Elissa 🥮 | yiling laozu apologist

Elissa 🥮 | yiling laozu apologist

19-10-2022

03:54

wwx reflexively starts to deny it, but he stops. over the course of his long retelling, he discovered that lwj reacts negatively to him trying to minimize how badly something affected him. wwx is far too comfortable to ruin that now. "It did suck," he admits. "A fair bit."

lwj huffs a laugh again. "How do you feel?" wwx thinks about it. honestly, he feels like shit. he hasn't washed his hair in days, his robes are messed up, he'd cried so much that everything feels wet, and he has a massive headache from drinking and crying all night.

his eyes hurt, his eyelids are swollen, his throat aches, and his voice is a raw mess. on top of all that, it is now morning—which means he stayed up all night crying, and now he's sleep-deprived. but he can't recall a time when his soul has ever felt so light and free.

wwx hugs lwj's neck; it's wet and gross from all the hours wwx spent crying against him, but wwx couldn't care less at the moment. "I feel great," he admits. then after some thought, he adds. "I have a headache, though." yet another half-laugh from lwj. "I will get you water."

lwj starts to pull away, but wwx keeps his arms locked around lwj's neck. "Wait—" wwx pulls him back. "Will you stay?" he begs. "Please?" under his arms, he feels lwj tense up, then relax, then tense again. "Wei Ying, I cannot get you water and stay here at the same time."

"What?" wwx can't help a disbelieving laugh. "No, no, I meant here, like here as in, um, with—me?" he squeaks a little at the end. he knows it's his own fault that lwj's face is so close—he still can't get himself to let go of lwj just yet—but he suddenly feels embarrassed.

lwj's expression softens—gods, wwx likes it so much when he does that—and he studies wwx for a moment before giving the tiniest nod. "Yes," he breathes, "for as long as you'll let me." then, before wwx can think or respond, lwj leans in and kisses him.

it was—as far as kisses go—not bad. at least that's what wwx thinks. the kiss was short, sweet, and full of affection—just a simple press of lips against lips. he was just caught off-guard a little, so he'd kept his eyes wide open the entire time. that's awkward.

lwj also looks surprised; which is hilarious—considering that *he* did the kissing—and speaks a lot about the effects of sleep-deprivation. "Pardon me," he mumbles, then: "I'll go fetch you some water." wwx just laughs weakly in agreement as lwj gets up and exits the room.

wwx, sitting on his bed: oh my god 😳 lwj, getting water from the well outside: oh my god 😨 the innkeeper's wife, who just wanted to deliver some nourishing soup for wwx and happened to look through the window at the right time: AAAAA OHHHH MY GODDDDDD!!! 😱😱😱

wwx gets to enjoy a blissful few seconds of lying on his bed when he hears knocking on the front door. he knows lwj is in the backyard with the well, so he drags himself out of bed, throws on another robe layer, and tries to comb out his hair with his fingers before giving up.

he opens the door. "Oh! A-yi, what are you doing here?" "Ah!" the innkeeper's wife gives a little start, then steadies the basket in her hands. "Oh! A-Ying! Oh, don't mind me, I just wanted to give you some of my onion soup. It will help with the headache you surely must have."

wwx blinks. "Oh. That is very kind of you, a-yi." he takes the basket from her. it's quite heavy for such a small woman to carry for so long. "Would you, uh, would you like to come inside for some tea?" the innkeeper's wife blushes and giggles. "Oh, no, no. That's alright."

"Are you sure?" wwx sets the basket down on a nearby table. "You walked for a long time, and the sun is now out." "Oh, I couldn't possibly intrude," she giggles again, holding her flushed face in her hands. she peeks coyly into the house. "Is, ah, is Hanguang-Jun still here?"

before wwx can answer, he hears the backyard door opening and lwj say, "I'm here." "Ah." wwx tries not to fidget as lwj walks up behind him. "Here he is, a-yi." "Oh, good!" she snickers. "I'm glad to know you're being taken care of." wwx feels his face heat at that. "Y-Yes."

"Would Sui-furen like anything to drink?" lwj asks. "No, I'm quite alright! I'm quite alright. I need to get going anyhow." she grins. "I brought enough soup for both of you, so be sure to drink up." "Of course." wwx laughs nervously. "Don't worry about us."

the innkeeper's wife smiles. "Oh, I won't. Be good now, both of you!" she bids them goodbye before waddling back up the path as fast as her legs and skirt will allow her. both lwj and wwx watch her go. "Why do I feel scared all of a sudden?" wwx mutters.

lwj inspects the contents of the basket; inside is a pot of onion soup and some fried scallion pancakes. "Would you like to eat or bathe first?" wwx thinks. he is pretty hungry, but he is also quite grimy and still smells of alcohol. "Bath," he answers.

lwj nods. "I will fill the bathtub." he pauses to hand wwx a cup of water. "Drink. Wait here." after drinking, wwx sits awkwardly on a chair next to the innkeeper's wife's basket. he should do something. he can't just make lwj do all the work. he goes to change his bedsheets.

he finds lwj in the living room, placing heating talismans around the filled bathtub. wwx takes a brief moment to feel envious of the cultivation world's fire-less heating methods when it suddenly hits him: he lives alone. so he doesn't have a privacy screen.

his mind goes utterly blank. he has no idea what he is supposed to do. he can't lock lwj in his room or outside his house just so he can have some privacy bathing; that would be too rude. but surely undressing in front of lwj is also rude? and inconsiderate?

after the water in the bathtub has begun to steam, lwj straightens up. he briefly meets wwx's gaze before he spots the bedsheets in wwx's arms. "Give them here," he says, stepping closer while reaching with his arms out. "I will wash them while you bathe."

wwx should say that it's alright and that it would be a little too suggestively intimate for lwj to wash *his* bedsheets, but he's so grateful that he has an excuse to bathe alone that he just awkwardly laughs as lwj takes the bedding out of his arms.

"Alright, erhm, uh, I'll wash myself while you wash the bedding, then?" wwx sputters. lwj nods. "Mn. I'll knock when I need to come in," he says, then he's out the back door with the laundry. wwx stands there in mute shock for a good minute before scrambling to get in the tub.

the hot water feels amazing, and wwx would gladly soak in it for hours if he didn't have lwj right outside in his backyard. wwx scrubs himself as quickly and thoroughly as he can manage. by the time he moves on to his hair, his skin is red and raw—but thankfully clean.

he nearly falls in his rush to get out of the bathtub, but he survives. he needs to drain the bathwater, so he dries himself off, puts on two layers of robes, and grabs an outer coat before heading outside. as soon as he sees lwj, he freezes in his tracks. "… Lan Zhan?"

lwj is sitting on a stool in front of a small basin of water and detergent. there's a small fire lit nearby for warmth. he looks up at wwx with wet, soapy, ripped bedsheets in his hands. "… I am unaccustomed to washing laundry," he says.

wwx can't help it; he starts laughing. "Oh, Lan Zhan," he wheezes as he leans against the doorframe, trying to catch his breath. "I can't believe—" he takes one look at the ripped bedsheets again and dissolves into another peal of laughter. lwj sits there, looking unsure.

"I will replace them," lwj says. "Are there any textile vendors in town?" wwx sighs, still giggling. "There is a small group of weavers," he says. "It's cheaper for me to buy from them and sew it myself." "I see." lwj looks at the bedsheets. "What… do I do with these?"

wwx just barely stops himself from laughing again; poor lwj looks so lost that wwx doesn't think he would appreciate being laughed at again. "Just rinse them clean and tear them into strips," wwx snickers. "They'll be useful as washrags or for sewing practice."

now that he has new instructions, lwj looks a little bit more confident. "I can do that. Where are the weavers located?" "No, no, don't worry about that." wwx briefly hides his smile behind his hand. "I'll go get new bedsheets. You can use the bathtub while I'm out."

"Wait," lwj says. "I said I would replace them. Take my money pouch with you." wwx considers that. he doesn't want lwj to be spending money, but it is true that lwj ripped the bedsheets—and wwx hadn't budgeted for new bedsheets this year. "Alright," wwx agrees. "Where is it?"

lwj nods and lifts his hands from the soapy water. "It's in…" he trails off. it almost *pains* wwx to restrain his laughter as he watches realization slowly dawn on lwj's face: his money pouch is in his robes, but his hands are dirty and soapy, so he can't reach into his robes.

but if he doesn't reach into his robes, then wwx doesn't get the money pouch and will have to spend his own money. "This is why," wwx gasps in between tears of laughter, "you keep some clean water nearby while you're doing laundry." lwj frowns at his soapy hands. "I see."

wwx takes a deep, fortifying breath. "Alright, alright." he walks over to lwj. "Is it easy to reach? Maybe I can get it myself." the tips of lwj's ears are delightfully pink. "It is three robe layers in, on my belt, near the lower right side of my waist."

there is no way wwx is going to get three entire robe layers off of lwj, so he just takes the necklines of lwj's robes and starts tugging them apart. the pink on lwj's ears spreads to his cheeks. he makes an interesting stifled sound when wwx reaches down into his robes.

it takes no time at all for wwx to locate the money pouch; lwj's description is very precise. the tricky part is getting it loose from where it is attached to lwj's belt. but after some fumbling, wwx retrieves it and nearly hits lwj on the chin as he withdraws his hand.

"I'll drain the tub before I head out," wwx says. the money pouch is quite heavy for such a small thing. "I'll try not to spend all your money on silks," he jokes. "You may also get silk covers for the pillows and blankets, if you desire," lwj answers sincerely.

wwx's smile drops. "Lan Zhan, no. That would be so expensive!" "Wei Ying has not been sleeping well," lwj says, resuming his scrubbing of the bedsheets. "Proper sleep is the foundation for good health." there's the sound of fabric tearing. "Ah. Oh, no."

the washbasin is probably going to be filled with fabric scraps by the time wwx returns, but he couldn't care less at the moment. he's torn between an overwhelming fondness for lwj and the sheer disbelief that any of this is happening to him. it feels like a dream.

wwx clutches the money pouch tightly, feeling the ingots inside dig against his hands. he badly wants to kiss lwj. because he's a coward, he instead asks, strained, "Would you like me to get anything else while I'm out?" "No," lwj answers. "Come home safe and soon."

'home'. wwx thinks he might pass out. it's ridiculous how weak he feels at the way lwj says that single word. if he hadn't cried all night long, he might cry now. "Alright," wwx chokes. "I'll see you soon." after going back inside the house and draining the tub, he sets off.

he feels strange. his body is exhausted after a stress-filled night with no sleep, but he feels electrified from within. so much has happened over the past day, but he feels—happy. he's happy, wwx realizes with a start. for the first time in this world, he's really, truly happy.

he's far too tired to skip over to the house of weavers, but he greets the proprietor cheerfully. "Hello, Wei-gongzi," the proprietor says. "What can I get for you today? Are you in need of blankets?" "Close," wwx says. "I need new bedsheets."

the house of weavers is not large; thus, wwx is able to hear every how each squeak of the spinning wheels and the clacks of the looms slowly die off as the weavers turn to look at him with poorly-concealed shock. wwx looks back. "What? Are you out of bedsheets?"

"No, of course not!" the proprietor coughs into his sleeve. "One cannot predict when one will need something replaced, and I'm certain Wei-gongzi needing new bedsheets today is just a coincidence." that last part is said loudly with a pointed glare at the gawking weavers.

the weavers turn back to their tools, but that doesn't stop them from sneaking glances at wwx every now and then. huh, wwx thinks. maybe it's very strange to buy bedsheets in winter? the proprietor calls over an assistant to guide wwx through their catalogue of fabrics.

"Is there anything in particular Wei-gongzi is looking for?" the assistant asks. wwx thinks about it. his bedding usually consists of cotton or hemp fabrics. but… since lwj is staying, then it is likely they will have to share the bed. wwx would like him to be comfortable, too.

"Do you have any silks?" he asks. "Maybe something strong and thick?" The assistant claps their hands. "We do!" they say extra loudly to cover up the gasp from a weaver in the back. "We have a new selection that was just finished. Would you like to see it?" wwx nods.

when the assistant returns, they carry many layers of shimmering cream-colored silk with them. "This silk is guaranteed to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer," the assistant explains. "And it's durable! So it will last you years. It's a worthwhile investment!"

wwx takes a corner of the fabric in his hands and feels it. indeed, it is both soft and warm—yet light enough that it would be suitable as bedding during the summer too. sleeping on it would feel amazing. lwj would surely be happy with such a nice bedding material. still…

he makes the same motion with it that he saw lwj make when washing the bedsheets. "Hm," wwx mutters to himself, "he *could* still rip it…" the assistant's face goes pale, then flushes red. behind them, the proprietor makes a strangled sound. several of the weavers gasp.

wwx is far too busy inspecting the silk to pay much mind to the commotion around him. "Alright." he hands the silk back. "I'd like a set of these for bedding. You can just cut the pieces; I'll sew it myself." "Sew it yourself? Absolutely not!" the proprietor sputters.

wwx raises an eyebrow. "But I've always sewn my own bedding—" "And spend your own time and effort while you have a guest staying over? No!" the proprietor shoves the bolt of silk at his assistant and quickly waves them off. "We can have it done in half an hour, free of charge!"

wwx mulls this over. he doesn't want to stay out for too long, but the proprietor does have a point in that sewing his own pillowcase and bedsheets together would take time. he needs to consider that lwj hasn't slept all night either, and should probably rest soon.

"If it's not too much trouble," he agrees. "It isn't! It truly isn't." the proprietor motions for a few of the weavers to follow his assistant. "Come back in half an hour and everything will be ready for you!" sounds like a good deal. wwx pays upfront and steps outside.

it's easy to kill some time in town, especially since the snowfall was light and street vendors are still out and about. some of them do a double-take when they see wwx, but that's probably because he looks sleep-deprived and exhausted.

he doesn't buy anything because the silk bedding already feels too extravagant, but he still enjoys browsing. how odd it is that the world suddenly seems to slow down and brighten after he has told the truth to someone he trusts. or maybe he's just sleep-deprived.

the silk sheets are ready sooner than he expected, and he happily carries them home in a paper package. he nearly walks in without knocking, but then suddenly remembers that lwj is supposed to be bathing. he knocks. "Lan Zhan?" he hears an answering, "Come in."

when he steps in, he sees lwj tending to the fireplace. the tub is nowhere to be seen and lwj's hair is loose and noticeably damp, so he must have finished bathing some time ago. at the sight of him, something wraps around wwx's heart and squeezes. "Hello," he squeaks.

lwj stands up. "Hello," he greets. the squeezing sensation in wwx's chest intensifies to a death-grip when he notices that lwj is in his inner robes. "I got the new bedding," he says, holding the package out. lwj walks over, takes the package from him, and opens it.

he nods in approval as he touches the silk. "Good choice." wwx laughs nervously. "I'm glad you think so. How, um, where are the old bedsheets?" something like embarrassment crosses lwj's face. "I don't know where to dry them," he admits, "so I put them in the barn."

wwx hums. "That works," he says. "I've also heated up the food Sui-furen brought us." lwj gestures towards the pot of soup and plate of scallion pancakes. wwx squints. "… Why are you using heating talismans when you have a fire?" "Because I might burn the food," lwj answers.

without meaning to, wwx snorts a laugh. "Well done, Hanguang-Jun," he chuckles. "It's not a bad method." some red tinges the tips of lwj's ears. "I will need to learn how to cook and wash," he says. "You don't *need* to," wwx says. "But they are good skills to have."

lwj nods. "Do you need help making the bed?" "Nah, I can handle it." wwx takes the package back. "Then I'll set the table," lwj says. wwx grins. "That would be great, thank you."

by the time the bed is all nice and made, lwj has the soup ladled out into two separate bowls. the soup is good, as are the scallion pancakes. as ravenous as wwx is, he controls his portions, only taking as much as lwj is taking. unfortunately lwj seems to have the same idea.

slowly, bit by bit, they take smaller and smaller pieces of the scallion pancakes until they're both staring at each other, waiting for the other to eat first. it's the most ridiculous stand-off wwx has ever been in. with a huff, he plops an entire pancake onto lwj's plate.

the corners of lwj's mouth twitch with amusement, and, with saying a word, he also places an entire pancake on wwx's plate. wwx gets a good laugh out of that before happily devouring his food.

in the end, there's more than enough food for both of them. wwx leans back in his chair and sighs heavily. "I can't move," he groans. lwj gathers their used utensils and places them in a wash tub. "You should get some sleep. You stayed up all night." "You too," wwx protests.

"I do not need rest as much as you do," lwj says, which is just a very gentle way of reminding wwx that lwj has a golden core to sustain him and wwx doesn't. wwx groans again. "But I'll feel guilty. And if I feel guilty, I can't fall asleep. Lan Zhan, you need to nap too."

lwj visibly hesitates. wwx tries not to panic. "It's just a nap, Lan Zhan. That's all! I know that my, uh, my bed isn't meant for couple—" he nearly bites his tongue, "for—two people, but it's not *that* small. We can both fit."

lwj glances at the bedroom door. then, he nods slowly. "It would do us both good to rest for a while." wwx exhales in relief, but his entire body remains tense. "Alright. Good to hear. Uh. Then, um," he shuffles towards the door, looking back to make sure lwj is following him.

it feels very strange leading lwj into his bedroom. even though they're both tired and need the rest, there are still certain connotations associated with getting in bed with someone—especially someone like lwj, who has kissed wwx before.

even removing their outer robes feels too intimate. wwx's spine tingles when lwj pulls the curtains closed over the window. he knows it's to make the room dark for better sleep, but his mind is going haywire, screaming that it's because lwj wants privacy for the two of them.

wwx hurries under the covers and glues himself to the wall as lwj sheds his outer robes. the silk hasn't warmed with his body heat yet, so he lies there, shivering. when lwj finally joins him, wwx can't help inching towards him. his body is warm and wwx is cold.

the bed is, thankfully, big enough for both of them to lie down shoulder-to-shoulder. lwj turns his head to look at wwx. he's beautiful, like this. soft, unbound hair, tired eyes, and a warm gaze that remains unwaveringly on wwx's face. "Are you cold?" wwx nods.

he makes a small noise when lwj pulls him closer into a loose embrace. wwx immediately stops shivering, his eyes wide. their faces are close. really, really close. lwj is still looking at him, as if watching for the smallest sign that wwx is uncomfortable.

wwx *is* uncomfortable. his heart is beating insanely fast and he almost can't breathe with how close they are, but all he can think about is how much he doesn't want lwj to pull away. as a way to reassure lwj that he's fine, he presses the tip of his nose against lwj's.

lwj responds with a lightly amused huff. he returns the gesture, pressing their noses together. then, finally, his eyes close. wwx stays awake for a little longer to watch him. only when lwj's breathing deepens and slows does wwx dare to close his eyes and fall asleep.

lwj rouses then both when it is just past noon. "Wei Ying." he strokes wwx's cheek gently with his index finger. "Wake up." wwx grumbles and buries himself deeper against lwj's chest. "If we sleep any longer, we'll throw off our bodies' sleep schedule." lwj nudges him.

wwx doesn't move. maybe if he pretends to still be asleep, lwj will leave him be. no luck. lwj carefully tilts his face up. "Wei Ying." a press of the lips, an almost-kiss on wwx's forehead. "Wei Ying." another one, on wwx's cheek. "Wei Ying." yet another, on the other cheek.

wwx whines and squirms, but lwj is unrelenting. after trying and failing several times to pull away, wwx finally yields. "Alright, alright, I'm awake. I'm up." lwj presses a kiss—a real kiss—to wwx's forehead before leaving the bed. wwx wails at the sudden cold air.

"I would like a tour of the farm and the chores involved in its upkeep, if you're willing," lwj says as he brings over wwx's robes and wraps wwx in them. "We should also return Sui-furen's items this evening and thank her for her help." wwx grumbles as he puts on the robes.

"It's winter, Lan Zhan. There's not much that can be done around the farm other than maintenance. The plants are all asleep." he pauses to yawn. "I envy them very much." "You may rest tonight," lwj tells him. "Might I get started on learning domestic chores?"

lwj, unsurprisingly, is a quick study. he learns the basics of sewing without difficulty and successfully mends one of wwx's old worn robes. cooking is where he starts having difficulties. his palette leans towards lighter, blander foods, while wwx heavily favors spice.

"More," wwx tells him. lwj shakes a few grains of salt into the simple stew they're preparing to bring back to the innkeeper's wife as a thank-you gift. "More." lwj shakes another few grains. "More." lwj looks hesitant. he stirs the pot and tastes the stew. "It's salty."

wwx also tastes it. "It is *not*," he argues. "It needs more salt." still, lwj hesitates. "Have you cooked for Sui-furen before? Do you know her preferences?" wwx had cooked for her once; it turns out the innkeeper's wife does not have wwx's spice tolerance.

in the end, they compromise on somewhere between their preferences. wwx tucks the pot into the basket as lwj gathers their cloaks. the sun is behind the mountains when they arrive at the inn. at this time, the inn is usually full of people looking for food and entertainment.

as such, it really shouldn't be a surprise when they walk in; people are leaving and entering all the time. yet, for some reason, as soon as they step inside and a few people spot them, there's a mad, frantic rush as the patrons scramble to get back to their seats.

instantly, wwx is reminded of his teenaged years when he would play on the training field with other disciples and everybody scrambled to pick up their swords and pretend to be training whenever someone announced that yzy was headed their way. he narrows his eyes.

"Ah! A-Ying!" the innkeeper's wife calls from the front. "And Hanguang-Jun! Please, come in, come in." wwx walks over to the bar counter; he can feel eyes on lwj and himself the entire way there. "Hello a-yi. Thank you for the soup. Hanguang-Jun and I made this stew for you."

"Oh!" she takes the basket with gratitude in her eyes. "That is very sweet of both of you. And how are you feeling, A-Ying?" "Better," wwx says. "I, uh, I'm very sorry for worrying you so much. Before." her gaze turns sympathetic. "Oh, A-Ying. There's no need to apologize."

"However," she continues, "I am putting you on a three-month ban from purchasing wine. If you want any, Hanguang-Jun will have to buy them for you." wwx's jaw drops, then he sputters. "Wh—that's not fair to Hanguang-Jun! Why should he be burdened with buying for me?"

"I accept this responsibility," lwj says. wwx sticks his tongue out at lwj and scowls. "Both of you, colluding against me." a question that has always been at the back of his head suddenly clicks into place. "Hey, Lan Zhan, how did you know to come here in the first place?"

"I received a letter requesting aid," lwj answers, nodding at the innkeeper's wife. "Sui-furen was worried about you." wwx looks at her. "And why did you write to him, of all people?" "…Well—" the innkeeper's wife blushes. "Ah, that is, um…" she glances behind wwx.

wwx looks behind him. the town's blacksmith is seated at a table there, her face also gaining a faint pink hue as she giggles. "That would be my fault," the blacksmith admits. "On the day you came back from Gusu, I went to your house to greet you, but you were, uh… occupied."

wwx thinks back. ah, right. he remember the blacksmith being one of the first people he greeted in town upon returning. she must have walked to his house afterwards to chat and ask him why he was gone for so long and accidentally stumbled upon him and lwj saying their goodbyes.

-flashback- lwj: ask me to stay wwx: … i wish hanguang-jun a safe and swift journey back to gusu the blacksmith, who just wanted to chat with wwx and ask what he has been up to: *frantically and stealthily crabwalks away in the background*

"Ah." wwx laughs awkwardly and nods. "Um. Thank you. For your concern of me." the blacksmith gives an 'oh, it's nothing' wave as she nervously takes a too-quick sip of tea and promptly starts coughing. "Would the two of you like anything to eat?" the innkeeper's wife asks.

wwx is not too hungry—the soup and scallion pancakes from that morning were filling—but he still orders some roasted duck, vegetables, and congee for him and lwj to share. lwj is silent as he eats, but he regularly puts food in wwx's bowl. wwx happily reciprocates the gesture.

it doesn't escape wwx's attention that the restaurant's patrons are watching them. has it truly been so long since the lan cultivators' visit that they've forgotten what a lan looks like? whatever the reason, wwx can't blame them; lwj *is* a peerless beauty, after all.

once they've finished their dinner and are relaxing over a pot of the innkeeper's local-favorite fruit tea, lwj fills in the details of the current world. the sunshot campaign had recently ended before wwx appeared in the timeline—so it had lasted two years longer than before.

it could have dragged on for much longer if it weren't for a concurrent civil war among the wens themselves; wq and wn, fed up with the war and livid at the atrocities committed by the main branch of their family, had collaborated with the great sects to overthrow wrh.

after the sunshot campaign, jgs had attempted to go back on his promise to preserve the wen sect; he sent assassins after wq's branch of the family, but oddly enough, no matter how many he sent, neither wq nor wn perished. "I believe your wish saved them," lwj says.

when jgs's actions were eventually revealed, the enraged nmj immediately denounced him and defended the wens. his well-known valor during the sunshot campaign did a great deal in swaying cultivation sects to his side. lxc, who had always been close to nmj, followed suit.

one of jgs's bastard sons supposedly attempted to dissuade lxc from siding against his father, but he did not have the leverage or sway to get much from lxc aside from his disappointment. and so, the jin sect fell.

with both the jin and wen sects in weakened states and the other smaller cultivation sects starting to get ideas about seizing their territories, the lan, nie, and jiang sects banded together for their defense by forging an alliance with their sect leaders sworn into brotherhood.

at that last part, wwx nearly spat out his tea. "WHAT?!" he screeched, startling many of the surrounding diners. "Jiang Cheng is part of the Venerated Triad??" "Yes," lwj says. "It was Jiang Wanyin who convinced his father to join the call to war."

wwx leaned back in his seat, laughing incredulously. he doesn't know lxc's exact age, but he has always assumed that lxc was 4-5 years older than lwj—and nmj, even older than that. that places jc at least a solid half-decade in age behind his sworn brothers.

((fun side thought for anyone interested in their dynamics))

as for the jin and wen sects, jzx's immediate dedication to paying reparations as the new sect leader jin helped to jumpstart the jins' tattered reputations. after decades of jgs' countless affairs, the people of lanling are charmed by how much jzx dotes on his wife and children.

the wen sect do not have such an easy path to take. following the rules of bloodline succession, the next sect leader wen is supposed to be the now-eight-years-old boy wen yuan. "A-Yuan?" wwx's heart seizes on the name. "My little radish is now Sect Leader Wen?"

"He is, but Wen Qing and Wen Ning are currently acting as his regents until he is of age," lwj replies. wwx stares at the ceiling. what a relief it is to know that little a-yuan is going to grow up strong and healthy; yet what a loss it is that this a-yuan does not know him.

"Have you met him?" wwx asks. "I have," lwj replies. "He is a good child, compassionate and curious. I cannot speak about his capacity as a leader, but with Wen Qing and Wen Ning guiding him, the Wen Sect may regain much of the honor it has lost during the war."

that is good to hear—so good that wwx again starts the hear the soft voices in his head telling him that he'd made the right choice, and that it was worth it to lose himself in exchange for this better version of the world. he takes a deep breath. "Have you met my parents?"

"I have." lwj reaches across the table to take wwx's hand and give it a good, grounding, reassuring squeeze. "Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren usually spend their winters at the Cloud Recesses." "Why?" wwx frowns as he squeezes lwj's hand back. "It gets really cold in Gusu."

"They are wandering rogue cultivators with no fixed home; finding a place to shelter for the winter can get expensive for them," lwj explains. "Shufu invites them to stay in exchange for the knowledge they've gathered throughout their travels."

instantly, wwx remembers the scars on lwj's leg—a reminder that he'd had his leg broken trying to prevent the library pavilion from being burned, then he'd had that same leg torn to shreds from a close encounter with the tortoise of slaughter.

"The library is… still emptier than it should be," lwj admits. "But every spring after your parents' stay, a little bit more knowledge is added to its archives." despite himself, wwx feels his insides warm. "Aw, that's… good. that's really, really good. I'm glad to hear that."

-meanwhile, in the cloud recesses- wcz, writing: the beast we faced was as tall as a decade-old oak tree. it is enraged by the sight of fire, but sensitive to loud noises. cssr, writing: we faced a huge ugly pig and it was THIIIIIIS— *draws a line across 15 pages* —BIIIIIIIIG

they finish their tea, pay for the food, thank the innkeeper's wife again for her help, and leave the inn. "Get home safe!" the innkeeper's wife calls after them. wwx waves at her before exiting out the door.

going to sleep that night is nicer than the nap they had during the day. they are less hesitant to get into bed together, and wwx immediately squishes himself against lwj. neither of them have to leave the bed to extinguish the candles; lwj does so with a wave of his hand.

they spend the next days living without much thought of the world beyond the town. lwj is a fast learner and quickly picks up on house chores; he even successfully washes his first dishrag without ripping it. as a reward, wwx cooks dinner and does *not* add salt to lwj's dish.

they don't discuss anything about them. wwx enjoys talking on and on about whatever comes to mind, knowing that lwj is listening along. but he doesn't talk about the half-kisses they share or the way their hands naturally gravitate towards each other. lwj doesn't either.

wwx knows why. as perfect as everything seems, he knows that what they have right now is a very sensitive subject. the world they live is has been molded by wwx's wish; it is a world that is kind to wwx's loved ones, and it is a world where he isn't supposed to be.

yet somehow, wwx has managed to carve a place for himself in this world. he has neighbors who care about him—people who would help him when he needs it. he has a house, a farm, a home. he's just having difficulty accepting that he could also carve himself a place by lwj's side.

as for lwj, wwx hasn't asked him exactly how he feels, but wwx can guess that he has a lot of mixed emotions. while wwx mourned the pieces of himself lost to oblivion, lwj might also have mourned the parts of their shared history that he once had, but now never was.

wwx still vividly remembers lwj standing in front of him, eyes wide, but his voice soft and vulnerable as he whispers, "I think I loved you." and wwx remembers telling him that it didn't matter at all how lwj might have felt about him before, because 'before' no longer existed.

every time wwx thinks about it, he winces and wishes to apologize—but that would mean addressing the proverbial elephant in the room, and he doesn't think neither he nor lwj are ready for that yet. they don't talk about what's growing between them.

they don't go beyond blink-quick half-kisses. lwj always leaves early and returns late whenever wwx bathes. and wwx makes sure to never touch lwj's forehead ribbon. 'fated one' is the term lwj had used to describe the person who could touch his forehead ribbon.

'fated one', as if the universe would fold and twist to ensure that two halves of the same soul would always meet. was that how lwj had felt, once he realized that he had both loved and never loved wwx before? that he has once again—and for the very first time—met his fated one?

if that's the case, then wwx is not at all surprised that lwj doesn't dare to push, doesn't dare to speak about any of this. wwx personally wouldn't know what to do if his supposedly-fated one rejected him, then later begged him to stay.

wwx thinks he might stay and try to love them as much as he can for as long as he could—whether that would be for a day or a decade. isn't that what lwj had said, too? 'Yes, for as long as you'll let me,' was his answer when wwx asked him to stay.

well, wwx thinks morosely. lwj better keep to his word, because wwx has no plans of ever driving him away again. but since he's here, wwx thinks maybe he should eventually apologize for hurting lwj. eventually, when all of this is no longer fragile and new.

that aside, lwj is adapting well to living with wwx. he even gets along with the townspeople, which is nice until he starts bringing home gifts they've given him that neither wwx nor lwj understand. ((there's a small side story about this here:

in an effort to figure out what they've been given without seeming rude by asking around, they make the mistake of sending some to nhs for identification. needless to say, nhs will always be nhs, and wwx had to lock the erotic art books up because lwj wouldn't stop peeking.

wwx curses himself for looking too—not out of desire, but because he initially couldn't parse what he was looking at. he'd never seen cutsleeve art before, and he had—no idea that *that* part could also go into—

wwx has difficulties sleeping that night. not because of anger. oh, no—it's because no matter how lwj holds him, images of similar positions demonstrated by the two men in the artbook appear in wwx's mind's eye. he wonders if lwj also has the same thoughts.

it is yet another thing wwx is too scared to ask. how would he even word such a question in a way that is suited for lwj's ears? so he doesn't. if lwj isn't saying anything, then wwx won't either—no matter how awkward the situation may become.

luckily, the situation never gets that awkward. with everything that is left unsaid between them, physical desire does not rank as high as, say, the subject of a possible shared future or a more intimate relationship. that doesn't mean it doesn't haunt wwx's every waking moment.

it is a blessing and a curse that it is winter; both of them must dress warmly even inside the house, so at least wwx is not tempted by the sight of skin. unfortunately, the cold means that they often huddle close together, and what wwx doesn't see, he can definitely feel.

it is torture. wwx has always known that lwj is a rare beauty, but it is an experience every time they embrace and wwx can *feel* the outlines of lwj's shoulders, chest, or arms. lwj could easily restrain him or hold him down, and knowing that makes wwx feel… something.

one time, wwx tried to (playfully! harmlessly!) sneak additional spices and salt into the stew that lwj was cooking for their dinner. lwj was following a recipe, so he gently—but firmly—held wwx's wrists in one hand to keep him out of the way while lwj tended to the food.

wwx hadn't known why, but somehow his mind whited-out. all he could feel were lwj's fingers around his wrists, gripping them with a strength that left wwx breathless—and, contradictorily, with the desire to struggle more, to see how effortlessly lwj could hold him back.

lwj was as unyielding as steel. he didn't budge, and merely tightened his grip accordingly to how much wwx struggled. he didn't acknowledge wwx at all until he finished stirring the stew and said a reprimanding, "Wei Ying, you may modify the stew as you wish later, but not now."

it was the first time lwj had spoken to him in that tone, and it made wwx weak in the knees. it must have shown on his face, because the way lwj looked at him was… if wwx wasn't sure that lwj is incapable of indecent thoughts, he would have thought that lwj looked hungry.

wwx doesn't know what to make of all that. aside from that one time, lwj has always treated him gently. and it's not that wwx doesn't like gentle; he loves it, actually. but there are occasions when he wouldn't mind if lwj was a little… meaner to him.

wwx never asks him to. so of course, lwj never does it. it's a strange relationship they have. wwx finds it easy to confide in lwj about the nightmares he still sometimes gets, but it is difficult to ask where their relationship is headed—or if lwj desires him physically.

and lwj's face—however beautiful and entrancing—is often about as expressive as the jade he is compared to, unfortunately. wwx can usually get guess how lwj is feeling by looking at his eyes and the corners of his mouth, but it's not enough for wwx to gauge his thoughts.

later, wwx decides after a few days of mulling it over. perhaps neither of them are ready. lwj has only been here for a week and a half, and he shows no sign of wanting to leave. they have time to figure all this out slowly. for now, wwx just wants to enjoy what they have.

then, one morning, wwx wakes up to something hard against his backside. at first, his sleep-heavy brain dismisses it as nothing. it is not unusual for wwx to wake up in awkward positions or with imprints on his skin from any stray trinkets he'd accidentally left on the bed.

then wwx remembers: he hasn't left any objects on the bed recently—because lwj keeps their home tidy. he hasn't woken up in awkward positions in a while—because lwj holds him while they sleep. and lwj is still holding him; his arm is around wwx's waist, keeping wwx in place.

his breathing is slow, so he is still be asleep. it's a small blessing; wwx is grateful for it, because he has no idea how he would deal with this if lwj were awake. a part of wwx's mind is still in denial. he hasn't confirmed anything, it argues. maybe it's something else.

wwx could reach back with his hand, but that would require wriggling his hand in between where their bodies meet; lwj could wake up. no, that wouldn't do. it has to be subtle. feigning his usual stirring in his sleep, he shifts a little, pushing his hips back against lwj.

lwj gives a sharp little exhale as his hips jerk forward. wwx barely manages to smother a yelp as lwj somehow presses even closer, hips fully snug against wwx's behind, the hard object somehow even stiffer than before between them. ah, wwx thinks weakly. well, that confirms it.

wwx wishes he'd never suggested reaching out to nhs. he really, really wishes he hadn't. if it weren't for nhs and his dumb books, then wwx could have easily dismissed this as a normal function of a healthy male body and patiently waited for lwj to wake up.

instead, here wwx is—in bed, wide awake, and utterly paralyzed. all because nhs's stupid books put stupid ideas in his head. he vows to burn the books as soon as he's able to. he just—he needs to be patient, that is all. it shouldn't take long; lwj always wakes up at five.

wwx keeps his gaze fixed on the sliver of sky visible between the curtain and the window. it's still dark out, but soon, the sky should begin to brighten with the oncoming day. he waits. and waits. the sky stays stubbornly dark.

by far the worst part of all this is that lwj is not doing any of this intentionally. he moves about as much as expected for a sleeping person; it's just that whenever he happens to move his hips, he grinds against wwx and unconsciously exhales against the back of wwx's neck.

over the past two weeks, wwx has been slowly cataloguing every minute sound lwj makes: the sigh he gives when wwx tells a bad joke, the short 'mn' he hums to let wwx know he's still listening, and the quick, sharp inhale he does whenever he's caught off-guard.

he has heard the kind of exhale lwj breathes against his hair before; lwj had made the exact same sound back when they were on a boat in caiyi town, when a drunk lwj kissed along wwx's neck. just thinking about the memory makes wwx's face burn and his neck feel extra sensitive.

when lwj next exhales across his neck, wwx can't help shivering. half of a moan escapes out of him before he slaps his hand over his own mouth. his heart is beating too fast in his chest. he should wake lwj up. he really should. he doesn't know how much more of this he can take.

"Lan Zhan," wwx calls softly, patting the arm around his waist. "Lan Zhan, wake up." lwj startles awake. "Wei Ying?" he whispers. his voice is low and raspy with sleep. wwx laughs nervously. "Yes, um," he turns around in lwj's arms, trying to touch as little of him as possible.

"You were, uh," wwx flounders for an explanation, "moving in your sleep. A lot. Uh, so I thought that… maybe… you were having a nightmare?" lwj blinks at him. it is taking some time for him to fully wake up, but by now surely he must have noticed his body's current condition.

"… Ah," lwj finally says. very carefully, he rolls onto his back, away from wwx. "My apologies." wwx shakes his head. "No, no, it's fine." he shuffles close and drapes himself over lwj's chest. to reassure lwj, he presses their usual half-kisses all over lwj's face.

lwj's breath hitches and he—unexpectedly—turns his face away. wwx can't help it; he flinches. lwj has never pulled away before, never once rejected wwx's affection. "Wait—" lwj immediately takes his hand. "No, Wei Ying. It's not you. I—should not be touched, for the moment."

"Should not be touched?" wwx echoes. "Why? Lan Zhan, if you would rather—" lwj swallows. wwx is close enough that he can hear lwj's throat click afterwards. he stops. "… Oh," wwx sputters, then before he can help it, "Guess it must have been a pretty good dream, huh?"

he can't see lwj clearly, but he can somehow *feel* lwj's long-suffering mood. "I apologize for waking you up," lwj says, "and… for the unwanted contact." wwx is nervous and desperate to ensure lwj doesn't feel embarrassed. "It's alright. We're both men. We know it happens."

he can see lwj turning his head to look at him. wwx's unease spikes. "It even happens to me sometimes!" he blurts out. "So it's not a big deal. And it's pretty easy to deal with, you just, uh…" he trails off. is it just him or does it somehow feels colder in the room?

"Who do you dream of?" lwj asks. he doesn't sound happy. "Uh?" wwx gapes at him. "I didn't say anything about that." "You said," lwj enunciates each word, "'It even happens to me sometimes'. I assume 'it' refers to having a reaction to a type of dream. So who do you dream of?"

wwx hadn't been thinking of that at all; he had been referring solely to the physical inconvenience of morning wood. but now that lwj asked, wwx has to admit that sometimes his dreams contain flashes of white and blue robes as warm hands and lips explore his skin.

"W-well…" wwx stammers, "why don't—why don't you answer first, Hanguang-Jun? You shouldn't ask questions you are not willing to answer for yourself." despite the temperature in the room not changing, wwx suddenly feels the urge to shiver. lwj isn't speaking or looking away.

then, without a warning, lwj sits up, pulls the bedcovers back, and leaves the bed. despite the cold air, wwx tries to follow him, only to be aggressively tucked in with a firm, "No. Stay here," from lwj. "What are you doing?" wwx demands. "Come back to bed."

"I am going for a walk," lwj answers briskly. "A walk where?" wwx frees himself from his cocoon of blankets and sits up. "It's freezing outside." "I will be back shortly." lwj turns and heads for the bedroom door. "Stay in bed and cover up, or you might catch a cold."

"Says the person about to walk into the snow ass-naked," wwx snaps. "Get back here." lwj stiffens with his hand on the door. he glares back at wwx from over his shoulder. "I am not," he says, "'ass-naked'. I am perfectly clothed." wwx's jaw drops. he can't believe his ears.

"It's cold enough outside that it won't matter if you're wearing night robes or nothing at all!" wwx hisses. "Get back in bed—or am I going to have to drag you back myself?" lwj blinks once, owl-like. "You may try," he simply says, before exiting the room.

oh, that does it. wwx vaults out of the bed, too confused and angry to notice the cold. he wants very much to tackle lwj—but he wouldn't be able to bear it if he somehow hurt lwj. instead, he slips lightning-quick under lwj's arms and stands in front of the door, blocking him.

predictably, lwj stops. through the moonlight visible through the living room's windows, wwx can see lwj's breath in the cold air. lwj is breathing hard, despite not having done anything. "Wei Ying. Go back to bed." "No." wwx backs up until his spine is firmly against the door.

"Wei Ying." lwj steps closer, looming over wwx. "I will not repeat myself a third time. Go back to bed." wwx feels a lower eyelid twitch. "I don't understand why you're being so unreasonable," he retorts. "I didn't even say anything bad! Why are you mad at me?"

lwj briefly closes his eyes, which somehow irritates wwx further. "I am not," he pauses to breathe in, "mad at you." "You seem pretty mad," wwx points out. "Otherwise, why would you leave me?" "I'm not leaving you," lwj quickly corrects him. "I—simply need to clear my head."

wwx rolls his eyes. "The winter night is not a good substitute for the Cold Springs," he says flatly. "One is cold for the sake of meditation and cultivation, and the other is just cold. You can clear your head back in bed." lwj shakes his head. "I absolutely cannot do that."

wwx stares at him in disbelief. lwj stares back, his jaw set and his eyes unblinking. in the end, wwx drops his gaze first. "… Fine," he mutters, moving aside and walking back to the bedroom. "You've always left whenever I tried to get closer to you. I shouldn't be surprised."

wwx gets halfway to the door when an arm appears around his waist and hauls him back. wwx doesn't have time to react; he loses his balance and stumbles backwards, but before he can grab onto anything, strong hands shove him against a wall hard enough to make him gasp.

"You think," lwj's voice is harsh, low, and very close, "that I don't wish to be close to you?" it takes a while for wwx to reply; lwj is pinning him in place with his body, and it's making it hard for wwx to think. "If you do," he sounds breathless, "then why are you leaving?"

"I am not leaving you," lwj corrects him. "I will not leave unless you ask me to. But if I don't—if I can't keep my mind clear, then…" he trails off. lwj never leaves his sentences unfinished. "Then what?" wwx demands. "What's the worst that can happen if you stay?"

lwj doesn't answer, but perhaps he doesn't need to. there's enough of an answer in the small, tense space between them, in the way they're both breathing too hard, too fast. lwj makes a small sound—pained, almost angry—before he surges forward and crushes their lips together.

it is not a gentle kiss. it is hungry, open-mouthed, ravaging, and mean. wwx is caught completely off-guard. he reflexively breaks the kiss and tries to turn his head away, gasping for breath—only for lwj to follow him and kiss him again, denying him even a moment to think.

this is nothing like the soft almost-kisses before. this is something feral, ravenous, debauched. wwx moans, high, needy, when lwj sucks on his tongue. if wwx thought lwj was warm before, then he's burning hot now. wwx feels set aflame every time lwj touches him.

it feels so foreign—wwx does not recognize this writhing, gasping version of himself, and he does not recognize this starved, demanding version of lwj. none of that stops him from wrapping his arms around lwj's neck to bring him closer. none of that stops him from kissing back.

and none of that stops him from slowly parting his legs when he feels lwj nudging in between them with his thigh. "Ah!" wwx cries out when lwj thrusts against him. their night robes are much thinner than their day clothes, and wwx can *feel* lwj's arousal through the layers.

they hump and grind against each other desperately, seeking as much pleasure between them as possible. wwx whines and chokes through his moans as he tries to match lwj's rhythm, his hips moving futilely. in response, lwj grabs him by the hips and moves wwx himself.

it's like he doesn't want wwx to do anything; he just wants wwx to stay there and let lwj take his pleasure using wwx's body. it's a completely degrading thought. yet it makes him weak imagining lwj moving him around and making him take and endure what lwj wants to do to him.

(cw: dubcon starting here. they enjoy it and it's a kink, but it wasn't discussed beforehand) so when lwj's thumbs hook onto the waistband of wwx's pants, it takes everything in wwx to not pass out. "Lan Zh-Zhan…" wwx whispers hoarsely as lwj begins pushing his pants down.

it should be embarrassing, standing there with his pants in a puddle around his ankles, but wwx is more concerned with getting lwj to a similar state of undress. as he fumbles with the drawstrings on lwj's pants, lwj reaches down and takes wwx in his hand.

wwx nearly comes right then and there. lwj's hand is very hot and big and the calluses on his palm and fingers feel amazing against wwx's over-sensitive member. wwx thrusts shallowly into lwj's hand as he undoes the last string of lwj's pants and lets them fall to the floor.

skin-to-skin feels amazing. wwx moans his approval as he wraps his legs around lwj's bare hips. in response, lwj licks up his neck. unsurprisingly, wwx does not last long. he comes with his thighs clenched around lwj's waist, trembling and gasping as he spills in between them.

lwj's chest rumbles with his approving murmur of, "Very good," as he lazily grinds against wwx until wwx is twitching and whimpering from oversensitivity. wwx's mind is a haze. he feels tired and wrung out, yet still hot all over. he tilts his head back, asking for a kiss.

lwj kisses him deep and slow. the kiss is still hungry, with saliva trails lingering between them with each breath they take. wwx closes his eyes and kisses back with just as much enthusiasm. then lwj surprises him by pulling back and resting two fingers against wwx's lower lip.

without thinking, wwx opens his mouth obediently. lwj exhales slowly and deeply as he sinks his fingers into wwx's mouth. wwx reflexively gags when lwj reaches the back of his mouth, earning him a low, "Be good. Relax." so wwx tries to relax.

it is difficult. wwx whimpers as he tries to suck on lwj's fingers the way he would if they were lwj's member. he chokes when lwj adds a third finger, but endures it until he gets another approving hum from lwj. when lwj finally withdraws his fingers, wwx gasps for air.

wwx leans against lwj's chest, catching his breath. lwj kisses along his brow as he holds him. just as wwx thinks that they might be done with whatever just happened, he feels wet fingers sliding in between his buttocks, searching.

(cw: wangxian's flavor of noncon) wwx reflexively presses closer to lwj, buttocks clenching. "W-wait. Hold on. That's n-not—" as an answer, lwj reaches down with his other hand and grips a handful of wwx's behind, pulling the cheeks apart.

wwx cries out when he feels lwj's fingers push into him. "Ah!" he bites down on lwj's still-covered shoulder. "L-Lan Zhan! Oh! Wait!" lwj does not wait. he holds wwx in place with a solid arm around his waist as he gently thrusts his fingers in and out of wwx.

wwx's feet are no longer on the floor; he tried to climb lwj in a fruitless attempt to escape the intrusion, and now he has no way out of the mess. he clings to lwj's neck, trembling and crying as lwj slowly opens him up with his fingers. it feels good. somehow, it feels good.

when lwj retracts his fingers, wwx almost grabs his hand and demands for him to shove them back in. but he doesn't—because lwj is adjusting his hold on him. it's almost insulting how easily lwj handles him—as if wwx were no lighter than a doll.

wwx begins trembling when lwj hooks an arm under wwx's knee, pulling him up and spreading him apart. "Lan Zhan?" he whispers. lwj doesn't answer; he fiddles with something in between wwx's legs, and then something hot, heavy, and hard is pushing into wwx.

wwx shrieks, legs squeezing lwj's waist, hands pushing down on lwj's shoulders as he tries to lift himself up and away. "Relax," lwj says against wwx's ear as he slowly, cruelly, grips wwx's hips and pushes him down onto his cock.

wwx sobs the whole way down. it hurts; he'd never had anyone do this to him before. "Too d-deep!" he wails. "Lan Zhan, ah! You're tearing me apart!" by the time lwj is fully inside, wwx is half-convinced that he must be bleeding. lwj is not small, and he hasn't softened at all.

when lwj pulls almost all the way out, wwx can't help looking down, sniffling. even in the darkness of the living room, it's obvious that there is no blood on lwj's cock. lwj makes a pleased, guttural sound in his throat before he thrusts again, then again, faster each time.

wwx wails as lwj holds him and fucks into him. "Ah!" he gasps. "Oh! Hngh—oh!" aside from his heavy panting and the half-vocalizations on each breath, lwj is silent. he pulls wwx's legs apart a little more and thrusts hard. wwx gives a choked sob.

wwx has no idea how it happens, but he's suddenly on his back on the dining table. the table is too small, so his hips are held up only by lwj's hands. this position is so much worse. wwx can look down and see how spread apart his legs are, and how hard lwj is fucking into him.

lwj sets a ruthless, unforgiving pace, pulling wwx's hips just enough with each thrust that wwx can feel him in his belly. he doesn't speak, but his eyes are watching wwx, silently devouring every expression, sound, and reaction from him.

wwx has never been so grateful before that his house is far away from any other residences; he sounds like a needy courtesan, his head thrown back with lwj's name on his lips as he wails and moans and cries and sobs with each snap of lwj's hips.

lwj is not an inattentive lover; he leans down and kisses wwx until he's breathless. he lavishes kisses along wwx's neck, nibbling on the spots where he's most sensitive. he also reaches down to take wwx's cock in his hand and strokes it at the same pace as their fucking.

wwx doesn't have time to warn lwj before he's coming again, his back arching as he spills into lwj's hand, covering it with his seed. he cries out, hips twitching violently as he pathetically humps into lwj's hand, trying to extend the pleasure as much as possible.

it takes only a few more seconds of frantic, shallow thrusts before lwj buries his face against wwx's neck with a groan. hot liquid fills wwx from within, spreading through his belly. wwx moans at the sensation, drunk on two orgasms and the feeling of lwj's come inside of him.

it is still cold enough for their breaths to be visible, so lwj sets wwx's legs down and pulls wwx up so that wwx can sit on the table. "Wait here," lwj says, before going back to the bedroom. wwx sits there, covered in icy sweat, shivering and wearing only his night shirt.

as he sits there alone, catching his breath, wwx stares at the half-open bedroom door lwj had disappeared through. he can hear lwj rummaging through the dresser, presumably trying to find a new change of clothes for both of them.

wwx looks down at himself. in the dim light, he can see wet patches of his own spend on his shirt. his inner thighs glisten, covered in so much of lwj's seed that there are trails of it trickling down. he can't stop shivering. he was so warm before, but now he feels so cold.

even when lwj re-emerges from the bedroom, wwx can't stop shivering. he also somehow can't meet lwj's eyes. instead, he makes himself stare at the clothes in lwj's arms. lwj is silent as he walks over. he drapes a warm cloak around wwx's shoulders. "I'll go get some warm water."

it doesn't take long for lwj to fill a small washbasin with warm water from their heating talisman-covered canteen. he wets a washcloth, wrings it out, looks at wwx, and visibly hesitates. somehow, despite the cloak, wwx feels even colder. "It's fine. I-I can wash myself."

"If you want," lwj says. his voice sounds so far away and quiet now that his mouth is no longer directly next to wwx's ear. "I can—" "It's fine, it's fine." wwx forces a laugh as he slides off the table; he nearly stumbles. "You don't have to touch me. I can do it myself."

lwj hands over the warm damp washcloth, but stays nearby. he averts his gaze as wwx cleans himself, but he doesn't leave. "Would you like some tea?" he asks when wwx deems himself clean. "Ah." wwx shakes his head as he reaches for his clothes. "No, thank you."

a small furrow appears in between lwj's brows. "Wei Ying, you need to drink something. We have water, tea, and leftover soup from dinner." wwx's current nightshirt is damp with his sweat; he'd lost a lot of water, it seems. he should drink. "Tea," he answers.

lwj nods, the furrow in between his brows disappearing. "I will steep some tea." when lwj disappears into the pantry, wwx takes the opportunity to frantically change into clean clothes. but even when he is dry and clothed, he still feels cold.

he can't sit at the table—there are certain associations with it now—so he sits on the floor. his sore behind screams at the hard surface, but the floor is relatively clean and doesn't require wwx to move elsewhere. he curls up into a ball under his cloak, shivering.

when lwj returns, he startles upon seeing wwx on the floor. "Wei Ying." he quickly sets aside the tea tray to hurry over. "You can't sit on the floor. It's cold. Come sit at the table." wwx shakes his head. "I don't want to." lwj falters. "Alright. Then… how about the bed?"

the bed. the bed sounds good right about now. wwx is suddenly very tired and just wants to close his eyes and not think. he nods, and shakily stands up. lwj hovers near his elbow. "Would you like me to carry you?" wwx shakes his head as he shuffles towards the bedroom.

he tries, and fails, to hide a wince as he sits down on the bed; lwj really did a number on his waist. lwj takes his cloak and sets it aside. he wraps the blankets around wwx and momentarily leaves the room to fetch the tray. once he's back, he hands a cup of tea to wwx.

wwx takes the cup with both hands and a mumbled, "Thank you." he doesn't drink. he just stares down at the tea. his hands are shaking so much that he can't see anything in the liquid's reflection.

lwj reaches forward, gently cupping around wwx's hands with his own. "Drink," he encourages in a whisper as he slowly guides the teacup up to wwx's lips. the tea is hot—almost scalding—but wwx drinks. he can feel it going down his throat and into his stomach.

once about half the tea in the cup is gone, lwj slowly releases wwx's hands to let him finish drinking on his own. "Would you like some more?" he asks once the cup is empty. wwx shakes his head. he feels a little better now that he's not shivering, but he doesn't want to drink.

lwj takes the cup from his hands and returns it to the tray. he doesn't sit next to wwx on the bed; instead, he kneels on the floor beside the bed, his elbows on top of the blankets. "Wei Ying," he says after a long silence, "I would like to apologize."

all the warmth provided by the tea and blankets completely evaporates. "Apologize? What are you talking about?" wwx demands. "You have nothing to apologize for." "I have much to apologize for," lwj insists. "I regret—" "You regret it?" wwx is starting to shake all over again.

lwj notices immediately. he glances at wwx's trembling shoulders before answering, "I… should not have done what I've done. I hurt you." "Did I say that I was hurt by it?" wwx snaps. his shaking worsens to a full-body shiver. lwj pauses, then says, "You're shaking."

"I'm shivering because it's still dark out and you're not in bed with me." wwx grits his teeth. "And what do you mean you should not have done what you did? I pushed you to it." "You did not push me," lwj insists. "I—I lost control," his gaze drops, "and… forced myself on you."

now wwx is half-certain that part of his shaking is from rage. "Oh, I'm sorry, could you tell me for which part of that was I unwilling? Was it when I kissed you back or when I moaned like a whore beneath you?" "Wei Ying—" lwj starts, but then stops himself.

"Look, if you regret it, then just say so!" wwx glares at him. "We both know I pushed you to it! You were trying to take some space for yourself, and I didn't let you." "You didn't push me," lwj says. "Would you have fucked me if I hadn't?" wwx demands. lwj goes silent.

wwx's laugh is far too watery to sound genuine. "Of course, of course." he turns his face away and rests his chin on his hand; his eyes are stinging. "Well. It's done and over with, now. You don't ever have to touch me again, if you don't want to."

he doesn't know how long he sits there, blinking back tears, but lwj breaks the heavy silence with a quiet, "Do you regret it?" wwx tries to discreetly wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. "What?" "Do you regret," lwj takes a breath, "what we did?"

"That's a dumb question." wwx angrily rubs at his eyes. "Didn't I just say that I kissed you back and—" "Yes," lwj interrupts, "but you also said multiple times that it hurt, and that I was going to break you. And I still didn't stop."

despite wwx's anger, he can't help feeling a flare of embarrassment. "Well—I enjoyed it, didn't I? You know that. It happened twice." lwj bows his head. "And you begged for me to slow down and be more gentle. Twice."

"And you didn't," wwx says. "And I didn't," lwj admits, "but I should have." wwx wraps the blankets a little tighter around himself. "So you regret it." "I regret hurting you," lwj says, "and for causing you distress."

"But do you regret fucking me?" wwx asks. parts of the bedsheet are bunched up under lwj's fists. he stares at the pillows. he takes so long to answer that wwx nearly loses his temper. "Only if you do." "No, you can't do that," wwx snaps. "We can't both have the same answer."

finally, lwj looks at him. "The same answer?" "We can't both say that we only regret it if the other does," wwx snarls. "That's not how this works. Then the only possibilities are either we both regret it or we both don't. So make up your damn mind."

lwj looks lost. after mulling it over, he answers, "Wei Ying, I cannot choose for you." "And neither can I, for you." wwx curls up tighter. he sighs out of frustration. "Alright, how about this—since neither of us can answer, we'll just—forget this conversation ever happened."

to wwx's surprise, lwj answers with a firm, "No." "No?" wwx raises an eyebrow. "Then do you have an answer for me?" "I do not," lwj admits, "but—Wei Ying, please. I don't want to forget more of you." wwx draws a sharp breath. he feels sucker-punched in the stomach.

"… Ah, Hanguang-Jun, you really have a way with words." wwx half-heartedly mimes stabbing and twisting an imaginary knife in his own chest. "What do you suggest we do, instead?" lwj rises to his feet and sits on the edge of the bed. "Go back to sleep. It is still night."

wwx glances at the window. it is indeed still dark out; he and lwj had woken up in the middle of the night, fucked, and are now going back to sleep—because it's still too dark for anything else to be done. "Alright." wwx nods as he shuffles over to his side of the bed.

he has to unwrap himself to allow lwj enough blanket to slip under. lwj lies down in bed with caution, making sure to stay on his side with his hands folded on top of his stomach. he doesn't reach for wwx, but his face is turned towards him.

wwx looks at him too. he has already stopped shivering, but his stomach feels like an empty pit. he just wants to bury himself in blankets and sleep with lwj holding him. now, he's not even sure if lwj wants to be holding him, after what they've done.

"Well. See you in the morning, Lan Zhan," wwx says as he shuffles to face the wall instead. "… Sleep well, Wei Ying," lwj answers with a small sigh. it feels terrible to be so close and yet so far from each other—but wwx is so exhausted from everything that he sleeps easily.

the next day is somehow both solemn and awkward. wwx woke up to a sore waist and thighs, and it's difficult not to wince every time he needs to move. lwj notices too; he keeps an eagle-sharp watch over wwx and his gaze turns pained every time wwx struggles to do something.

they still touch. wwx can still ask for hugs and receive them, and lwj still presses the softest of kisses to wwx's face and hands. it's as if nothing had happened overnight at all. except something had happened between them, and no amount of acting normal can change that.

before, it was enough to have such fleeting gestures between them. everything was new for them, back then, and it was easy to bask in the bliss of it. now, it is torture to feel lwj's lips only briefly press his cheek when all wwx can think of is how nice it'd been to kiss him.

lwj still hasn't asked for a separate bed or to leave—which somehow makes wwx feel better and worse at the same time. he is so very glad that lwj is staying, but the way lwj looks at him—like the very sight of wwx brings him pain and bad memories—makes wwx want to disappear.

wwx wishes he'd burned nhs's books the moment he knew what they were. he wishes he never knew there could be more—that he could want more beyond brief kisses and gentle touches. and now he has ruined what they had—all because he got greedy and wanted too much.

when wwx bathes, he briefly touches his own hand to the bruises on his hips, mimicking the way lwj's hands had gripped him last night. he wishes the bruises could stay forever, as permanent reminders that lwj had touched him once, made love to him once.

two days after the incident, lwj puts on a cloak and picks up the basket they use for shopping. "We're low on spices. I am going to purchase some more." he kisses wwx on the cheek. "Will you be alright at home?" wwx returns the kiss. "Of course. Why wouldn't I be alright?"

lwj doesn't answer that. instead, he says, "Make sure you stay warm. I won't be gone for long." "Don't worry about me," wwx hums. "I'll be making supper, and I'll only put in half the amount of chili peppers this time."

that earns him an amused huff from lwj. "I appreciate that," he says with a kiss to wwx's forehead. "I will be back before sundown." "Stay safe," wwx calls after him. when the front door shuts behind lwj, wwx gets to work on as many chores as he can.

it's almost impressive how much work he can get done without lwj's presence distracting him. he does the laundry, sweeps the floor, and completes some minor repair work on the barn. he finishes up work and returns to the house to start making supper in the evening.

as promised, he only adds half the amount of his usual spice and salt to the duck noodle soup he's preparing. it's a little bland to him, but it should be perfect for lwj—and duck soup is a good dish to warm up with after a day spent outside in the snow.

as the soup cooks, wwx sets about making the noodles. he mixes together the dough, rolls it out, and cuts it into strips. after dusting them with flour, he curls them up into individual portions and sets them aside. he'll cook them once lwj is back, so that they don't get soggy.

once that's done, the sun is starting to disappear behind the distant mountains. wwx pulls a chair near the pot to keep an eye on the soup as he waits. and waits. the sun sets. and lwj still does not return.

wwx frowns. maybe the innkeeper's wife caught him again, or perhaps that one carpenter is trying to bully him into buying a new chair or carving that they technically don't need; lwj was once late due to that, and while he was ashamed for returning late, wwx had found it funny.

if lwj returns with a new chair or stool, then wwx will *really* find it funny. he waits. and waits. the duck soup has been boiling for so long that wwx needs to add extra water to it.

when lwj's usual bedtime comes and goes, wwx begins to panic. lwj has bichen with him, and his cultivation is too high for him to be caught off-guard by anyone. there's also no chance of a monster attack, because wwx has always been monitoring the town area for resentful energy.

perhaps lwj just… left. maybe he realized that what they have is unsustainable and that they want different things in a relationship. no, wwx tells himself. lwj doesn't lie. if he says he's returning, then he is returning. if he wanted to leave, he would say so to wwx's face.

wwx holds on tight to that belief. he can accept that lwj may not want him as much as wwx wants him. he can accept that lwj may eventually wish for them to separate— —but he will never accept that lwj would leave him without a word or a goodbye.

the situation is not as dire as it was when a desperate, grieving wwx made his world-altering wish—yet wwx still finds himself making silent bargains. if lwj comes back, then wwx will be grateful for what they have. if lwj comes back, then wwx will never want more again.

if lwj comes back, then wwx will never wish for lingering kisses, never wish for words of love, never wish for robes of red and a lifelong promise, never wish for a little one to call their own. if lwj comes back, then wwx will be good. wwx will be grateful. wwx won't be greedy.

wwx will never ask for anything else again. he just wants to be with lwj. he wants lwj in his home, by his side, in his life. just please let lwj come back. please. please.

the wind hides the sound of an approaching spiritual sword, but there is no hiding the familiar sound of a key turning in the door's lock. wwx turns around just in time to see lwj step into the house. he is covered in snow and his hair is windswept. he looks at wwx. "Wei Ying."

"Oh," wwx chokes as he scrambles up from his seat near the fire and runs over. lwj barely gets his snow-laden cloak off before wwx runs into him, hugging him tight. the impact is enough to make lwj take a step back and for some snow to slide off his hair and onto wwx's head.

"Where have you been?" wwx demands as lwj hurriedly tries to wipe as much snow off of wwx's head before it melts. "You said you would be back by sundown!" "I know. I did not keep my word. I'm sorry." lwj hugs him back just as tightly, and it is so, so good that wwx sobs.

lwj somehow manages to knock the snow off of his boots and hang his cloak up all without letting go of wwx. "Xiongzhang cornered me in the market today." "What?" wwx gapes at him. "Zewu-Jun? He's here?" he peeks over lwj's shoulder, at the door. "He's at the inn," lwj says.

"Oh." wwx blinks. "So, uh, why is he visiting? Is everything alright back home?" "Everyone is well." lwj is scowling. "Xiongzhang says he would like for us to visit the Cloud Recesses for the new year." "Oh." wwx blinks again. "Um, couldn't this have been a letter?"

"A letter would have been more courteous and less disruptive," lwj says curtly as he sits down on one of the chairs and pulls wwx onto his lap, still holding onto him. "There was no need for him to inconvenience himself by personally travelling all the way out here."

wwx is far too relieved at lwj's return to feel much shame about snuggling as close as possible to lwj. "Maybe he was worried about you and wanted to see you for himself." "Doubtful," lwj mutters as he hugs wwx tighter. "He has turned the town against us."

wwx can't help it; he laughs. "And how did he do that?" "He charmed Sui-furen, and she offered him a meal on the house," lwj grumbles into wwx's shoulder. "When I tried explaining that you were waiting for me, she talked about us for three straight hours to xiongzhang."

innkeeper's wife: it's such an honor to meet zewu-jun! you and hanguang-jun truly are twin jades. so handsome~~ lxc: sui-furen is too kind. i must thank sui-furen to helping care for my younger brother innkeeper's wife: oh, i don't do much~ a-ying takes care of him plenty~ 😉😉

lxc: ah. i see. lwj: lwj: i should be going. wei ying is— innkeeper's wife: OHHH 😭😭😭zewu-jun do you hear how he says a-ying's name?? what a gorgeous couple they make, so in love 🥹🥹 lxc: yes. i do hear it. lwj: lwj: can i go home— lxc: no 😌♥️

wwx giggles when he hears lwj's description of what happened at the inn. "How did you escape?" "I told Sui-furen that xiongzhang is single," lwj says without a hint of regret. "And I left while she was talking." wwx bursts into another peal of laughter. "Lan Zhan! How devious!"

"It is likely that he will visit tomorrow," lwj says miserably. "Sui-furen will surely tell him where we live." wwx looks around the house. he'd spent all day cleaning, so there's not much to prepare other than food for a guest. "Lan Zhan, he's your brother. He can visit."

"He does not need to visit," lwj insists. "He is already asking us to visit the Cloud Recesses." wwx hums as he plays with lwj's hair. "Don't you want to spend New Years with your family?" lwj's response is to hug wwx tighter.

wwx sinks into the embrace. he almost can't remember why they'd been so distant over the past few days. he's just so happy that lwj returned. "We can visit the Cloud Recesses," wwx says. "I wish to see your home." "This is home," lwj says. "Your other home," wwx clarifies.

lwj pulls back just enough to look at wwx. "We do not have to visit if you do not want to," he says. "I would not blame you if you have… negative associations with the Cloud Recesses." "Negative associations?" wwx asks. "We imprisoned you there for days," lwj points out.

ah. wwx nearly forgot about all that. "You thought I was a spy," wwx reminds him. "You had every right to be suspicious. I don't hold it against you." "Your parents will also still be there," lwj drops his voice. "If it would pain you to see them, then we can stay here."

that makes wwx hesitate. "That may be a bit awkward, yes," he admits. "But… honestly, Lan Zhan, I don't remember much of them. It's good to see them happy." lwj's gaze softens. "Should we tell them the truth?" "The truth? That I'm their son?" wwx huffs. "Best not to, I think."

"It is an option," lwj says. "I would want to know, if I were them." wwx thinks about it. "Maybe," he concedes. "I don't know. Either way, we can still visit the Cloud Recesses. You've seen and lived in my home. I would like to do the same for yours."

lwj's eyes widen just a fraction. then he's hugging wwx again, squeezing him so hard that wwx almost can't breathe. "Yes," he says quietly, fervently. "Yes." wwx luxuriates in the embrace, his face buried against lwj's neck. he never wants this to end.

of course, it ends. lwj finally releases him and pulls back. he gently cups wwx's face in between both of his hands. "Wei Ying," he whispers softly. "About… about the events of the other night…" wwx take a quick, deep breath. "Oh! Supper is ready, by the way."

he waddles off of lwj's lap; he hadn't realized he was straddling him. "Are you hungry? I hope you didn't eat too much at the inn." "Wei Ying," lwj calls after him. "I made some duck noodle soup," wwx says, putting the noodles into boiling water. "Half-spice, just for you."

"Wei Ying," lwj says again. "I don't regret it." wwx stops stirring the pot. the uncooked noodles slow down in their swirling, catching on the ends of the chopsticks still in the water.

wwx stares at the noodles. he almost wants to turn around and ask lwj to repeat himself, but there is no mistaking lwj's words. he thought he knew what relief was when lwj stepped in through the door. this is a different kind of relief—warm and light.

"Oh, Lan Zhan," wwx turns to smile at him and hopes that the light from the fire is dim enough to hide how oddly teary his eyes probably look. "I don't regret it either." lwj nods, once. his shoulders sink a millimeter down, relaxed. wwx goes back to stirring the noodles.

they don't speak much as they eat—or more accurately, wwx doesn't speak much as they eat, since lwj never speaks during meals—but there is a sense of peace between them. wwx often peeks up from his bowl to catch lwj watching him, which makes wwx smile.

after they're finished eating, lwj cleans the dishes while wwx transfers the remaining duck soup into a large bowl for storage. they wash up for bed separately, with wwx at the washbasin first as lwj changes into his nightrobes in the bedroom.

after they switch, wwx hurriedly dresses into his sleeping clothes and slips under the covers to wait for lwj. he doesn't have to wait long. lwj returns with his hair down and his forehead ribbon already removed. he sets the ribbon on the bedside table and joins wwx in bed.

wwx waits for him to settle before cuddling close, plastering himself against lwj's body. "Hello," he says shyly. lwj looks at him. "Hello," he replies. wwx grins and scoots himself a little higher up to give lwj a kiss.

it's a slow, deep kiss—longer than their usual kisses, but not as hungry as the ones they'd shared when they first slept together. it is very nice; lwj is warm, and his fingers grasp wwx's chin gently. wwx makes himself pull back when tongue and teeth start getting involved.

"Lan Zhan," wwx giggles, squirming as he tries to prevent lwj from kissing his neck. "We need to sleep. Your brother is visiting tomorrow, and likely very early in the morning." lwj make a discontent grumble as he nuzzles wwx's hands aside and kisses under wwx's jaw.

it takes incredible willpower not to melt under lwj's attention. wwx allows himself a few seconds to enjoy it before gently pushing lwj away. "Lan Zhan, be good," he warns, although there's no bite to his tone. "It is time to sleep."

lwj gives a small, hilariously-aggrieved sigh before pulling back. "If Wei Ying says it's time to sleep," he says, "then it's time to sleep." wwx grins and snuggles close. after exchanging their goodnights, wwx falls asleep easily and quickly.

as predicted, lxc arrives early the next morning, at around six. "Good morning, Wei-gongzi," lxc greets when wwx answers the door. "I do hope I am not inconveniencing you terribly with such a sudden visit." "Oh, not at all," wwx says, stepping back. "Please, come in."

as sect leader, lxc's hair crownpiece is tall enough that he has to duck to get in through the doorway. he surveys the small living space in silence, before settling his gaze on lwj. "Xiongzhang," lwj greets with a bow, "you're early."

"Not too early, I hope," lxc replies pleasantly. "Do not fret, Wangji. I will not be here for long." lwj huffs, but says nothing as he pours tea for all of them. "Zewu-Jun," wwx says, "If this is about the invitation to spend New Years at the Cloud Recesses, then we accept."

lxc blinks, then smiles. "That is very good to hear. A visit will go a long way in reassuring shufu that Wangji is well." he looks at lwj. "Especially after a month without a single word or update." lwj takes a deliberately slow sip from his teacup.

wwx glances between them. "You didn't tell your uncle you were going to be staying here?" wwx asks lwj incredulously. "I sent a letter notifying shufu and xiongzhang of my decision," lwj replies snippily. "Nothing has changed since then, thus no update was necessary."

wwx turns to lxc. "What did he write in the letter?" "I have it here," lxc says, drawing a small, folded piece of paper from his sleeve. "It reads: 'Greetings to xiongzhang and shufu. I am going to stay with Wei Ying. With gratitude, Lan Wangji.'" wwx waits. "... That's it?"

"That's it." lxc hands the letter to wwx for visual confirmation. "Shufu and I wish to respect Wangji's decision, whatever it may be, but surely Wei-gongzi can understand our concern when we haven't heard from him in a while." wwx surely can understand. "Lan Zhan," he scolds.

lwj blinks once, slowly, which means he's either content or violently unrepentant. it's probably the latter. "I am so sorry. Please let Lan-xiansheng know that Lan Zhan is doing well and that we accept the invitation to spend New Years at the Cloud Recesses," wwx says to lxc.

lxc beams. "I will let shufu know." he stands up. "Thank you very much for the tea. It is good to meet you again under better circumstances, Wei-gongzi." "I agree," wwx says truthfully. "Safe journeys, Zewu-Jun." "And safe journeys to you too, on your way to Gusu," lxc replies.

once lxc is out of sight in the sky, wwx turns to lwj. "Lan Zhan," he frowns. "That visit could have been a letter, too," lwj says. "Are you and Zewu-Jun arguing or something?" wwx starts cleaning up the teacups. "I thought you got along with him well."

"I get along with xiongzhang," lwj answers, "until he forgets to mind his own business." lwj's choice of words earns him a chuckle from wwx. "He's your brother. Brothers will always be nosey. Now," wwx smiles at him, "should we get packing?"

there's not much for them to pack, but there is some work involved with preparing the house for their departure. they will be staying at the cloud recesses for two weeks, so leftover food needs to be frozen or eaten and pantry staples need to be refilled.

wwx brings in more wood from the woodpile outside. lwj goes to acquire the pantry staples. wwx cleans the interior of the house as lwj packs their clothes into a qiankun bag. on the day they were planning to set out, it snows.

it's not enough to make them push back their plans, but it is enough to extend their time on the road—or sword, as the case may be. there is no good way to fly through falling snow. an umbrella creates too much drag, and flying fast means more snow in the eyes.

they lose a few hours of travel time before wwx jokes that if they go high up enough, then there's not much they can crash into, and they could *technically* wrap their heads in scarves and fly blind. it's an amusing thought until lwj decides to try it.

wwx had once blindfolded himself during the phoenix mountain hunt, but that was when he could still hear, smell, and feel his surroundings. up here, in the air, there's nothing. the sword beneath his feet is not even his to control. he has zero clues about where they are.

it is, admittedly, not a great journey. wwx doesn't like being blinded and lwj doesn't like snow piling on both of them, so they make frequent stops. by the time they arrive at the cloud recesses, it is already eight at night.

there is snow in the cloud recesses, but the wards around the complex protects it from the worst of the wind and cold. wwx shivers gratefully once they pass the wards and the falling snow slows to a calm, almost enchanting, flurry. lxc greets them at the gate.

"I am glad for your safe arrival," lxc says as he walks them into the cloud recesses. "I sent word for your supper to be delivered to your room the moment the guards saw you, so it should arrive nice and hot once you're settled in." a hot meal sounds great to wwx. "Thank you."

"Please, there is no need for such courtesy." lxc smiles. "Let me know if there's anything else I can do to make your stay more comfortable. Ah, we're here." they stop at the foot of a stair set leading up to a single one-floor house.

"I'll let the two of you get settled," lxc says. "Have a good night." after bidding lxc good night, the two of them go up the stairs. wwx bounds ahead and hovers at the door until lwj opens it.

the interior of the room is as neat, clean, and sparse as any other room in the cloud recesses—which is unsurprising to wwx. but this is *lwj's* room. wwx inspects everything, from the sword rack to the guqin stand to the bookcase. "It's so nice, Lan Zhan!"

there's just a beat too long of a pause before lwj answers, "Mn." wwx stops. "You don't like your own room?" lwj thinks before responding. "It is habitable, and I have many memories of peace here, but it is not as comfortable as the farmhouse."

wwx looks around. now that lwj mentioned it, there isn't much in terms of decoration and personalization. if wwx didn't already know that this is lwj's living quarters, he might not have liked it as much. "We could fill it with our things," wwx suggests, "and make it a home."

lwj's gaze softens. "Mn," he agrees. "And make it a home." wwx beams as he continues exploring. he examines the desk, chair, bed stand, wardrobe, and—finally—the bed.

wwx remembers the beds in the cloud recesses being thin and not very comfortable, so he's surprised when he sits down on the mattress and it's thicker and softer than he expected. "Oh!" he bounces on it. "It's nice!" he glances around. "And big!" lwj nods. "And quiet," he adds.

the comment is so unexpected that wwx can only laugh. "If you say so." he ducks his head, mostly to conceal his reddening face. he kicks off his shoes and fully crawls on, pushing experimentally at the mattress. lwj inhales, then exhales harshly. "Stop bouncing."

"Why?" wwx asks as he continues testing the mattress. if he arches his back a little as he does so, then that's his own business. "I'm just—you know, trying it out." lwj's jaw briefly clenches as he watches him. "… Supper is here," he says, turning away. "We should eat."

wwx follows him with a chuckle. he doesn't know how hungry he is until he sees the still-steaming food on the table and his mouth floods with saliva. there are gusu lan dishes, yes, but there is also food of the spicier variety that is common in caiyi town.

"Don't choke," lwj says as wwx devours through the food. wwx's 'I know' is muffled by a mouth full of braised pork and green beans. lwj huffs, but silently adds more food to wwx's bowl. lwj eats much slower, more proper. by the time he's finished, wwx is on the floor, groaning.

"I understand the rule about no more than three bowls of rice now," wwx moans. "Lan Zhan, just let me sleep on the floor tonight." lwj gives one of his half-laughs as he walks over and picks wwx up. the floor is kept warm with heating talismans, so wwx protests a little.

"Would you like a bath?" lwj asks. wwx nods, but adds, "You should go first. You're the one who flew us the whole way here. Besides," he pats his own stomach. "I think I should take a walk before bathing, to digest all this." lwj tilts his head. "Can you find your way back?"

wwx snorts. "Of course I can! I have a great sense of direction." lwj makes a not-entirely-convinced sound. wwx gasps. "Lan Zhan! I was a student here once, you know? I know my way around!" "I have faith in Wei Ying," lwj says serenely.

while the water in the bathtub heats up, lwj bundles wwx in warm layers. "If you get lost," he says as he tugs a cloak around wwx's shoulders, "don't move. I'll come find you." "I won't get lost," wwx promises. he kisses lwj's hand as lwj ties the cloak under wwx's chin.

wwx does, indeed, get lost. in hindsight, he should have seen it coming. the jingshi is part of the residence side, away from the student dorms and classrooms wwx is more familiar with. still, he wanders without direction, taking in the serene beauty of his surroundings.

the cloud recesses truly is a beautiful place, safe and peaceful. he still thinks the lan are too uptight and could do with less reading and more learning out on the field, but their family members are endlessly loyal and good. it wouldn't be a bad place to raise little ones.

yes, wwx thinks. it wouldn't be a bad place at all. they could alternate between here and the farm. they would have to be mostly at the farm year-round because of the crops, but he and lwj could ship the children to the cloud recesses for a few weeks to focus on their studies.

they may even be able to spend the winter months in the cloud recesses, wwx realizes. there's not much to be done on a farm during winter, and the children would be able to spend a good amount of time studying and spending time with their extended family.

it's such a nice thought that wwx lets himself bask in it for a while before shaking himself back to reality. mustn't be too greedy, he reminds himself. whether or not he and lwj eventually have children, he will forever be grateful for what he already has.

he's on his way down another nice stone path when the sound of nearby rustling catches his attention. instantly, wwx is on alert. it is past nine. no lan would be causing such noise. an intruder, perhaps? but the cloud recesses is warded. maybe an animal? no—again, the wards.

wwx watches with a mixture of alarm and curiosity as someone dressed in white slowly slips out of a nearby window and lands rather ungracefully on the ground. the figure stands up, chuckling, and turns around. an almost exact copy of wwx's own face stares back at him.

it's a very awkward stare-off. wwx keeps glancing between his mother and the window she just crawled out of. cssr keeps looking up the path he just walked down on. then, without a word, she brings a finger to her smiling lips. in the same hand, she's holding a small razor.

instantly, wwx's gaze flies to her other hand, which is still clenched. silently, cssr lifts her other hand and makes a show of victoriously and smugly patting the strands of loose hair off of her hands and into the bushes. wwx watches her, speechless.

still grinning, cssr hops over the flowers and bushes to take his wrist and lead him away. once they're a safe distance away from what wwx presumes to be lqr's house, wwx blurts out, "Did you just shave Old Man Lan's beard?" "I did!" cssr cackles. "It was getting too long."

wwx gawks at her. he remembers also cutting lqr's beard off, but he wasn't so bold as to enter his private quarters and shave his face bare. "Doesn't he hate it?" "Oh, he hates it." cssr nods sagely. "But he looks so much better without the beard! More like your lan er-gege."

wwx feels an intense physical reaction at the suggestion. "I don't really want Old Man Lan to look more like Lan Zhan," he admits truthfully. cssr giggles again; her laugh is almost fox-like, full of mischief and life. "You might not, but I wouldn't mind!"

once her laughter dies off, she bounces alongside wwx as they walk. "I was pleasantly surprised when A-Huan said that you would be joining us for New Years," she says. "I must steal you away every now and then to Caiyi Town for some food and wine." wwx nods awkwardly. "Alright."

cssr skips ahead for a bit. when she turns to look back at him, she's still smiling. the moon is positioned in the sky just so; its light haloes around her head, making her smile all that brighter, all that warmer. "You're my child," she says softly, wistfully, "aren't you."

wwx's mouth opens, but no sound comes out. he closes it and tries again. still nothing. this is a joke. surely this is a joke. of what few stories wwx had heard of his mother, she always enjoyed a good laugh. she's not laughing. no—she's still smiling that achingly fond smile.

wwx swallows. works his jaw. oh—he has no idea what to say. this is his mother, but he has so few precious memories of her. he doesn't know where to even start. cssr walks over to a nearby stone bench and brushes the snow off. she sits down and pats the seat next to her.

numbly, wwx sits down on the bench. cssr doesn't try to touch him—which he is a little thankful for. she just sits there, serenely watching him. after a long time, the only word wwx can manage to get out is: "How?"

cssr's smile is both gentle and knowing. "My master taught me many things," she replies. "Cultivation. The Six Arts. Secrets the world has discovered, forgotten, rediscovered, and forgotten again. It was not difficult to recognize what you did."

wwx stares down at his hands. he has a hard time wrapping his mind around it. in his old life, his mother's name had only ever come up when yzy was yelling at jfm, or when someone was blaming her for wwx's own restlessness and sense of mischief.

over time, he had somehow forgotten that she was a disciple of bssr—that his mother had once been privy to all the incredibly vast knowledge and resources that came with studying under the longest-living cultivator in existence.

many have spoken of cssr's origins as an orphan. others, about her beauty and the dozens of suitors who had sought her hand. more than a few have sneered at her choice of a servant for a spouse and how she'd wasted her chance to be a sect leader's wife.

many have forgotten—wwx had forgotten—that she was a glimpse into immortality; knowledge, given life. she was mischievous, yes, and she was beautiful. but she also knew so, so much more than anyone ever gave her credit for.

wwx has to swallow twice before he can ask: "When?" cssr tilts her head. "From the moment I saw you in that inn." wwx cannot keep his surprise off of his face. "That quick? Just—just like that? You knew? From that?"

cssr giggles into her sleeve. "I've been in love with your father for thirty years, little one." she's still smiling, but her eyes are deep and shining. "I would recognize him anywhere—even in a stranger's face."

nothing in wwx's life could have prepared him for this. "Ah," he chokes, gulping hard. "Does—" he gulps again; his throat hurts. "Does—he know?" cssr shakes her head as she delicately dabs at her eyes with her sleeves. "He may have noticed, but he hasn't said anything."

wwx's heart leaps in his chest. "Are you going to tell him?" he blurts out. cssr hesitates. "I believe he deserves to know," she admits, "so I will tell him, but… what's more important is: what kind of relationship would you like to have with us?"

wwx's eyes widen, perplexed. "Relationship?" "Alas, you're all grown up now, so I cannot simply shove you into my sleeve and take you along," cssr sighs with a small giggle. "Would you like your father and I to be your parents?"

it seems cssr has a way of rendering her son speechless. wwx gawks at her for a good while before laughing. "Ah—hm." he itches the side of his nose. "Is that necessary? I don't wish to be a burden…" cssr's gentle smile fades. "Who led you to think you were ever a burden?"

ah. already, wwx can feel red flags popping up in his mind. "No one led me to believe that," he adds hurriedly. "It's just—you and, um, you and my father already have your own lives established. You don't need to be my parents now just because you used to be."

cssr slowly looks him down and up. "Who raised you, after we were gone?" she asks. wwx's mouth opens. closes. "Surely that doesn't matter much now," he says, laughing. "I'm alive and healthy, so I didn't do too bad of a job growing up."

cssr makes a small 'hm' sound as she studies him. then, without a single warning, she slashes out towards his shoulder with the razor. wwx reacts without thought; his muscle memory kicks in, and he disarms her with a twist of her wrist. the razor clatters to the ground.

cssr's gaze sharpens. "That's a very distinctive disarming style," her voice is still very soft—almost dangerously so. "I wonder where you learned that from." wwx winces as he releases her wrist. "They took care of me fine," he protests, "I had food, shelter, clothes—"

"You mean they kept you from dying," cssr says with a deceptively friendly smile. "Did Yu Ziyuan become Jiang-furen in your time?" there is no good way to answer that—not when it is obvious that cssr has already deduced the truth—so wwx says nothing. "Of course," cssr sighs.

"Uh," wwx doesn't know what the point is in enforcing this, but old habits die hard. "Truth be told, she prefers to be called Yu-furen." cssr goes silent for a heartbeat. "I see. And let me guess—she blamed you for her own husband's misplaced feelings."

"Well," wwx sputters. "No, because you—you were already gone. Honestly, a-niang, it was not bad. They raised and trained me. You must know that isn't easy." cssr crosses her arms and huffs. "I may forgive Jiang Fengmian and his wife," she says, "if you call me a-niang again."

oh, that is just—that is just playing dirty. wwx stares incredulously at his mother, who merely flutters her eyelashes innocently and expectantly at him. wwx sighs. "… A-niang, can you please not do anything to Jiang-shushu and Yu-furen?" "No," she chirps happily.

wwx frowns, surprised. "But you said—" "I said I 'may' forgive them," cssr grins. "But you are free to continue calling me 'a-niang' as many times as you'd like and try your chances." wwx slumps in his seat as cssr laughs.

"When are you going to tell…" wwx searches for the correct word, "… your husband?" cssr sighs contently as the last of her laughter dies off. "I don't know," she answers, lost in thought. "Probably soon. Probably tonight. He will need time." "Time?" wwx asks.

cssr smiles again—she has many kinds of smiles, wwx realizes. this one is bittersweet, yet still so obviously full of affection. "What name did we give you?" she asks. "Ying," wwx answers. "Wei Ying," cssr says. her gaze goes unfocused. "So we went with that name."

before wwx can question it, cssr's eyes focus on him again. "You were not unwanted, A-Ying," she says. "The decision to not have children was very difficult for your father and I. We love each other very much, but night-hunts are risky, and we had no safety net for a child."

wwx nods. his wish may have played a big part in influencing their decision, but he understands their reasoning. "Learning about your existence will be your father's greatest happiness," cssr says, smiling; her eyes shine like stars, "and his greatest sorrow."

wwx swallows—hard. he wonders if his eyes look like his mother's, watery and bright. "Must he know?" cssr nods. "So please forgive him if he draws away from you at first. You have had time to mourn your parents. He will need time to mourn what never was."

"Ah," wwx chokes, nodding. "Mourn. Yes, I can—I can understand that. I won't hold anything against him." cssr's smile softens as she looks at him. "What did I call you? A-Ying, Ying-er, or A-Xian?" wwx thinks back in his memories. "You called me both A-Ying and A-Xian."

"Alright." cssr's smile widens hopefully. "May I call you A-Xian?" wwx can feel his cheeks and ears heat up. "If you'd like," he says. "I would not mind." cssr nods thoughtfully. "May a-niang give you a hug and a kiss, A-Xian?"

wwx nods, suddenly shy, and leans down towards her. grinning, cssr scoots close and wraps her arms around his neck. despite her many layers, her figure feels so small against him. "Oh, my baobei has grown so big!" she pats his shoulders. "My big baobei!"

wwx has to fight the urge to try and cuddle against her neck or stomach the way he had with jyl. he has almost forgotten how nice it is to hug family. cssr plants a happy kiss against his cheek with an exaggerated 'mmwah!' sound. "And so handsome! My handsome baobei!"

wwx begins to giggle as she plants happy, small kisses all over his face. "You said one kiss." "Couldn't resist." she presses one final kiss on his forehead before squeezing him in a hug and letting go. "Alright, I should really be letting you continue on your walk."

just as it crosses wwx's mind that cssr has stayed in the cloud recesses for multiple winters and might be able to give him directions back to the jingshi, they both hear approaching footsteps. too late, they don't move, and around the corner comes lwj— no, not lwj.

"Oh, no," wwx mutters as cssr bursts into laughter. his mother is right; a clean-shaven lqr does greatly resemble lwj. this is terrible information to have. lqr sees wwx first. he points an accusing finger. "CANGSE—" he stops, having belatedly noticed that there are two of them.

while lqr is still stunned, cssr picks up the razor from where it had fallen on the ground and shoves it in wwx's hand. "He did it!" she declares, pointing at him. then before either of them can react, she's off and running, cackling gleefully all the way.

wwx stares at the razor in his hand, then at lqr. lqr stares at him, then at the razor in his hand. "Uh." wwx hurriedly sets the razor down on the bench and shuffles backwards with his hands up. "It wasn't me." "I am aware of that," lqr replies, as sour as unripe loquats.

"Ah, yes, of course." wwx clears his throat before bowing. "Greetings to Lan-xiansheng. This one is Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian." "Yes, I've heard about you." lqr tried to stroke his beard. the face he makes when his fingers brush against his bare chin is unforgettable.

'do not laugh,' wwx chants to himself. 'do not laugh, do not laugh.' "You have quite the reputation," lqr says. "First I hear that you may be a demon, then a spy, then suddenly you're Wangji's chosen companion." "Funny how quickly things can change, huh?" wwx tries to smile.

lqr doesn't smile back. he slowly and critically looks wwx up and down. "Are you acquainted with Cangse Sanren?" he asks. "Uhh," wwx glances in the direction his traitorous mother ran off in. "A little," he admits. "We spoke somewhat." "Hm." lqr frowns more.

"Why are you out and about?" lqr sounds suspicious of him. "It is past curfew." wwx opens his mouth, ready to ask something along the lines of 'look who's talking,' but he decides against it; he should try to have a good relationship with lqr this time around—for lwj's sake.

"Lan Zhan is… washing up," he says, "so I decided to take a walk. I figured if I stayed quiet, I wouldn't disturb anyone." "Hm." lqr makes an abortive move to try and stroke his non-existent beard again. "You should've had a guest room prepared for you."

wwx can feel the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. not even three minutes into this first meeting and lqr already disapproves of him. "I didn't wish to disturb the Cloud Recesses with my presence unnecessarily," he says. "So Lan Zhan and I both agreed to share his room."

one of lqr's lower eyelids twitches. "While that is considerate of you, it is inappropriate for you two to stay together in one room." he replies. "I will have a guest room prepared for you by tomorrow afternoon." wwx feels one of his own lower eyelids twitch.

"That won't be necessary," wwx says sweetly. "I promise you that Lan Zhan and I have no qualms about sharing a room. Lan-xiansheng need not go through the trouble of accommodating me." lqr scowls so hard that the wrinkles on his face deepen. "The two of you are not married."

the urge to say something along the lines of, 'we are, in all the ways that count' is so strong that wwx has to take a moment to restrain himself. as rude as lqr is currently being, wwx is not sure if provoking him is the way to go—since he's already clearly mad, thanks to cssr.

"No," wwx answers. "But I very much would like to be, if he's also willing to have me." he tries to say it casually, like it is an irrevocable truth. the sun sets in the west. lotuses bloom in summer. wwx would like to marry lwj, someday.

instead, lqr looks like he has been struck by lightning; different parts of his face twitch as fleeting expressions appear, then disappear. his skin is steadily turning red. he looks about to yell. then, without warning, lqr huffs and turns away. "It is late. You should retire."

wwx blinks. "Ah?" he doesn't move. "Really? That's all?" "It is past curfew and you do not have a valid reason to be out and about." lqr starts walking back to his residence. "Return to Wangji's side and retire for the night or I will have you copying rules until spring."

"Hold on, I don't know the way back to the jingshi…" wwx's voice trails off when he realizes that lqr is not listening or looking back. soon, wwx is alone again. well, no use waiting for lqr to come back and sentence him to copying rules—especially not during new years.

wwx remembers the jingshi being up on a small hill, at the top of a set of stairs, so he just heads uphill. he figures the worst that can happen is he reaches the peak of the cloud recesses, where he may be able to look around and spot the jingshi.

he doesn't have to walk far. in the silence of the cloud recesses, it is easy to hear sounds—such as the sound of slowly approaching footsteps across the stone floor. wwx perks up when he spots lwj. "Lan—!" he covers his mouth, then whisper-shouts, "Lan Zhan!"

lwj's is still noticeably damp, so wwx hurries over to pull the hood of his cloak over his head. "Wei Ying," lwj says, glancing at their surroundings. "You went far." "I know," wwx confesses, hugging his arm. "I got lost."

lwj eyes him. "What did I say for you to do should you get lost?" wwx sticks his bottom lip out childishly. "You said to stay in one place and not move." "And what did you do?" "I moved." "Mn." lwj looks up again, past wwx's head, at something in the distance.

"You moved quite a bit," lwj says after a pause. he raises a hand and points at a lone house tucked away among the trees—almost invisible in the night. "That is my mother's house." wwx looks, suddenly interested. "Oh." he squints; there are still lights on in the cottage.

wwx tugs on lwj's hand. "If she isn't asleep yet, we should go say hello. She must miss you." to his surprise, lwj doesn't move. "It is late, Wei Ying. My mother needs her rest. We can go another day." "Oh." wwx looks back at the cottage. "Well, if you say so."

they walk. the moon is bright enough that they could've gone without the lantern in lwj's hand. "My mother spent decades in isolation," lwj answers wwx's unasked question. "Her constitution is… not as strong as it used to be. It is important for her to rest."

wwx scrunches his face up. the logic doesn't quite follow that a person who has spent decades in isolation would need so much rest, but he knows not to pry at old wounds. "I met my mother," he says.

lwj doesn't stop walking, but he tilts his head, thinking. "I suppose that means shufu is going to look different when I see him in the morning." wwx's loud giggle is only half-muffled by his hand. "Yes! How did you know?" "It happens every year," lwj replies. "It's tradition."

that somehow makes wwx laugh harder—and try harder to muffle his laughter. "Tradition!" he whisper-shouts, scandalized. "Lan Zhan! Your uncle would feel so betrayed if he heard you!" lwj gives his usual huff—his version of laughing. "How was your meeting with your mother?"

"It was—unexpected," wwx admits. "She knows I'm her son." that gets him a look from lwj. "I am unsurprised," he says, then, "Are you… alright with that?" honestly, wwx is still processing everything that has happened. "She's a menace," he concludes, "but she is my mother."

lwj hums—which could be either an acknowledgement or an agreement. maybe it's both. "What of your father?" "She said she's going tell him tonight." wwx looks down at their clasped hands. "She also said to be forgiving of him for the next few days."

lwj squeezes his hand. "That would be wise," is all he says—a small mercy for wwx's already-busy brain. when they arrive back at the jingshi, wwx coos in delight when he finds a fresh, still-steaming bathtub full of water waiting for him.

he almost starts undressing when a glance around the room confirms it—there is no privacy screen, and the jingshi is one large room with subsections, but no doors. "I can step out for a moment," lwj suggests, as if reading his mind. wwx shakes his head. "At this hour? No."

"But you need to bathe," lwj protests. "I do," wwx agrees, "but you don't have to leave." the tips of lwj's ears go endearingly red. he holds wwx's gaze, as if expecting him to change his mind, before giving a small sigh and retreating to the furthest corner in the jingshi.

wwx undresses quickly, with constant peeks over his shoulder to see if he can catch lwj looking at him. unfortunately, lwj has decided to copy some rules and is seated at his desk with his back facing wwx, his inkbrush moving over paper.

wwx enters the bathtub. the water is amazing—right on the edge of too-hot—and wwx cannot resist a satisfied moan as he sinks down until all but his face is submerged. there's the sound of paper crinkling from lwj's corner of the room, but otherwise, no reaction.

wwx takes his sweet time bathing, all the while glancing in lwj's direction to see if lwj ever peeks at him. no such luck. lwj must possess an iron will, because he doesn't turn his head once to look at wwx, not even when wwx starts exaggerating his sighs and moans a little.

it is still a little soon since 'the incident', and while they'd both agreed that they don't regret it, it is a tender topic that neither of them have spoken about. nonetheless, wwx thinks it may be time. if neither of them regretted it, then both of them liked it.

once he is finished bathing, wwx turns to grip the edge of the bathtub. "Hanguang-Jun," he croons. all he gets is a very short, quick inhale. then lwj responds, evenly, without turning around, "Yes, Wei Ying?" "I'm tired," wwx whines. "Can you help lift me out of the bathtub?"

there is a moment of hesitation where nothing happens. lwj doesn't move, or turn his head. just as wwx is about to crack and say that he was joking, lwj says, "Yes," and stands up. he removes his outer robe as he walks over and rolls up his sleeves, still not looking at wwx.

wwx eyes his bared forearms appreciatively as lwj pulls two chairs over and lays dry towels over them, with wwx's night robes hanging over the back. how very considerate he is, wwx's lwj. wwx cannot imagine a better man, or anyone else he would want to spend his life with.

when lwj finally approaches the bathtub, wwx smiles up at him expectantly. instead of reaching down into the water, lwj first gathers all of wwx's hair together and meticulously wrings the water out of it.

wwx recognizes it for what it is—an attempt to delay, a method of self-soothing. lwj is nervous, but not unwilling. to help make things all that more clear, wwx rests his cheek against lwj's hand. "Do you want to touch me?" he asks, gazing up at lwj.

lwj swallows. he is still avoiding wwx's gaze. "Yes." "Do you want to take me?" wwx asks. the hand under wwx's cheek trembles. "Yes," lwj breathes. wwx feels a little lightheaded, as if he is about to dive off of a high cliff into water. "Then take me." he kisses lwj's hand.

he expected lwj to cave in, carry him out of the bathtub, hastily dry him off, and then take him on the chairs or floor. he didn't expect lwj to *haul* him out of the bathtub, sending water sloshing everywhere and thoroughly soaking both of them and the floor.

wwx screeches, instinctively grabbing onto lwj's neck and shoulders for support. "Wh—Lan Zhan! Whoa, slow down! I'm not going anywhere!" lwj says nothing; he just turns around and marches both of them, soaked and trailing bathwater, straight towards the bed.

wwx's screech jumps an octave higher. "Lan Zhan, no! We can't! No, no, not the bed! We're wet! We'll soak the mattress! Lan Zhan, no—" his pleas fall on deaf ears; lwj tosses him onto the bed without ceremony and crawls on top of him, pressing hungry kisses to his neck.

it is mortifying, downright humiliating, how easily wwx's protests fade into gasps and moans when he's under lwj—how easily and willingly he parts his thighs at the slightest press of lwj's knee in between his legs.

he should fight back. a part of him wants to do that, wants to see lwj angry and seething and possessive and rough again. but this is also good, simply yielding and letting lwj do whatever he wants, take however much he wants.

this time is both slower and faster than their first; as lwj rapidly peels his own wet robes off of himself, his hands and mouth seem to be everywhere—against wwx's lips, on his neck, around his nipples, down his stomach, and— wwx cries out when lwj takes him into his mouth.

wwx can feel lwj struggle a little with his gag reflex. he tries to push lwj off. "Lan Zhan," he gasps. "You don't have to—" lwj ignores him and eases his own throat open as he fully takes wwx in. it does not take long for him to reduce wwx to a writhing mess.

wwx tries his best not to, but he can't help thrusting shallowly into lwj's mouth. "Lan Zhan," he breathes. "Lan Zhan, oh, oh, Lan Zhan, please, I'm going to—" lwj pulls off of him at the last possible moment. wwx gives a frustrated cry and reaches for himself.

"No," lwj says. wwx whines. "But I—" lwj bites around his nipple, making wwx screech. "No." "Lan Zhan, you beast!" wwx tries to wriggle away. "You can't just bite me! If you do that again, then I'll—I'll—" lwj's response is to grab him by his ankles and drag his legs apart.

wwx cries out and struggles and pushes against lwj's chest even as his legs willing part to let lwj settle in between them. "Let me go!" he wails. "What a brute you are, Hanguang-Jun! Forcing yourself on others!"

lwj presses their foreheads together. he is on the verge of panting, his breaths slow and deep. "If you want me to stop," he says, "then—be quiet, and I'll stop." wwx doesn't quite manage to hide a knowing smile. "I didn't know you could be like this, Hanguang-Jun!" he wails.

"So rough! So uncaring!" wwx turns to hide his face against his arm. "If I'd known that you would just be using me to carry your babies, then I would have never—" the only warning wwx gets is a harsh exhale from lwj before he feels hands gripping his hips, keeping him still.

for a moment, wwx actually does go silent and slack-jawed as lwj pushes into him, stretching him beyond belief. he'd forgotten how big lwj is, how much just taking him in feels like rearranging his insides. lwj takes notice of his silence. "Wei Ying," he says.

"Oh," wwx breathes. "Oh. Lan Zhan. You're inside me." wwx can *feel* lwj's reaction to that. "I am," lwj says, before leaning down and kissing wwx sweetly and deeply.

lwj, wwx soon learns, had spent a lot of time with the reading materials that nhs sent them. and here wwx thought of himself as knowledgeable when it comes to intimate acts in bed—it turns out he has very little against lwj's memory and stamina.

after the fifth round—wwx didn't even know that it was possible to go more than once in a row—wwx is a boneless mass on the soggy bed, whining quietly and panting as lwj pulls out of him. "Lan Zhan," he sighs, moving his hips so that lwj can see, "you put so much in me…"

lwj's ears are a pleasant red in the candlelight. "Wei Ying," he says with a hint of warning, "we need to sleep." wwx can't do anything but yawn. "Sleep where?" he groans. "The bed is soaked and the floor is wet. I'm all pruney because you couldn't wait to dry me off first."

lwj exhales in amusement and kisses wwx on the forehead before leaving the bed. the mattress is so soaked that it makes a slight squishing noise where lwj presses down on it. wwx groans. they definitely ruined the bed. getting a new mattress is going to be a pain.

lwj returns with a washbasin of fresh, warm water. he picks wwx up—or, rather, peels him off (gross)—from the bed and sets him down on a chair to give him a quick sponge bath. wwx winces when his bottom meets the chair. "Lan Zhan, you're so cruel to my poor waist," he complains.

lwj first cleans over wwx's skin, starting with his face and hands. "Mn. My fault. I will be more gentle next time." wwx giggles. "Already thinking of next time, Lan er-gege?" that gets him a warning glare from lwj and more delightfully red ears.

"Oh? Do you like it when I call you that?" wwx presses his toes against lwj's bare thigh. "Lan er-gege?" immediately, lwj grabs his ankle. there's that second warning glare. "Wei Ying," he warns. "It is late. You need to rest."

as much as wwx would like to continue teasing, lwj is right; it is well past midnight, and wwx is not sure how much more punishment his waist can take. still, he openly ogles lwj's body as lwj washes him. they should both wander naked around the jingshi more often, wwx thinks.

by the time lwj washes between his legs, wwx is half-hard, but still too over-sensitive to come again. mercifully, lwj touches him just enough to get him clean and no more. once wwx is clean and wrapped in dry, warm towels, lwj washes himself and starts mopping the floor.

while there is no saving the mattress, most of the water is thankfully contained to the bathing area, where there is a draining grid to dispose of bath water through. lwj mops up the excess and places a few heating talismans to help evaporate what is left.

after moving the mattress off the bed frame and placing it in the bathing area to allow the worst of the water (and more) to slowly drain, lwj retrieves more blankets and pillows from a storage area under the floorboards and begins spreading them out on a dry part of the floor.

wwx has dried enough that he can slowly ease himself into his night robes without too much wincing. by the time he is dressed and shuffling over, lwj had finished making the makeshift bed. wwx sinks gratefully under the covers with a happy sigh and hugs his pillow.

"This is so nice," wwx mumbles tiredly as lwj joins him under the covers after pulling on a pair of pants. "I wouldn't mind staying here forever with you." lwj's hand pauses in the middle of tucking wwx's hair behind his ear. "Truly?"

"Mmhm." wwx presses sleepy kisses to lwj's hand. "You're so wonderful. I like you so much." lwj doesn't reply—not that wwx minds much, especially not when lwj pulls him close and holds him tight as wwx drifts off to sleep.

wwx has many regrets in the morning. sleeping on the floor plus five rounds of sex with a very enthusiastic lwj is a terrible combination. they sleep in until almost noon, and when wwx tries to sit up, he—despite the jiang motto of 'attempt the impossible'—promptly gives up.

lwj wakes up slowly, moving over to nuzzle wwx. "Wei Ying," he greets, his voice deliciously husky from sleep. if only wwx was in the mood to enjoy it; enjoying parts of lwj is exactly what led to this predicament. "Good morning, Lan Zhan," he says. "I can't move."

immediately, lwj is sitting up and peeling the blankets off of wwx. "Where are you hurt?" he demands. "Are you in pain?" wwx quickly reassures him with a hand on his wrist. "Five rounds, Lan Zhan," he moans. "I told you I wouldn't survive five rounds."

upon understanding the source of wwx's pain, lwj noticeably relaxes. he plants soft kisses along wwx's face. "How bad is it?" wwx moves his waist. pretty bad—but he has had worse days before. this was bad, but it was a good kind of bad. a good pain, from a good, loving act.

"My waist is broken," wwx wails. "You're going to have to carry me around for the rest of my life, Lan Zhan. Oh, what am I going to do! Lan Zhan, you must take responsibility!" wwx can feel lwj's laughter against his neck. "Mn," lwj agrees. "I will take responsibility."

lwj gently pulls wwx onto his chest, into an embrace. his strong hands massage wwx's waist as wwx rattles on about what a cruel, hungry lover lwj was the previous night, and how thoroughly he ravished wwx's young, nubile body. lwj listens with great patience and amusement.

after a bit of massaging, wwx tries again to sit up and succeeds with only minor groaning. standing up is much harder, but luckily he feels fine standing—it's bending over and sitting down that gives him trouble. he exercises by walking slowly around the room as lwj cleans up.

wwx doesn't know how or when lwj contacts the kitchen, but lunch is served shortly after. as lwj accepts the tray of food from the servant, he also requests for a new mattress to be brought to the jingshi. the servant turns red in the face, but accepts without hesitation.

lunch is a little boring—all vegetarian dishes—but wwx lights up when he sees a bottle of chili oil on the table. he pours it liberally on the food and happily eats his fill as lwj watches him with quiet, fond eyes.

lwj is expected to meet with lqr—he is already late by several hours, and wwx knows one of the topics is going to be about preparing a guest bedroom for wwx. if lwj keeps his uncle waiting any longer, lqr may just lose his temper and insist on a separate room.

"I do not wish to leave you alone in this state," lwj says. "You need to rest." "And you need to talk with your shufu before he decides to give us separate bedrooms and chaperones," wwx argues back. "Just toss me into the Cold Springs to heal up while you chat with your uncle."

lwj looks reluctant to do so, but he yields after wwx points out that a place of healing like the cold springs would be a much better place for him to be than in the jingshi, where there is no mattress for him to lie on. lwj dresses them both in warm layers, and they're off.

the cold springs is an area of concentrated spiritual energy—the closer they get to it, the warmer and more energized the air feels. although wwx can no longer reap the spiritual benefits of soaking in the cold springs, the water should greatly help in reducing soreness.

the moment they step into the cold spring area, lwj stops in his tracks. wwx, who was leaning against him for support, also gets yanked to a halt. "What?" wwx asks, looking at lwj. "What is it?" lwj is looking in the direction of the cold springs. "There's someone here."

from the cold spring, wwx hears someone call out in greeting, "A-Zhan." he peeks around lwj's body, fully expecting to see lxc or maybe an elder lan relative of lwj's. instead, standing in the middle of the cold springs, near the falls, is wcz.

it's too late to hide back behind lwj—wcz catches sight of him immediately. he looks… terrible, if wwx is being honest. wcz's eyes are red-rimmed, as if he'd been crying for most of the night, and there's a heaviness about him that seems to age him an entire decade.

he looks at wwx as if he wants to greet him too, but does not know what to call him by. wwx saves him from it by waving. "Hello," he greets. "Just a 'hello' is fine, you don't have to think beyond that." wcz's, "Hello," is so quiet that it's more mouthed than said.

lwj looks at wwx with a silent question in his gaze. wwx answers it with, "It's fine. I'll be fine, Lan Zhan. Don't worry." despite his reassurance, lwj still guides him all the way to the pool's edge and helps him remove his outer layers. wcz watches them the entire time.

lwj stops before wwx's last layer—which is good, because wwx has decided that he will go in the water with one layer of robes on; his body is littered with hickeys and bite marks from lwj, and having his father see them would just be… awkward.

wwx doesn't manage to be completely calm and collected when he slides into the cold water, but at least he doesn't make any sound louder than a very emphatic, "HhhhHHH," vocalization as he steps into the pond. the corners of wcz's mouth twitch; out of amusement? disapproval?

lwj kneels by the pond's edge. "Will you be alright?" he asks as he helps fold wwx's robes. wwx can only nod; he's shivering so hard that his teeth are chattering. "If you need anything, just ask—" there's a pause as lwj thinks, "—ask Wei-xiansheng for help." wwx nods again.

when lwj still looks reluctant to leave, wwx shoos him away. "I'll be f-fine!" he insists. "I'm not al-lone here, it's not like I'm just going to dr-drown, or something." alarm crosses lwj's face as he begins turning back around. wwx splashes him. "Move!"

lwj finally leaves after a bow to wcz and a last lingering look at wwx. then, he is gone. and wwx is left awkwardly alone with his father, who is avoiding eye contact by closing his eyes and sinking deeper into the water.

since wcz isn't looking at him, wwx takes the opportunity to study him a bit. it is truly odd how much his parents look like him; wwx knows it's a given, but looking at wcz feels like looking into the future through a mirror. it is both unsettling and oddly comforting.

wcz doesn't look much different from when wwx last saw him. he's not smiling and there is an exhausted tension in his shoulders and face. the single jiang braid in his hair is also gone—undone and wavy against his head—but otherwise, nothing much had changed.

wwx is terrible with awkward silence. he clears his throat. "So. Um." wcz opens his eyes and turns to look at wwx. "She told you?" wwx asks, even though the answer is stupidly obvious. there is no other reason for wcz to be so distraught that he seeks spiritual healing.

wcz nods—just the barest dip of his head. he says nothing. "Ah." wwx nods too. "Good—or, not good, depending on your personal opinions." wcz still says nothing; the silence vaguely reminds wwx of the stifled way lwj had held himself when they were trapped in the xuanwu cave.

just as wwx's arms and legs are starting to go blissfully numb from the cold, he hears wcz say, "What do you want?" Hm?" wwx looks over at him. "Oh, uh, some wine would be nice right about now, I'm not going to lie." "I meant: what do you want," wcz rephrases, "from me."

oh. "From you? Specifically?" wwx asks. "Uh, nothing, I suppose. I'm doing alright as I am." wcz nods. he swallows in a way that means his throat is bothering him. "I understand." wwx unfortunately doesn't, and he isn't sure how to ask in a way that isn't awkward.

"How old were you," wcz asks after an eternity of silence, "when we… left?" wwx cringes inward. there is no good way to paint the answer. "Not too young," he tries, "around—five, I think?" wcz makes an interesting sound, like half a laugh, half a sob. "Five years old."

"It wasn't too bad," wwx hurries to reassure him. "I was old enough to, you know, feed and clothe myself—" "Five years old," wcz doesn't sound like he's listening anymore. he braces himself against a nearby rock. "Gods, just five years. Just a young, young child. Our child."

wwx doesn't know what to do, except maybe stop talking; it seems his talking isn't helping. should he leave? but he doesn't want to give wcz the impression that wwx doesn't want to be around him. but staying is uncomfortable too. nonetheless, he stays.

wcz, wwx discovers, cries in complete silence. if it weren't for the ripples in the water in front of wcz, wwx might not have noticed at all. wwx runs through his options, then decides to stay quiet. cssr had told him to be more forgiving of wcz and to give him time.

when wcz finally takes a deep breath that sounds somewhat calm, wwx musters a comment of, "You know, I don't blame you." wcz doesn't look at him—probably because his eyes are red—but he asks, "Why not?"

wwx feels punched-out. "I may not remember much about us," he admits, "but I do know that we were all happy. You wouldn't have—left me, unless you had no choice." wcz inhales deeply. "No," he agrees, wiping his face, "we wouldn't have left—not with how badly we wanted you."

"Ah," wwx chokes, his mind tossing the phrase 'how badly we wanted you' back and forth in his head. "Well, there you go. I don't blame you, so don't blame yourself, alright? Both of you tried your best." wcz's mouth twists. "Not well enough. We left you with Jiang Fengmian."

wwx cannot stop his eyebrows from shooting up. "Oh! Huh." this time, wcz fully looks at him. he looks terrifying, all bloodshot eyes and anger. "Fengmian came and got you the moment we failed to return, didn't he?"

"Of course!" wwx laughs, his heart pounding. now he understands why the friends he had in his youth were scared of their fathers—this is a completely different fear than anything he'd felt before. "Of course, of course! Jiang-shushu made sure of that, don't worry!"

the way wcz stares at him is more truth-compelling than any song the lan could compose. then he gives a short, derisive chuckle. "You truly are your mother's child," wcz says in a voice of both wonder and fury. "You laugh the exact same way she does when she's lying."

without warning, wcz turns around, places his hands on the pool bank, and effortlessly lifts himself out of the water. "No, no, wait! Where are you going?" wwx hurries over as quickly as he can manage. "To pay Lotus Pier a visit," wcz answers, grabbing his robes and his sword.

"No, no, why? You can't do that—why?" wwx also tries to lift himself out of the pool. "The Jiangs don't know me anymore! Or, they never knew me. If you attack Jiang-shushu for—" his arms fail him; he collapses on the bank, half-out of the water, with a groan.

at least that gets wcz rushing back to him. "Wei-gongzi? Wei-gongzi! What's wrong? Are you alright?" "Yes, I'm fine!" wwx manages to drag himself out of the water and sit on the pool's edge. "Listen—the Jiang are not going to understand. In this world, they never knew me."

"So you can't just show up at Lotus Pier being angry at them for things they didn't do, do you understand?" wwx continues. "They are innocent." wcz falls silent. his robes are half-soaked through from the water on his body and in his hair. he looks at wwx.

"You've been with me in this Cold Spring for over half an hour," wcz says, very quietly. "How are you still injured?" wwx considers lying, but that didn't go over well the last time he tried. he settles on a half-truth. "I lost my core," he answers quickly, "before the war."

'Before the war,' he sees wcz mouth silently, before wcz speaks at his usual volume, "Wen Zhuliu?" wwx nods, because there's nothing else he can do, not without revealing too much. wcz sinks to also sit on the ground. he places his sword down. "I am sorry."

wwx starts to laugh, then stops himself. "Well, it's not so bad, you know." he shrugs. "I think I'm doing pretty well for a—for a non-cultivator." wcz nods once, distantly. "And did the Jiang Sect help care for you? After you lost your core?"

"Well—" wwx flounders for an explanation that could be acceptable. "I left, actually, on my own. I-I couldn't be what the Jiang Sect needed me to be, anymore. So." he restrains himself from fidgeting. "I don't regret it." wcz says nothing. he just stares down at the ground.

"I apologize," wcz breaks his own silence. "Your mother told me the—circumstances necessary for a wish such as yours to be granted. I do not know what drove you to such desperation, and it is unfair of me to ask so much out of you when I am barely more than a stranger to you."

"Oh." this time, wwx really can't hide his nervous laughter. "You don't—you don't need to do that. The apologizing, I mean. You're my, um, my father, aren't you? Good fathers worry." at that, some of the heaviness in wcz's face lifts. he nods, once. "Yes."

"Yes, so, don't feel bad for caring. It's good that you care." wwx reaches for a towel and begins drying himself off. "You don't have to think of me as your son if you don't want to, but you can if you'd like." wcz takes a deep breath and sighs. "I would like that," he agrees.

just as wwx finishes donning dry, warm robes, he hears someone enter the cold springs area. "Wei-xiansheng," lwj bows to wcz in greeting. then he looks at wwx. "Wei Ying," he calls in a softer tone. wwx can't help smiling. "How did your meeting with your uncle go?"

"It went well," lwj says as he helps wwx put his cloak on. then he leans close to ask quietly, "How are you feeling?" wwx can't help glancing at wcz, who is watching them with a measure of suspicion. "I feel better," he whispers back. "Less achey."

lwj nods. "Good." he pulls the cloak a little tighter around wwx and makes sure wwx's wet hair isn't sticking to his neck. "A-Zhan," wcz calls, a touch too loud. "I never got the chance to ask you before: how did you and my son meet?"

lwj hesitates for the briefest moment, then he turns and bows to wcz again. "Wei Ying offered shelter to me and the junior disciples I was monitoring during a difficult night-hunt. That is how we met." "I see." wcz looks him up and down. "And the two of you are now… friends?"

"We are close," wwx answers, and hopes that it's vague enough to appease his father. it is not. "How long have you been 'close'?" wcz's gaze never leaves lwj. "I don't recall you mentioning anything about him to me or my wife, A-Zhan."

"I've known him for a few months," lwj speaks with his head bowed in wcz's direction. "I was not aware of his full history until recently, but I also would not have said anything to you or Cangse Sanren unless Wei Ying permitted it."

something in wwx goes soft and warm upon hearing that. he wants very much to take lwj's hand or kiss his cheek, but he doesn't want to do so with his father watching. "So you've gotten 'close' recently." wcz raises an eyebrow. "Is that why you've been gone for an entire month?"

lwj goes very, very still. "I thought it was suspicious when A-Huan and your shufu couldn't explain why you were absent, but I paid it no mind because it was your family's business," wcz's voice slowly grows sharper, "I never would have imagined it involved my family, too."

"Lan Zhan didn't do anything wrong," wwx protests. "He was just—helping me." "For a month during winter?" wcz finally looks at wwx. "Now what's so important on a farm that requires an extra pair of hands during winter? And A-Zhan is used to cultivation work—not farm work."

"I—was trying to have a new shed built by spring," wwx says with as convincingly as he can manage. "The town I live in is small, and Lan Zhan was kind enough to stay and help me lift the—the heavy stones and logs!" he elbows lwj. "Right, Lan Zhan?"

lwj doesn't move. "I was helping Wei Ying, yes," he replies. "And there you have it!" wwx chuckles uneasily. "See! A perfectly good reason for him to stay with me." "Stay with you?" wcz echoes. "So he didn't stay at an inn? He stayed *with* you? In your home? For a month?"

"Uh—" wwx sputters. "It's for frugality. Surely staying at an inn for a month would be—very pricey—" "The Lan Sect do not lack for money," wcz states flatly. "A-Zhan has no reason to stay with you for as long as he did. Unless…" he looks at lwj again. "He has ulterior motives."

wwx is at his wit's end. "Why are you doing this?" he asks wcz. "You call him 'A-Zhan' and you stay at the Cloud Recesses every winter. You watched him grow up; you should know his character. How can you suspect that he would treat me poorly?"

the look wcz gives him is so full of disappointment and disapproval that wwx falls silent. "If he has been with you this whole time," he says slowly, "then how come you're injured to the point where walking is painful?" wwx sucks in a breath through his teeth.

"A-Zhan claims to already know your history—so he is aware of your missing core," wcz continues, "so regardless of how you got injured, if he truly was helping you, then he should have been more careful, more vigilant around you." "He was!" wwx protests. "He was, I swear!"

"Then please explain to me how you sustained such serious injuries recently under A-Zhan's supposedly-careful watch," wcz says, "and why you haven't gone to a physician about it." wwx's mouth opens. then closes. he shoots lwj a helpless look. lwj looks back, equally lost.

they're interrupted by a sing-song voice. "Oh, Wei-gege~" cssr calls from the top of the stairs, just out of view, "are you still down there?" without taking his eyes off of lwj and wwx, wcz answers, "Yes." "Oh." a giggle, then the rustling of robes being taken off. "Good~"

wcz bolts up the stairs inhumanly quick. "A-Se!" he roars, "A-Se, NO! There are children here!!" at the same time, wwx buries his face against lwj's chest and instinctively smacks a hand over lwj's eyes so hard that he's going to have to apologize for it later.

he can hear wcz's frantic, hushed whispers from somewhere on the top of the stairs, followed by another one of cssr's giggles—then her surprised yelp. after what feels almost suspiciously long, wcz calls out, "Alright, it's safe to look." wwx peeks out cautiously.

going *up* the stairs is torture—not as much as it would have been if wwx hadn't bathed in the cold spring, but still torture. he tries to lean subtly against lwj for support as lwj wraps an arm around his waist to help lift some of the weight off his feet.

wcz and cssr are at the top of the stairs. there's a large cloak of black and purple around cssr—as opposed to her usual white with black trimmings. wwx catches sight of something in his father's hand that he recognizes too late as cssr's robes. he quickly averts his eyes.

cssr, for her part, looks unrepentant. she sticks one bare arm out from under the robe to wave at wwx before wcz grabs her wrist and pulls her hand back. lwj carefully ensures wwx is standing before he bows. "Cangse Sanren." "Hello, A-Zhan," cssr cackles. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes," lwj answers. "Good." cssr beams. "Sleep is very important for body recover and maintenance, so make sure both of you get enough of it." she looks at wwx and—to his utter mortification—waggles her eyebrows knowingly. wwx's face burns. "Alright, Lan Zhan, time to go."

lwj nods and bows again. "Cangse Saren. Wei-xiansheng. Wei Ying and I will take our leave." as they leave, cssr coos appreciatively at wcz's still-wet, see-through robes, and manages to grab a handful of his left pec before wcz restrains that hand too with a scolding, "A-Se."

once wwx and lwj return to the jingshi, wwx is grateful and horrified to see that their mattress has been replaced. groaning, he buries his face in his hands. "Great, now everyone knows we fucked last night." there's a beat before lwj replies, "Were you… trying to conceal it?"

wwx peeks at lwj through his fingers. "What is that supposed to mean? Were you *not* trying to conceal it?" lwj glances around the room. "Last night, we were," he says, "not quiet." wwx's jaw drops. "And whose fault is that?!" lwj hums. "My fault."

"That's right," wwx declares. "Next time, just cover my mouth or gag me." there is no missing the flare of desire in lwj's eyes. "Next time." "Next time as in, not right now," wwx groans. "Right now, I just want to lie down. Help me massage my waist."

all of the cloud recesses knowing aside, the new mattress is just as comfortable as the last. wwx happily lies stomach-down on it and looks expectantly at lwj over his shoulder. lwj takes a little longer than usual to meet wwx's gaze but he sits down and reaches for wwx's waist.

wwx melts with contentment under lwj's hands. "Oh," he moans. "Yes." lwj briefly pauses, before resuming the massage. "Did the Cold Springs help?" "Mmhm," wwx hums. "But I'm still sore. What you did to me can't be resolved through just half an hour of soaking in cold water."

"Mn." lwj undoes wwx's robe just enough to uncover wwx's waist before he starts massaging again. "And your father?" wwx thinks. "He's not taking it as well as my mother did," he admits. "But. I think he'll be okay." "He does not seem to approve of us together," lwj says.

wwx looks over his shoulder. "You caught that too, huh. Did you get on his bad side or something?" lwj shakes his head. "I've always looked up to your father. We have no ill-will between us. It is likely that he is protective." "But—why?" wwx asks. "He barely knows me."

"He is your father, nonetheless, and it is likely he feels robbed of the time you should have had together." lwj digs his thumbs into wwx's back in a way that makes wwx wince and sigh at the same time. "So you're saying I should spend more time with him?" wwx asks.

"Mn." wwx squishes his face against the pillow. "It's not that I don't want to spend time with my parents," he says, "but I'll have less time with you." lwj pauses in his massaging to lean over and kiss wwx on the cheek.

"Your parents will resume their life on the road when spring comes. Your opportunities to spend time with them will be limited," lwj murmurs against his ear. "But I will stay by your side for as long as you want me to. You will have time to spend with me."

wwx rolls onto his side to look at lwj better. "You keep saying some variation of 'as long as you want me to' or 'as long as you'll let me'. What—are you expecting that someday I will just suddenly *not* want you?" lwj's hands still against wwx's skin.

"Have I spoken wrongly?" lwj asks. "No, no, it's not that." wwx shakes his head. "It's just—if I'm being honest, I don't see a future without you, and… I don't want you thinking that I'm fickle with your feelings." lwj gives him a long, solemn look. "I do not think that."

wwx nods. "Alright, good." he takes lwj's hand in his. "No more of this 'as long as you'll let me' stuff, alright? We're staying together." lwj looks at their hands. "Mn." wwx pats his hand. "Good." he lies back down. after a beat, lwj puts his hands on wwx's waist again.

it takes two additional days for wwx to fully recover. fortunately, their new mattress is the perfect balance between softness and support. wwx sleeps like a baby in lwj's arms. lqr, lwj reports, is aware of wwx's identity.

with lwj's word and the backing of lxc's reports on the interesting outcomes of a particular suspected spy's interrogation, apparently lqr sat down for a good five minutes before saying, "I wondered why he looked so much like Cangse Sanren." so. there's that.

in light of the news, lxc has arranged for a collective dinner with both families—as a reunion, of sorts. wwx cannot help feeling a little nervous. he can't remember the last time he'd eaten a meal alongside his parents—and lqr and lxc will be there too, judging his manners.

he doesn't how how formally to dress, but he settles on a nice set red and black robes that lwj had bought for him. some of his nerves evaporate once they arrive at the table and wwx sees his mother already seated, happily chewing through a bowl of roasted, salted peanuts.

once she spots him, she grins with her cheeks full, waves, and gestures for him to sit down in the chair next to his father. wwx sits down. lwj bows in greeting to wcz and cssr before taking the seat next to him.

wcz looks more tense than wwx saw him last and is somewhat avoiding direct eye contact, but he greets wwx with, "Hello, Ying-er." wwx's insides feel like warm putty. "Hello, a-die," he replies. wcz nods and visibly relaxes a little.

lxc starts off the dinner with a—thankfully brief—welcoming speech for wwx, expressing joy for wwx's reunion with his parents and wishing him happiness moving forward. while it was a polite gesture that he appreciates, wwx is relieved when food is brought to the table.

there is a wide variety of dishes—with a few yunmeng-inspired ones. upon seeing the surprise on wwx's face, lwj simply says, "Your parents have stayed here for many winters." wwx grins and waits for lqr to reach for some food before he helps himself to some braised chicken.

wcz doesn't take any food for himself; he first serves cssr, carefully picking the best out of each dish to place in her rice bowl. cssr gazes up at him adoringly all the while and rewards him with a kiss on the cheek for each piece of food given.

once her bowl is full, wcz glances at wwx, who has already polished off the braised chicken piece he took. "Do you like it?" wcz asks, picking up another piece and moving it to wwx's bowl. "Here—" his chopsticks nearly collide with lwj's, who was about to give wwx some fish.

lwj backs down first, temporarily placing the piece of fish in his own bowl. wcz gives him a stony look, but he doesn't say anything other than a few mumbled words that wwx should eat more as wcz piles more food into his bowl.

wwx smiles at lwj once lwj can finally give him the piece of fish. he eats it first, earning him a soft, fond look from lwj. wcz, thankfully, has temporarily stopped paying attention; he's too busy listening to his wife chatter on about her latest adventures in caiyi town.

wwx is about halfway through his food when he notices that lqr hasn't eaten a second bite since starting the dinner. he glances at lwj, who nods. so lwj noticed too. after a while, lxc clears his throat. "Shufu, are you well? Shall I have something milder prepared for you?"

lqr shakes his head. "I am well, Xichen. There is no need to worry about me." lxc nods. "If shufu says so." he reaches over to refill everyone's teacups. once lxc is finished, lqr clears his throat. "Since we are all here, we may as well discuss some important matters."

five pairs of eyes turn to lqr. chopsticks still in everyone's hands. lqr clears his throat again. "I admit I disapprove of how things have unfolded thus far," he says, "but if Wangji and Wei Ying follow proper courtship etiquette, then I have no objections to their marriage."

wcz, who was peering at lqr warily from over the rim of his teacup, accidentally inhales his tea and begins violently coughing. cssr scoots closer to pat on his back and rub his chest. "There now, Wei-gege. Just breathe," she says. "If you see a light, don't go towards it."

"Qi—" wcz wheezes. he gives one strong, final cough. "Qiren, what is the meaning of this?" he gasps. "What is this talk of *marriage*? I was not made aware—" "Marriage! Wangji, are you certain?" lxc's brows are furrowed. "I was aware of—oh, but this is very sudden—"

"Did I hear wrong?" lqr gives wwx a look that is both confused and accusatory. "When we met that night, you told me yourself that you were willing to marry—" "I did! And I still am!" wwx hurries to correct him. "But I was planning on discussing this—"

"Wei Ying," lwj sounds agitated. "I do not understand. What is—" "Ooh, more food!" cssr beckons at a servant who is hiding outside the room with a tray of food—and is clearly regretting their personal timing. "Is it something sweet this time?"

"Qiren, I demand an answer," wcz starts standing up. "If you think that Ying-er is just going to marry A-Zhan, then—" lqr also starts to stand up. "Do you have anything against Wangji? Wei Ying also isn't—" "Food's here!" cssr says very loudly. "Time to sit down and eat!"

both lqr and wcz sit down in sync. they don't outright glare at each other, but the stony glances they throw each other's way is telling enough. the new dish brought on is steamed and sugared lotus root with sweet sticky rice, but wwx finds himself not very hungry for it.

this time, it's cssr who clears her throat. "Well, that was—entertaining. But as much as I love to see you boys fight, I'd rather it not be over our children's own decisions." "Marriage is a family matter," wcz says testily, "and one that cannot be made on a whim."

cssr raises an eyebrow at him. "Have you forgotten that we eloped?" wcz stares back at her. "Have you forgotten that, at the time, neither of us had living family members whom our marriage would have affected?" "Ah…" cssr clicks her tongue. "Fair point."

"I will not tolerate an elopement," lqr declares, giving lwj a pointed look. "Much of this has been done improperly and out of order. If you have any filial sense of duty, Wangji, then you will ensure your wedding and marriage abide by propriety."

"Lan-xiansheng has such a sense of irony," wcz says, deceptively calm, "considering how well abiding by propriety served the last Lan marriage." cssr slams her hand on the table hard enough to rattle the bowls and dishes. "Wei Changze!"

everyone at the table falls silent. watching. not one person moves. lxc's chopsticks are still in his mouth. finally, cssr smiles. it's not a friendly smile. it reminds wwx of the smile he wore back when he carried chenqing in one hand and the stygian tiger seal in the other.

"This is not a fitting topic while we're sharing a meal with the children," she says softly, looking back and forth between wcz and lqr. "We will discuss this later—*after* we've finished all this nice food that was prepared for us. How does that sound?" wcz nods. lqr grumbles.

"There is no need." all heads turn towards lwj. lwj has placed his chopsticks neatly on top of his empty bowl and is staring at it. "A discussion will not be necessary," he says, almost too quiet to be heard. "There will be no marriage."

the silence that follows is deafening, but not nearly as deafening as the sound of wwx's own heartbeat in his ears. "Well," cssr sits down and picks up her chopsticks. "I am sorry to hear that, A-Zhan, but I respect your choice." lwj nods, just the barest tilt of his head.

wwx makes himself eat the rest of the food in his bowl despite it tasting like ash in his mouth. lwj, mercifully, does not try to put more food in his bowl. the dinner ends on a quiet note, with everyone filing out of the dining room and into the snow-covered courtyard.

"Quite the dinner, huh?" cssr says, sliding in beside wwx. "We all learned a bit of something none of us knew before." wwx can only nod. he's not sure if he can find the words—or if he even wants to. cssr takes his arm. "Let's go for a walk," she says.

as they walk, they go past wcz and lwj. wwx manages to catch a part of their conversation. "… apologize for my words," wcz says. "I spoke harshly on your family matters." lwj shakes his head. "Wei-xiansheng did not speak any falsehoods. You are right to be wary in regards…"

wwx tries to slow down, to hear more, but he gets tugged along by cssr. there's a nice garden right by the guest dining hall. it's filled with plum blossoms on the verge of blooming. cssr sits him down on a bench under the tree with the heaviest buds.

"You know what a common misconception about marriage is?" she asks. right to the point, then. wwx doesn't know whether to be grateful or miserable. he shakes his head. "The assumption that being married will magically make a relationship better," she says. "It will not."

"The truth of the matter," she continues, "is that the relationship you had before the wedding will be the exact same relationship you return to after the wedding. Not much will change." wwx looks at her. "So," he rasps out, "what are you saying?"

"What I'm saying," cssr reaches up to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear, "is that if you're happy and content with your relationship with A-Zhan now, then… consider, maybe, that the two of you do not need to be married." wwx swallows. he stares down at his shaking hands.

"How did you decide to marry my father?" wwx asks. cssr pauses, then tilts her head thoughtfully. "I love him very much," she answers. "And I want to be with him, always." "Ah." wwx nods. "Alright. So. Exactly how I feel. That is very helpful."

instead of remarking on wwx's sarcasm, cssr hums sympathetically. "It's not easy, is it. If being married is what you truly desire, then you and A-Zhan will have to talk about it sooner or later. And if the two of you can't agree on a way forward…"

then they would have no future together. wwx knows this. "That won't happen." wwx wrings his hands together. "If Lan Zhan does not want to be married to me, then—that's alright. What's a wedding anyways besides red robes and dumb symbolism." cssr inhales. "A-Xian."

wwx holds up a hand, stopping her. "No, it's alright. Truly. Lan Zhan is everything I could have asked for and more. I don't—I don't need to be married to him as proof of that. And why am I thinking of such a scenario, anyways? We didn't… we never even said…" his voice fades.

cssr takes his hand in hers. "Does he make you feel wanted?" she asks quietly. wwx nods. "Yes," he whispers. "Does he make you feel safe?" "Yes." "Does he take care of you?" "Yes." "Then," she squeezes his hand, "I think it's safe to assume he loves you."

wwx nods, swallowing. "Yeah," he croaks. "Yeah. And—that is enough for me." cssr sighs. "Oh, A-Xian, that is not—" the sound of approaching footsteps cut her off. lwj emerges from among the plum trees. "Wei Ying," he says, holding his hand out, "It is getting late."

wwx looks up at him, then at his hand. cssr nudges him with her elbow. "Go on," she encourages, before leaning over and smooching him on the cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow, alright? Have a good night, you two." wwx watches her go, his cheek still tingling a little from her kiss.

he doesn't realize he hasn't taken lwj's hand until he hears lwj say, "Wei Ying?" in a soft, uncertain tone. such a tone does not fit lwj. wwx looks up at him, smiles, and takes his hand. lwj tugs him to his feet. "Wei Ying," he says, "about today's events…"

"Ah." wwx begins walking away, pulling lwj behind him. "Don't worry about it. It's not a big deal. I didn't expect your shufu to put you on the spot like that." lwj hurries after wwx. "I didn't expect it either," he says. "Wei Ying, shufu said you told him—"

"Oh, your shufu's getting old. His hearing must be going; after all, he didn't even hear my mother creeping into his room and shaving his beard," wwx talks on, "If I were you, I wouldn't pay any mind to his—" "Wei Ying," lwj says, "marriage would not suit us."

ah. well. there it is. wwx forces himself to look at lwj, forces himself to keep his face free of any tension. "Marriage?" he laughs. "Ah, so forward, Lan Zhan. If you do not think marriage is a good choice for us, then I believe you."

lwj inhales. "Have you," he asks, "been… hoping?" wwx dares not answer that question truthfully—not when the red silk handkerchief he has always carried with him feels like it is branding his skin from where it sits within his robes. he shrugs instead. "Not really."


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