Zhan’s arms wrap so tightly around him that his feet leave the floor and his back cracks.

Wei Wuxian decides that he likes kissing very much.

“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, “Lan Zhan, I think that you’re my favorite.” He darts in to press a kiss to the line of his jaw, all the feeling in him bubbling over beyond his control. “I like you so much.”

“Wei Ying, for so long I--” he stops mid sentence to kiss him again, hands in the shape of wings against Wei Wuxian’s back, rising and falling with his breathing, to the rhythm of his being alive. When they part again, he rests his forehead against Wei Wuxian’s, a much gentler set to their earlier collision. “I have loved you for so long.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t ask questions about it. He thinks he might know, and he wonders if he could’ve recognized it earlier if he hadn’t spent so long thinking in terms of debts and repayment, in the transactional sort of love he’d been used to.

When he’d died, he had no intentions of ever coming back. He hadn’t known it was an option, and even if he had it wasn’t a choice he ever would have made for himself. When he woke up in a bloody array, being kicked around an unfamiliar room, his first thought had been to wish that he was still dead.

He doesn’t know if he can be grateful to Nie Huaisang or even to Mo Xuanyu, who was so tormented he decided he’d rather give up his soul completely than go on a moment longer under his aunt’s roof. This all feels like something he shouldn’t have, but he has it. He has it anyway.

Wei Wuxian runs his tongue over his own kiss-swollen lips and reaches his hands into Lan Wangji’s hair. It’s always so perfect that he can’t help but want to mess it up a little bit, get it mussed and out of place. At the same time, Lan Wangji’s hands trail down his back and settle on the backs of his thighs. He’s expecting a little squeeze, a pinch, maybe. Instead, Lan Wangji lifts him.

He yelps from the shock of it and automatically wraps his legs around Lan Wangji’s waist for balance. Like this, he’s just a little bit taller and he can dip his head down to kiss him. It’s a nice view, a nice vantage point.

“Where are you carrying me off to, ah?” He kisses him again on the apple of his cheek with an obnoxious smacking noise for good measure. 

“Bed.” Is the only answer he gets before he is gently deposited onto the daybed he once spent several days on, sleeping fitfully and bleeding through his bandages. It’s not a pleasant memory, but after that, he woke up to Lan Wangji only a room away. It is also not really big enough for two grown men to share.

It turns out that they don’t have to share. Lan Wangji crawls over him, settling between his legs and pushing his face into his neck to breathe in deeply. Wei Wuxian knows he probably smells like sweat and campfire with notes of donkey, but it doesn’t seem to bother Lan Wangji at all. The soft puffs of air against his skin make him ticklish, and he bursts into laughter. He stops laughing when Lan Wangji licks a stripe up from his collarbone to the hinge of his jaw, ending in a bite.

“Oh,” he says, still trying to catch his breath and staring up at Lan Wangji’s face, desperate and flushed in a way he’s never seen.

“Wei Ying, may I?”

“Sure,” he says, without thinking. It really doesn’t matter what he’s asking because Wei Wuxian is sure that he wants him to do whatever it is he’s thinking of doing with that look in his eyes.

He lies back while Lan Wangji works the front of his robes open, sliding his belt off the side of the bed and only just managing to snatch the dizi out of it before it hits the floor. He takes a moment to lower it gently to the floor before he returns to his ardent efforts to get Wei Wuxian naked. He seeks out and unties fastenings like he was made for it.

Embarrassingly enough, he squeaks the moment Lan Wangji’s mouth grazes the dark of his nipple. He hadn’t exactly been too concerned with bodily exploration in either of his lives, so it’s a bit of a shock to discover how it feels to have someone touch him like this. He leans up to help Lan Wangji slip his underrobe fully off his shoulders and shuck it to the floor with the rest of his discarded clothing.

As soon as they’re bare, Lan Wangji’s big hands are on them, pressing him down to the bed. He kisses down his chest, leaving his claim on each rib. He pauses, and frowns before continuing on his path.

“What is it?”

“Too thin,” Lan Wangji says into his skin. “I should’ve taken care of you.”

Wei Wuxian can almost feel himself flush all the way down to his chest. He hasn’t had that in so long, and to hear it said that someone wants to take care of him is almost too much for him to bear. Lan Wangji must notice it, because he buries his face in the dip between his pectoral muscles. If he can feel his own heartbeat so intensely, then he’s sure that Lan Wangji must feel it too.

“Don’t worry about it,” his voice pitches up when Lan Wangji sucks a mark into the curve of his chest. “I’m as hardy as an ox, I’ll manage.”

“You should not have to be.” Lan Wangji smooths his hands down his chest and belly to settle on his hips. He squeezes, curling his fingers underneath Wei Wuxian’s body and digging them into the swell of his ass. Wei Wuxian’s hips stutter at the pressure, and he swears that Lan Wangji is smirking at him.

Lan Wangji hooks his fingers in the waist of his trousers and eases them down over his hips. Wei Wuxian squirms in place with those broad palms and long fingers holding him down. He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s whining behind his closed lips. He’s so hard it almost hurts, the cold air makes him twitch.

“Let me see you,” he says, pawing gracelessly at Lan Wangji’s chest, the collar of his robes. “Lan er-gege, I want to see you.”

Lan Wangji works surprisingly quickly for someone who wears so many layers, letting his outer layer flutter to the floor on top of Wei Wuxian’s belt. It’s still not fast enough, he wants the whole warmth and weight of him pressed against him again.

He isn’t surprised by what he sees, he’s always known that Lan Wangji was beautiful. Still, his mouth goes dry when he sees him like this. His shoulders are broader than his own, tapering down into a solid, trim waist. His arms are well muscled, and even though he’s already had them around him, he wants to be wrapped up in them again.

“Oh.” He’s not intimidated, he prides himself on being adaptable. Still, Lan Wangji is enormous. It’s not like he’s seen many cocks in his time, but he’s pretty sure they aren’t all like this, at least his isn’t. It pleases him to see that Lan Wangji is hard, too, flushed and curving up against his stomach from the dark thatch of hair between his thighs. It’s because of him, he thinks with a shudder. Physical proof that Lan Wangji finds him pleasing, that he wants him.

Wei Wuxian, despite all the mouthing off of his youth, doesn’t know what comes next. He does have some ideas and he knows what he’d like to happen, sort of. More kissing, more of Lan Wangji’s hands all over his body. Eventually, he thinks, he would like to have that buried deep inside of him. Breathing hard, he looks up as Lan Wangji settles back over him, arms braced on either side of his head.

“I would like to touch you.”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian nods when his voice comes out a little too hoarse, “I’d like that.” He already knows he likes kissing, and he’s not going to say no to more. Lan Wangji lowers his body on top of him, the brush of their bare skin together sending warmth all the way through him.

He sighs into Lan Wangji’s mouth when he kisses him again, nipping at his bottom lip as Lan Zhan had done to him. His teeth are sharp when he runs his tongue over them, as sharp as they felt against his skin. He doesn’t want to part from him, but he unfortunately does need to breathe.

Lan Wangji mouths down his chin, down the column of his throat. He’s taking his time, the fall of his hair dragging down Wei Wuxian’s chest and stomach as he worries the skin between his teeth, marking him all the way down. 

“Lan Zhan,” he gasps, “I miss you, come back up here.” He throws his arms around his neck when he crawls back up his body, arching into him in spite of the tension still present in his lower back. Lan Wangji’s mile-long hair is so soft and smooth when he tangles his fingers in it, nails scraping lightly at the nape of his neck.

Lan Wangji slips his own thigh between Wei Wuxian’s, the friction of it only making him seek more as he rocks his hips against him. It’s enough to drive him mad, but not enough to satisfy.

“Please,” he whines, not even sure what exactly he’s asking for. Lan Wangji stares down at him, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, like Wei Wuxian is something to devour. He raises his hand in front of his face and spits directly into his palm. Fuck.

He reaches down between them and takes Wei Wuxian’s cock in his slick hand, his long fingers curling around his length. When he swipes his thumb over the sensitive head, Wei Wuxian swears his vision starts to go fuzzy at the edges and he lets out a cry. He can feel himself leaking into Lan Wangji’s hand.

While he can still think to do so, he reaches down as well. His hands are smaller and Lan Wangji’s cock is thicker, but he can still get his grip around it. He must be doing something right when he grinds them together, because Lan Wangji growls at him and opens his hand to touch both of them.

He pumps them together, blood-warm and hard in Wei Wuxian’s hand, building a rhythm with the lift of Wei Wuxian’s hips while he arches off the bed to kiss him. It’s sloppy, not a single one of his efforts actually making it to his lips, landing instead on the rise of his cheek, the lobe of his ear. He lets it catch on his teeth, and Lan Wangji rewards him with a bite to the join between his neck and shoulder.

“Behave yourself.”

“I can’t,” Wei Wuxian laughs “I can never behave myself with Lan Zhan, I like teasing him too much.”

He swallows the next peal of laughter that threatens to escape at Lan Wangji’s expression. Instead he moans when he picks up the pace, loud and unquestionably obscene. If teasing Lan Wangji makes him touch him harder or push against him faster, he’s never going to stop doing it.

The hot tension in his gut coils tighter and tighter, his breathing growing quick and shallow. With his free hand, he reaches for Lan Wangji, heart feeling so full and so bruised when his fingertips brush over knotted scar tissue.

He loves him so much he thinks he might just choke on it. He’s not crying, he’s not sure if he can do that anymore, but his eyes are damp and he can feel the chill of it on his lashes.

“Beautiful,” Lan Wangjj whispers into his skin. “Wei Ying, my Wei Ying.”

His entire body shudders with it as he comes, spilling hot into Lan Wangji’s hand and over his own stomach. He’s a bit delirious in the aftermath, laying prone and trying to catch his breath. It occurs to him that Lan Wangji hasn’t finished and he clumsily tries to pump his cock in his loose grip.

Instead, Lan Wangji rubs himself against his sweat-slick skin. Wei Wuxian shifts to accommodate him, to give him more of the friction he seeks. It’s only a few thrusts before he comes with a strangled cry, painting Wei Wuxian’s belly with it.

He can’t help himself. He runs two fingers through the mess just to feel it. Judging by the way Lan Wangji stares at him while he does it, he didn’t expect him to.

“You really decorated me, huh? I think I look better like this.”

The tip of Lan Wangji’s ear that peeks through his hair is so red. Oh, he loves him. He loves him so much. He wants to hug him to his chest and kiss his face all over, but given what he’s covered in, that will have to wait.

“You did not need any improvement.” Lan Wangji leans over him and swipes his thumb over the swell of his cheekbone, along the tender skin below his eye.

Wei Wuxian’s tongue suddenly feels too big for his mouth and he squirms in place, looking for somewhere to hide his heating face.

“Lan Zhan,” he stretches the syllables much further than they are meant to go, "How can you say such things?”

“I have been holding onto them.”

“Hanguang-jun is such a flatterer, I had no idea.”

“Truth is not flattery.”

Wei Wuxian fumbles for a response, mouth gaping and closing like a fish caught out of water. It was always the other way around when they were young, but Lan Wangji has had more time to practice.

Still naked, Lan Wangji rolls off of him with more grace than anyone should be allowed to roll off of another human being. He reaches both hands out, wiggling all of his fingers in what he hopes counts as a ‘come hither’ motion but can only truly be described as ‘grabby hands’.

At least he’s treated to quite a view as Lan Wangji goes.

He pouts until Lan Wangji returns with a cloth to clean them both up with, damp and warm. He’s tired enough to let himself be tended to like this, Lan Wangji sweeping over his stomach and thighs before he wipes himself down with the other side, going to drape the cloth over the side of the empty tub still situated to the side of the main room.

Wei Wuxian slides over to give him enough space to lay down when he returns, trying not to feel distraught at the loss of his warmth. It doesn’t last long, because, to his absolute delight, Lan Wangji tucks him against his chest as soon as he settles in. 

He doesn’t know how he ever thought this man to be cold, how anyone could look at him and see only ice and carved jade.

He smiles into his chest, his whole body feeling warm and weightless, untethered. He doesn’t want it to be over just yet. If he’s running his mouth, he can’t fall asleep.

“Lan Zhan,” he starts, words falling off when Lan Wangji begins to pet through his hair. “This isn’t just once, is it?”

“I would prefer it not to be.”

“Good, that’s good,” he sighs, relieved. “I want to stay with you, wherever you are. Wherever you’ll have me.”

“Anywhere.” Lan Wangji’s voice is a low rumble in his ear, the vibration of it something he can feel through Lan Wangji’s chest. “I would have you anywhere.”

Wei Wuxian is sure that he was going to say something, but he can’t remember what it was. He falls asleep before it comes to mind.




When morning comes, Wei Wuxian can only tell by the fact that his pillow is less comfortable and no longer has a heartbeat to lull him. The sun isn’t even up to disturb him. Without opening his eyes, he reaches out into space beside him, frowning when his hand finds only the quilt.

“Wei Ying, rest.” A gentle press of lips against his forehead. Well, he is still exhausted, and he does have permission. He hasn’t been so comfortable in months, possibly years if he’s counting those from his first go around. He does not fear waking to find that the world around him has fallen away. “I will return to you.”

He believes it. 

The next time he wakes, he can feel the sun on his face and a pleasant heaviness in his body, the kind of tiredness that comes from finally being able to rest. He blinks the grit from his eyes and breathes in the scent of sandalwood and sweat lingering in the bed.

There’s a lot left for them to talk about, now that the heat of the moment has passed, but Wei Wuxian is hopeful.  He’s beyond hopeful, actually. It feels so foreign, bubbling in his chest the way that laughter does.

He sits up slowly, taking the time to stretch his arms over his head, shoulders popping. There’s a covered bowl in the center of the low table with a warming talisman stuck to the side. Now that his insides aren’t twisting themselves into horrible knots, he realizes just how hungry he is.

Wei Wuxian pulls his inner layers on, tying them over the numerous little marks littering his skin. He traces them with his fingertips, goosebumps prickling his skin at the touch. It feels like a claim and his heart gives a little kick in his chest.

When he sits down to eat, he discovers a note pinned beneath the bowl. Rather, it’s a small drawing of a donkey, grazing and surrounded by little puffs of white fur. He snickers and vows to offer his condolences to whoever had to wrangle Lil Apple up to the back mountain while he slept.

He wolfs down the bland congee that he finds waiting for him when he removes the cover, for once not caring about the lack of taste. The sneaking suspicion that Lan Wangji was the one to make it for him warms him up more than any spice he could’ve dumped into it.

After he’s finished, he dresses slowly, taking his time to gather everything up from the floor. He’s still a little stiff from traveling and the muscles in his back and shoulders twitch when he bends. Next, he attempts to wrangle his sleep-mussed hair into an acceptable state, retying his now lopsided ponytail.

Just outside of the Jingshi, he relishes in the crisp, clean air, letting it fill his lungs to capacity. He’s alive, and for the first time in a long time, he feels it.

It would be wise for him to stay out of sight for now, but the shuffle of footsteps down the path tells him that it’s too late for that. He hopes, of course, that it’s Lan Wangji or Sizhui coming to see him. Unfortunately, his luck has already taken a dive.

It is neither of his favorite people. In fact, it is three of perhaps his very least favorite. Though, it does bring him a twisted sort of joy to see that there’s a bit of a lump on the forehead of the one wearing deep blue Ouyang sect robes. They’ve probably come to complain to Lan Wangji, and he relishes that they are absolutely shit out of luck. Stiff as he is, he limps across the porch. It’s then that he has a wonderful idea.

“Good afternoon, young masters!” he shouts, giving an obnoxious wave and an exaggerated wince, his other hand flying to his lower back. They’ve already stopped dead in their tracks upon hearing him, and the Yao disciple has already turned on his heels. “You were right about one thing, young masters. Hanguang-jun truly is like a stone pillar!” He makes a show of cocking his hip to the side and rubbing at his tailbone, giving a low whistle. “I can barely walk!”

Oh, their stricken faces are absolutely delicious. He supposes he does have these fools to thank for the extra push that landed him in Lan Wangji’s arms and this information would likely serve to torment them further.

Alas, he doesn’t want to share. They can talk as much as they’d like about the Yiling Laozu once again courting Hanguang-jun to the dark side. He and Lan Wangji will know the truth of it, something that belongs to them alone.