Someone was holding his hand.
That was the first thing Wei Wuxian noticed as he drifted in and out of sleep. A single point of contact he had not expected; one that kept his hand warm and his heart – content. There was gentleness to that touch. He felt it in the way those fingers had been interwoven with his own; how safe and familiar and right it was.
And yet his body felt too small, too hot, and he doubted he could move even if he wanted to. Something heavy was lying atop his thighs, but the weight of it was grounding, almost comforting. Thoughts were scattered in his head, sluggish and incoherent just like his flickering awareness. Still, he noticed an aroma that surrounded him, a fragrance that awakened nostalgia after some long-forgotten memory he had never truly parted with. It wafted all around him and seeped into his soul with familiarity he could not explain.
It had been so long since he smelled something other than ashes, blood, and the stale odour of corpses. No matter how hard he tried, it always clung to his robes and skin. He had scraped it raw, once, and even the fresh blood did nothing to hide it. He never tried again, for it would have been foolish to waste time on such futile an action.
Whatever bout of madness spurred his tired mind to conjure all this, the touch and the smell and the grounding weight he could drown under, he knew it was nothing but a dream the moment warm lips pressed a kiss to his temple. There was no one to do that, no one willing to bestow such tenderness upon him—not anymore. And so, amidst the sweetness and warmth, his heart broke a little more.
Funny. He thought he no longer had it.
Next time he woke up, he was drenched in sunlight.
The hand that used to be in his own was gone now, and so was the weight on his legs. In their place only quiet and cold remained, and the faint whisper of water somewhere nearby; close enough to be heard, but not so that he could determine whether it was a waterfall, or perhaps a river.
There was no running water at the Burial Mounds. Neither was there any sunlight.
So now even closed eyelids did nothing to soothe the burn. He pulled the covers over his head—or at least he would have done it, had pain not flared in his abdomen as soon as he moved. It was unexpected enough to tear a whimper from his parched lips and dry throat. He had suffered many injuries in his life; some negligible, others serious enough that he trod on the thin line between life and death. However, even though his memory nowadays was just a chaotic haze of disconnected images and incomprehensible feelings, he recalled no wound, old or new, that could suddenly be acting up like that.
Nothing made sense; neither the sweet smell in the air nor the softness of a pillow under his neck – least of all the warmth and caress he had dreamt about. Urgency and unease had been filling his heart for months now, building up within his body up till they slipped through his fingers when he tried to catch them. The dead always became agitated whenever that happened, and the Stygian Tiger Seal burnt hotter in his palm.
Maybe that was it. Maybe he had finally gone insane and lost himself in things that never happened, and in dreams that could never come true. And wouldn’t that be ironic? The great Yiling Patriarch, reduced to a raging lunatic by fickle cravings of his own heart. Jiang Cheng would have laughed.
A long while had passed before he opened his eyes and an even longer one before he managed to pull himself up into a sitting position. The surroundings were unfamiliar, pristine in a way nothing at the Burial Mounds could ever be. Then he glanced down at his stomach – bandages were wrapped around his torso so tightly he could barely breathe. He wanted to tear them off and see whatever wound was beneath. Maybe then he would remember how and when he had got it.
If it were from a corpse, he had to examine it. He had little time to counteract the possible side-effects otherwise.
Every move he made hurt; every twist of arms around himself, every blind grab for the knot tying the bandages together. He was panting before he even found it, and nearly screaming before he untied it. He let the fabric fall loose to the floor and pool around his feet, and took a deep breath before he dared to look down.
Not many things could scare him; those that terrified him were even fewer – and the three wide, jagged wounds that started at his right hip and spanned the entire stomach only to end near his left armpit did just that. The skin around them was still tender but free of infection. That alone told him he could not have got at the Burial Mounds. It would have been a matter of hours for the infection to settle in, and but a handful of days before it consumed him.
The dead would have probably got to him much sooner, and he was unsure that the Seal could save him. It became unreliable as of late, and worry lingered in his mind.
When he slept, he dreamt of it ripping him in half.
But there was no dead here, no suffocating dust, and no ancient iron in his hand that gave him power in exchange for his heart and mind; only the rays of sunlight painting their way over the floor, and the rustling of leaves outside the window. Whatever this place was, he saw no immediate danger he would have to face, and if anything, that was the most dangerous thing of them all. He glanced around this space framed by a half-open window and a paper screen that separated it from the rest of the room. There was nothing here but the bed he was sitting on, and neatly folded black and red robes placed at the feet of it. They had to be his, even though he had never seen the swirling pattern sewn along the sleeves before.
Sitting up had been a struggle. How much was it going to hurt to stand up and get dressed?
He crumpled onto the floor the moment he tried to get to his feet. Blood filled his mouth – what he bit, he did not know, for the pain in his abdomen overshadowed everything else – but he let out no scream. The dead and ghosts of the Burial Mounds had been the last to ever hear him scream. He had promised himself then that no one else would ever witness it again. There was no more place for weakness in his life – not when the smallest one could cost him his life.
The air was stifling. His entire body was shaking uncontrollably, and he had to clench his fists and grit his teeth to pretend it did not. Without the golden core and no resentful energy at his disposal, all he could do was sit and watch the blood trickle down his leg, while only one thought rang in his ears over and over again; so loud that he might just as well have said it.
Is this the end?
It was a common occurrence nowadays, to think about that. Sometimes he could not shake off those thoughts even if he tried; even when he put on a smile and pretended nothing had changed; even when he played on Chenqing for hours just to keep the ghosts at bay. But when he wrote pages upon pages of rituals and talismans at night, or when he clawed at his chest to soothe the pain of something that was no longer there – then he sometimes allowed himself to hope for the end. Sometimes, as bloody dawn rose above the Burial Mounds, he allowed himself to think, I’m tired.
So when he heard someone enter the room behind the paper screen, he did not get up. Still, his hand moved quickly, dipping into the blood on his skin and sketching a talisman on the floor right next to him, ready to use as a measure of last resort. His strength was minimal, and the supply of the resentful energy at his disposal was even slimmer, but at least the blood ought to be enough for one last action should he need to defend himself.
The person out there was light on their feet and made barely any sound as they walked towards the paper screen. He saw their silhouette through the paper, a darker lump with no contours. They were holding something in their hands. He tensed, ready to jump, even though crawling was the best he could hope for. And crawl he would; he had once, after all. Hand on the talisman, he let the power flow through him and give it life. All he had to do was call if forth. One swipe of his hand would be enough; one breath and he would know just how much power utmost desperation resulted in.
Then he raised his eyes and looked upon a teenage boy holding a large bowl in his hands. For the longest of seconds neither of them moved, then the boy’s eyes widened and the bowl slipped from his hands. It broke at the contact with the floor; water spilled all over it, darkening the wood and the boy’s white boots.
“Senior Wei!” He was at his side in a blink of an eye and before Wei Wuxian could so much as say a word, he was being pulled back onto the bed. “What were you thinking? You shouldn’t be moving!”
“I,” he started and broke off, as a new wave of pain stole his breath away. The boy was gentle in his movements, but Wei Wuxian’s wounds were deep.
Not for the first time he missed his golden core. It used to make life so much easier.
“Please don’t make any sudden moves. I’ll go get clean bandages and tell—”
He grabbed the boy’s hand before that sentence was finished. “Don’t.” Whoever he was going to talk to, Wei Wuxian would rather not have it. Not in these circumstances. “You—You’re a Lan.”
He watched the boy’s brow furrow. There was something guarded in his face, a sign of unease Wei Wuxian could not decipher. “Yes? I...” He dropped to his knees right next to the bed, uncaring of the water on the floor. His eyes were wide as he gently touched Wei Wuxian’s forehead. “Are you hurt somewhere else? We couldn’t have known, but—”
Wei Wuxian recoiled a moment too late. “You’re a Lan,” he repeated. His voice sounded wrong to his ears; too high, too young. “Then this must be Gusu, am I right?”
The teenager opened his mouth but said nothing. His eyes were wide.
“Is this Gusu?!”
“Of course, where—”
“Damn it all.” Standing up was the last thing he wanted to, but there was no other choice. He pushed himself off the bed, gritting his teeth and hoping for steady legs against all hope. For a second they worked to his liking, keeping him upward and surprisingly steady. He took a deep breath and dared to make a step forward.
The Lan boy was quicker than he anticipated. And having been spared from falling face-first onto the floor one more time, Wei Wuxian deeply appreciated that, even though he would never make it known.
“Father, please,” he heard somewhere above his ear. “Just... lie back down.”
The world came to a halt. He was held securely in arms that were much stronger than they looked. Turning his head was akin to pulling a muscle, but he did it nonetheless. “What did you just call me?”
The boy’s face went slack and then it shattered, for a blink of an eye bereft of all the composure only GusuLan’s disciples possessed. “I... You said you didn’t—” Wei Wuxian felt the teenager twitch minutely behind him. “Forgive me, senior Wei. Please, return to the bed. You’ll only open your wounds again.”
It was a broken thing, the boy’s voice. Wei Wuxian refused to dwell on the reason for it to be so right now. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Wha—nothing is going on, whatever could be going on?” A hint of frustration found its way into the teenager’s voice. It had been a while since the last time Wei Wuxian managed to anger a Lan. Knowing that he was still able to do that brought him just enough comfort of familiarity to latch onto in this madness surrounding him. “Senior Wei, I insist.”
“Oh,” he said slowly, “you insist.”
“Yes.” The boy’s composure was rock-solid again, and Wei Wuxian would have never believed it was lost even for a moment had he not seen it happen with his own eyes. Perhaps he should have been watching more closely once, too, before another Lan’s annoyance had turned into hatred. Perhaps he could have—
But it was not the time to dwell on what was no longer possible to change, no matter how much he might have missed the unlikely camaraderie of circumstances and occasional moments of laughter.
“Please don’t hurt yourself more than you already are.”
If he stayed here, sooner or later he would end up dead. How much better was that from a little blood and some pain now? It was not like he was not already used to them; to the emptiness and exhaustion tearing at him, and the feeling of life leaking slowly out of him.
“Take me out,” he demanded even though he could barely stand. “I need to... I need—”
“You need to lie down.” The boy’s voice was soft and pleading to his ears. Whatever punishment the future held, right now Wei Wuxian felt safe with him – and was it not the most terrifying thing of them all? “Do you wish to kill yourself?”
He said nothing to that. This nameless Lan boy he did not know was not someone he would pour his heart out to, even if he were able to give words to his late-night frantic thoughts to begin with.
“If I leave you here alone,” the teenager began when it became obvious Wei Wuxian was not going to dignify his previous question with an answer, “can I count on your common sense to remain in bed until I come back?”
Common sense? Wei Wuxian nearly laughed. Was it not a universally acknowledged truth that he had thrown his common sense to the wind a long time ago? There were days when even he himself believed that; days when the sleep was non-existent and the cold tendrils of resentful energy in his body became nigh unbearable. “Who do you think I am, kid?” he asked instead of arguing.
The teenager only sighed at that—heavens above, did it sound familiar—and manoeuvred him gently back onto the bed. Wei Wuxian let him, welcoming the respite from standing on shaking, weak legs. The first few days at the Burial Mounds had been like that, too; only there had been no bed for him to sit on, and no one beside him to help him stand.
“Very well then,” the boy said and sat down next to him, all poise and grace of a GusuLan disciple. There was even a rule about sitting properly, was it not? His stay in Gusu had faded in Wei Wuxian’s memory, becoming nothing but a blur of images. Some things he remembered clearly, others he would never be able to recall in their entirety. He remembered laughter and the sweet taste of Emperor’s Smile, and the amber eyes that looked upon him with disgust—
He would not think about him. Gods only knew he had bigger worries on his mind.
“Would you at least let me dress your wounds properly again?”
Wei Wuxian glanced at the boy beside him. His face remained impassive and his eyes focused on something straight ahead, but the shaking, clenching fists betrayed what his face did not.
“Are you going to sit here with me until one of us dies of boredom?”
The teenager clenched his fists even tighter. “Don’t joke about dying.”
“Why?” Death was something Wei Wuxian expected sooner rather than later. He was not so disillusioned as to hope for a long, happy life. “Life’s too short to take it seriously.”
“Do not joke about dying!”
The vehemence in the boy’s voice was strong enough to quench even Wei Wuxian’s desire to argue. “Fine, fine. I won’t.”
The silence that fell between them was heavy, nearly suffocating. It was typical for the Lans, this ability to fuel his temper with no words until it exploded and consumed him. Lan Wangji used to do the same, back when they had still been speaking to each other. Things had changed between them since then, and the silence gave way to screams and arguments more often than not, but the outcome was always the same.
Wei Wuxian’s heart in tatters, and a myriad of regrets weighing him down.
He sat straighter despite the throbbing pain of his wounds. At least they finally stopped bleeding. “So...” he started, unsure if he even wanted to push for answers. Some part of him was too weak to care. “If you’re going to stay here with me, then maybe you could at least tell me your name?”
The boy turned to face him so fast Wei Wuxian feared he might have broken his spine. “W-what?”
“Your name,” he repeated and watched terror bloom on the teenager’s face. “What is it?”
Dozens of emotions flickered on his face too quickly for Wei Wuxian to even try to make sense of them. Then they were gone, replaced with a mask of serene detachment. However, no one had ever been able to control their eyes. This Lan junior could not do it either, and Wei Wuxian had to avert his gaze to not gaze upon that boundless anguish. It was too private, too improper to be witnessed by a stranger.
‘Father,’ this boy had called him. He had held him and helped him, and Wei Wuxian did not even know who he was.
He had no children of his own, and the only person who one day might have come to call him ‘father’ was probably already dead. He had hidden him and made him promise the impossible, and then turned to prepare to face the world head-on, for it was the least and only thing he could do.
“Stay here,” the teenager told him in a voice so stern it would make even Lan Qiren envious. “Do not move.”
And then he was gone, pushing the paper screen away and slamming the door behind him in a display of haste and urgency Wei Wuxian would have never expected to see from a GusuLan disciple. The noise was enough to make him wince, but the discomfort eased off as soon as he realised that the rest of the room was perfectly visible now and he no longer had to consider resorting to crawling just to see it.
At first sight, it looked as immaculate as everything in the Cloud Recesses. Bare walls, light wood, and furniture reduced to an absolute functional minimum were what Wei Wuxian had got used during those few months he stayed in Gusu years ago. He had never complained about it – living in the streets had taught him to appreciate having a bed to lie in and a roof over his head, no matter what they looked like.
Then details caught his attention – a long red ribbon dangling from a stack of scrolls, a worn bag thrown haphazardly right next to the door, and a few faint splotches of blood all over the floor. A red tassel attached to something lying on the writing table was swaying slightly in the breeze. A two-sword stand stood right beside the table, and Wei Wuxian swore his heart stopped for a moment when he noticed it.
He knew those swords, both the silver-blue and the black-gold one. The latter was his, after all, and he had looked at the former being pointed at him enough times to remember it.
Had he come after him again? Amidst the fire and smoke, with the screams and wailing of the dead filling his ears, and grounded by the heaviness of the Tiger Seal in his palm, Wei Wuxian could not remember.
He needed to get away. Dignity be damned, he was going to crawl, because the alternative meant facing someone he wished to never see again. There was no point of meeting up, no hope for reconciliation—and no one to hold out a hand towards him. And it was fine.
He had always survived before.
A sudden commotion outside told him it was too late to stand up. He would need long, long minutes to move somewhere in the state he was in, hungry and weak like a newborn child—minutes he did not have. So he straightened his back even though it pulled on the edges of his wounds, and schooled his face into a mask of haughty indifference, for pretences were all he had left. Half-naked and defenceless – that was not the end he had envisioned.
The door burst open and there he was, Lan Wangji, the second young master of the GusuLan Sect. The man who had chased him, the man who had fought him, the man who had hated him ever since they met.
The man who was now looking at him with wide eyes and something indecipherable written all over his usually expressionless face. He was holding onto the door, his grip white-knuckled. Time was generous to him; he had matured in the months that passed since their last meeting, his face now bereft of last remnants of the boyish charm the war had failed to wipe out. Wei Wuxian wondered what he would look like if he smiled—wondered if he had ever smiled at all.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathed out, his voice barely audible over the gentle whisper of the wind outside. It wavered, filled to the brim with emotion that never made its way to his face.
Wei Wuxian was too tired to ponder on it. “Lan Wangji,” he said instead and ah, was that a grimace of hurt that was gone almost as quickly as it appeared on Lan Wangji’s face? Wei Wuxian could never tell with him, but it felt wrong; everything felt wrong. “I see you’ve finally caught me.”
Lan Wangji was on his knees before him, and Wei Wuxian did not know what to think about it.
He watched Lan Wangji cross the space from the door to the bed in long strides that bore more hurry and determination than Wei Wuxian had ever seen in him. Wordlessly, he knelt on the floor and ran his fingers along the lines of Wei Wuxian’s wounds without so much as even asking for permission. It was only fitting, was it not? Prisoners were hardly able to deny their captors anything.
But damned he be if he did not at least try. Although Lan Wangji had always been a man of a few words, Wei Wuxian was going to coax as many out of him as only he could.
“You’re not going to say anything? Not even ‘hello’? No ‘may I touch you’?”
That at least earned him a glance, but no more than that. Perhaps it was for the best; he was in no shape to fight.
Sometimes he wondered what it would be like, not to fight; what if their meetings did not lead to arguments, what if there were no hatred for him in Lan Wangji’s heart. He found comfort in those quiet moments they had shared once; a long time ago when both of them were young and the world was simpler. Magnolias had been blooming outside the Library Pavilion those days, giving the air a sweet, fleeting fragrance, and ever since then that smell always made him thought back to Lan Wangji’s brow, furrowed in concentration, and those steady strokes of brush on paper. Wei Wuxian used to smile at him – and even years later he entertained the thought that perhaps the softness in Lan Wangji’s eyes he had noticed sometimes was the way Lan Wangji smiled back.
He glanced down at Lan Wangji, who was glaring at the wounds as if that was supposed to make them disappear. He rested both hands on Wei Wuxian’s thighs – they were warm and calloused.
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat. He had to fight back the urge to scramble away until they no longer touched. “Who, me? You wound me, Lan Wangji.”
This time that glare was aimed at him and oh, was it not familiar? It always started like this, with one word too many from him and a reaction too strong for someone as emotionally restrained as Lan Wangji.
The tension between them mellowed and settled down into something warm, soft. Instead of lashing out, Lan Wangji burrowed his hands in Wei Wuxian’s hair. His touch was gentle, and there was not a single spot he missed, not one place where his hands would not leave a soothing, tingling sensation in their wake. Wei Wuxian’s heart lurched in his chest as he fought the desire to lean into the touch and let it last forever. ‘Attempt the impossible’ had always been the YunmengJiang’s motto.
He, on the other hand, had dreamt about the impossible instead. It always eluded him, no matter how desperately he reached for it.
“All right,” he muttered, opening his eyes to look at Lan Wangji. When did he even close them? “I think that’s enough. Don’t you?”
“Ah, ah, really, no need to touch me anymore. I know you’re not fond of it.” The smile felt wrong on Wei Wuxian’s face, and yet he still forced himself to flash it for Lan Wangji. A cold frown was all he got in response – it probably would have worried him, if only he had not been so exhausted. If only he had still cared. “I’ll just...”
He just what? He did not even know what he wanted, not when Lan Wangji’s amber eyes were focused on him with the intensity he had never been subjected to before. It suited him, he realised, that kind of focus and the newfound maturity that shaped his face into a work of art.
Had it truly been so long since their last meeting? Wei Wuxian could not even count the days. They all blurred together into never-ending dusk after which no day was ever going to come. He made sure of it—after all, had he not shaped his own fate that way?
His eyes fluttered closed when Lan Wangji’s fingers skimmed over his forehead and slid back into his hair again, restlessly searching for something apparently neither of them expected to be there. The temptation to just slump forward and let himself be held was almost too great to resist – and what a foolish notion it was, to hope Lan Wangji would allow it even for a moment.
He must have reached his limits already, just by being this close. The ever-deepening frown was making his face grow ever colder and more distant with each passing second. Years ago, in a world that was no more, Wei Wuxian would have been tempted to reach out and smooth those lines, to laugh and tease until Lan Wangji snapped at him.
“No fever, no wound,” Wei Wuxian heard him say now. There was a slight tremble to his voice, barely noticeable but still there. He wondered when he started recognising shades and nuances of Lan Wangji’s tone. “Where does it hurt?”
And at that, he tried to swat those hands away. To no avail; Lan WangJi’s stubbornness had always rivalled his own. “Where I’ve been nearly torn to shreds, obviously. Where else would it hurt?”
“Sizhui said you tried to walk.”
So that was the teenager’s name. Sizhui. Wei Wuxian was certain he had never heard it before.
(‘Father,’ the boy had called him.
‘Father,’ the boy had said and Wei Wuxian’s heart twisted in envy for the life he had never got to live.)
“It’s a beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it? How could I resist?”
Lan Wangji’s hands dropped onto the bed. Wei Wuxian expected him to get up and move away, to grab and drag him to wherever the GusuLan Sect held their prisoners because this surely could not be it. This place – bright and quiet and almost intimately soft – resembled a home more than a holding cell. And if Bichen, left unattended on that stand near the wall, was any indication, this had to be Lan Wangji’s house.
In a blink of an eye, Lan Wangji’s body lost all its usual stiffness. He slumped forward until his head rested in Wei Wuxian’s lap, forehead pressed firmly to his thighs. His hands found purchase on Wei Wuxian’s waist. They were cold to the touch and trembled minutely.
For a moment, Wei Wuxian’s heart stopped beating. He looked down at Lan Wangji’s hunched form, at his sunlit hair that spilled all around them, at the shoulders that were shaking and the arms that were holding on to him as if he were to disappear. Once, he would have poked and laughed and teased until Lan Wangji could not stand it anymore.
Once, Lan Wangji would have never got so close.
“Wei Ying,” he said now. His tone was pleading, desperate. What was he asking for?
Ages had passed since he last called Lan Wangji by that name; the name that belonged to the past, to the happier times and the sun that shone no more. He used to say it with laughter and fondness, with gentleness and genuine excitement. On the day marked with blood and the desperate fight for survival, he also said it in throes of pain and incomprehensible yearning he had never got a chance to unravel before the world came crashing down onto his head. It was the name full of nostalgia for the days long gone, and for the future that never came.
Lan Wangji rubbed his hands gently up and down Wei Wuxian’s back. Who was the last person to touch him so tenderly? It might have been shijie, now that he thought of it, even though his heart twisted at the mere recollection of her.
“You are worrying me.” Lan Wangji’s voice was a gust of warmth against Wei Wuxian’s legs; something he felt even through the thin fabric of his pants.
He wondered if he ever woke up at all. Nightmares had plagued him for a long time now. Not a single night brought him relief, not a moment of reprieve was granted in this impenetrable tangle he had woven around himself. But this... Oh, this; this softness and peace, this deceptive affection shown through actions rather than words—this was worse than watching shijie die in front of him every single night.
There was no telling just for how long he had yearned for someone to hold him and help him pick up the shattered pieces of his own self. He had never fully voiced it even to himself, not once. However, a dream like this—such an overpowering, almost debilitating wish of which he spoke to no one—no matter how soothing, was too dangerous to nurture.
So he gritted his teeth and averted his eyes from the man in his lap. If he looked at him any longer, he might start believing this was something he could truly have. “You needn’t concern yourself about me.”
Lan Wangji’s grip tightened on his waist. It was not painful but still turned from tender to just about uncomfortable. “I am aware I didn’t get there in time,” he said slowly, as spelling every word was torture beyond belief. Wei Wuxian would know; recently, he could go for days without opening his mouth. The ghosts around him did it in his stead—sometimes his own thoughts echoed in their wailing. “It will never happen again.”
Had he been that keen to witness Wei Wuxian’s demise with his own eyes? Wei Wuxian’s stomach twisted in knots, leaving him nauseous and angry more at himself than anyone else. For a moment, he thought—
He shook his head. It mattered not what he thought. It mattered not what he hoped for. Nothing good ever came out of hope.
“It won’t, will it?” The laugh he let out was dry and humourless; empty just like him. “After all, I am here now. You’ve got what you always wanted.”
Lan Wangji raised his head and said no word to that, his focus on Wei Wuxian unwavering. His brow was furrowed, his face – unreadable.
“Tell me, Lan Zhan. Lan Wangji, Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian went on as something old and nearly forgotten started burning in his chest and spurred him to press even further, “are you happy now?”
The silence stretched on, uncomfortable. Lan Wangji’s gaze was heavy on him, suffocating. Lan Wangji gave him no choice but to face it, his hands – gentle once again – holding Wei Wuxian in place and rubbing up and down his back. Warmth bloomed under his touch and spread all over Wei Wuxian’s body. It filled him and chased away the cloud of confusion from his head. He had not felt so relaxed in a while; with all this boundless contentment that pooled in his chest and turned his heart feather-light. He used to be so carefree all the time, did he not? A lifetime ago, before he had given away the most precious of things.
And now he was being given what he had no use for.
Comfort dissipated and turned sour in his mind. Had he only been able to, he would have recoiled. But being as he was, pressing on through the pain with nothing his willpower, he just grabbed Lan Wangji’s wrists and tried to push him away. It was akin to moving a mountain. “Lan Zhan, stop. Stop!”
Lan Wangji flinched, for once bereft of all his self-control. Once, Wei Wuxian would have rejoiced in provoking that kind of reaction. He would have teased and laughed and maybe even bragged about it for the entire world to hear. Now, the weight of turmoil that clouded Lan Wangji’s eyes left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Don’t waste your spiritual energy on me,” he said before Lan Wangji found words to retort with. “It’s pointless and I don’t need it.”
Lan Wangji’s brow furrowed deeply—and finally it was an expression Wei Wuxian was familiar with. “Wei—”
“I don’t need it,” he repeated. His heart lurched and then settled heavy in his chest, defeated. He was too exhausted to come up with excuses—and besides, a fool would have noticed, had they only cared to look a little bit closer. Thankfully, no one had dared; not until now. “I have no use for it.”
“What do you—”
And just like that, anger flared to life in him; a familiar feeling he thought himself too weak for at the moment. It rose from nothingness and coursed through his veins like a fire that would set the air itself aflame if he let it. “Do you really want me to spell it for you? Are you going to pretend you haven’t realised? Surely your medics can’t be that incompetent—unless it wasn’t them who patched me up?”
“Wei Ying!” And there it was, the ire of yore appearing in Lan Wangji’s eyes. Arguments were what Wei Wuxian knew. He would take them any day over that maddening tenderness which gave him a glimpse into what could never come to pass.
After all, no one needed a constant reminder of what they had given up.
“Aren’t you even going to say anything?” It was burning him alive from within, this fury Wei WuXian was feeling. Had he been strong enough, he would have jumped to his feet and fight every Lan cultivator that stood between him and freedom. Weak as he was, all he could do was glare and let the resentment flow through his body. Unlike the energy he took into himself from the outside, his own was scalding. Would it burn him alive if he allowed it to consume him? “Come on, Lan Zhan. Aren’t you going to gloat just this once?”
A heartbeat passed. Then Lan Wangji moved and expertly found just the right pressure point on his body.
Wei Wuxian did not even have the time to so much as blink before slumping forward. Lan WangJi caught him without a second of hesitation and pulled him close to his chest as if it was the easiest and least questionable thing to do in the entire world. When did he stop shying away from touching others? What made him willing to pick Wei Wuxian up and cradle him in his arms when no so long ago he could not so much as even look at him without contempt?
Wei Wuxian would have asked. He would have demanded an answer, would have screamed for the tiniest piece of explanation. Instead, paralysed and fuming with the fire that had no outlet, he could only watch the determined line of Lan Wangji’s mouth as he picked up the black robe from the bed, put it over Wei Wuxian’s upper body, and carried him outside. There was urgency in his steps and determination in his eyes, and Wei Wuxian would have risked claiming those were the signs of worry if only he had not known better.
Lan Wangji would never worry about him. It was foolish to think otherwise.
The Cloud Recesses did not change much in his absence. Trees were higher and details of certain buildings differed from what they used to look like before the Wens burnt them to the ground, but the timelessness and the sombre atmosphere permeating the air itself remained without change. Sometimes, in rare and precious moments of clarity, Wei Wuxian considered coming back even for a moment. When the ghosts were not trying to tear him apart, when the Seal was not singing sweetly in his mind, when the breaths he took did not hurt—that was when he looked down upon himself and thought, Maybe I should go back.
He never did, in the end. Not until now, even though he did not remember what led to his return. It must have been the attack he had been anticipating, but nothing about it stood out in his mind. And was it not easier, in the end? Was it not better to forget?
What few disciples they met on the way, bowed respectfully before Lan Wangji. He paid them no heed, rushing to whatever destination he had in mind. Wei Wuxian did not recall him ever treat anyone with such blatant disrespect. It sat ill with him. He wanted to ask Lan Wangji about it, he wanted to scream at him to put him down and let him go, he wanted—
What did he want? So much time had passed since he gave any thought to that, consumed by nothing but the frantic need to survive yet another day just because going forward was easier than letting go. But maybe letting go was what he truly needed; heavens knew his heart craved it.
The moment Lan Wangji opened the door, Wei Wuxian knew they entered the infirmary even though he had never been here when he studied in the Cloud Recessed. It probably told more about the sheer amount of luck he used to have than his ability to stay out of trouble – which had been and still was non-existent.
“Physician Liu Yingyue?” Lan Wangji called when no one greeted them.
A moment passed. Then, a middle-aged woman came out from another part of the building. She was wearing the GusuLan robes with sleeves rolled up all the way to the elbows. Her hands were covered in soil.
“Hanguang-Jun,” she said and looked at Wei Wuxian. “And look who’s finally up. How are you feeling, master Wei? You gave us all quite the scare.”
If he could, he would have laughed. Whatever ruse the GusuLan Sect had come up with, they clearly were adamant to keep it up as long as they could. Even thinking about it made him sick.
Lan Wangji cleared his throat before speaking. “Something is wrong. He’s...”
“Oh?” Liu Yingyue’s eyes narrowed when he did not finish. “Put him down on the bed, I’ll be right back.”
And put Wei Wuxian down he did; gently, carefully. He was mindful of the wounds, but there was no need for that – they hurt just from breathing. Even more so when he pressed on that particular point on Wei Wuxian’s back once more, and Wei Wuxian took a deep, deep breath.
He had a lot to scream about.
“Now let’s see how your wounds are healing, master Wei.”
He bit his tongue when Liu Yingyue came back. Her hands were spotless now and she wasted no time in putting them on his torso. Lan Wangji was watching them both like a hawk, avidly and with nary a blink. Whatever he was expecting, Wei Wuxian gritted his teeth and swallowed every painful moan that threatened to escape his lips.
Then she touched the exact spot from which he had bled earlier, and there was no stopping that painful yelp that tore itself out of his throat. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed. “Why has this one been ripped open?”
“He tried to walk.”
“Of course he did.” Was it exasperation in her voice, or maybe pity? Wei Wuxian could not tell but liked neither possibility. “Have you been giving him spiritual energy as I instructed?” A nod was all she got in response but she seemed to know better than expect anything more than that. “Now that he’s awake, decrease the amount of what you’re sending him but do it more frequently. He must start working on healing himself now.”
They were talking as if he was not even there. Fury roared within him again. He might be a prisoner but damn if he allowed them to treat him like a powerless child. “I don’t—”
“And no dual cultivation until he’s fully healed,” she cut him in with a stormy expression and for a brief moment, he saw Wen Qing instead of her; tall and regal, treating him like a person rather than the maniac everyone thought him to be. “Do you hear me? Both of you?”
Lan Wangji’s ears turned red, but his face was impassive as he nodded. Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian just gaped at Liu Yingyue – speechless, for once in his life. He had truly gone mad, had he not? That was the only explanation because there was no world in which what she was implying would ever happen.
“Now what is it that you—”
“Is this a Lan thing?”
She turned to him, her brow furrowed. “What do you mean, master Wei?”
“This...” He gestured between the three of them even though it pulled on his wounds and made him hiss in pain. “All of this. This ridicule. Does it amuse you?”
“He's saying... troubling things,” Lan Wangji told Liu Yingyue when she looked at him questioningly. “No head injury. I’ve checked.”
And at that, something in Wei Wuxian snapped. He heaved himself up to a sitting position regardless of the pain that brought him, regardless of fresh blood that began to seep out of that cut again. He coated his finger in it and started scribbling—what, exactly, he did not even know. He did not even look at it. Blood to thee, those who wander between worlds—“You think this is a joke? You think you can make decisions about me as if I’m not here?” Heed my call and come forth as I bind thee to my will—“You think you can keep me here? You think I will let you keep me here?” Something was crawling beneath his skin, insistent and maddening. His heart thundered on, so fast it looked like as if it might fail him any moment now. He could not care less about it; not when the air itself around him seemed to heat up by the sheer power of his fury. It crackled around him, overpowering and nigh palpable. “Just who do you think you are?!”
The talisman beneath his palm lit up. The ache in his chest grew and grew until it threatened to tear him apart. And then—
Lan Wangji shouted, “Wei Ying!” and grabbed his hand in a vice-like grip. He smudged the talisman with his other hand, leaving a trail of soot and shapes of characters burnt into the sheets. And then—
Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian saw Liu Yingyue move frantically around but his vision was drenched in blood, narrowing with every second. He could barely breathe, and his lungs were filled with fire. He needed to get it out, he needed to get out, he needed—
Liu Yingyue pushed Lan Wangji away and he let her. Something shone in her hand as she raised it—
And then Wei Wuxian knew no more.
Wei Wuxian woke up to a gentle humming.
The melody was familiar in a way that tugged at his memory in search of images he hardly recalled. There was pain and cold, but also the feeling of safety that made his heart light. He let the song flow around him and fill the cracks in his weary mind and aching body. Everything hurt; every limb and muscle, every thought and wish. His chest was on fire, both within and without, and he wanted to tear it open in hopes it would diminish the pain.
It never would help; never had before. He had tried already more than once, and so that pain was something he had to get used to.
With that feverish haze crawling beneath his skin, he listened to the music that showed no signs of abating. He still could not remember when and where he heard it before, but it was all right. He was used to it. Losing the most precious memories sometimes felt like a blessing. When the Wens were asleep and he was alone, when he sank to his knees in the dust and dirt of the Burial Mounds, when he tried to breathe no matter how much his lungs protested – at times like those he was almost happy that his own mind could not torment him with the images of what once had been.
Still, a small sentimental part of him mourned what he could no longer remember.
A shaky inhale broke the rhythm of the humming for the briefest of seconds, so he seized the opportunity when it presented itself. “That’s a nice song.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji’s voice was breathless when he spoke, quivering. It reminded Wei Wuxian of Wen Qing’s lament after her brother; of that broken, pitiful wail unbecoming of the woman she used to be before the Sunshot Campaign.
He opened his eyes and saw Lan WangjJi directly above him. His hands were cradling Wei Wuxian’s head, the touch feather-light. Whatever words he could possibly want to say, died in his throat at the realisation that his head lay pillowed in Lan Wangji’s lap. White robes were soft on his skin and familiar in a way that baffled him. And yet no matter how hard he tried to remember, nothing came to his mind.
“I feel like I know it,” he said when he finally found his words again. His throat hurt and he swallowed, trying to ease the pain. “It’s just... I can’t...”
Lan Wangji’s eyes shone with something unspeakable. He cupped his cheek just as gently as he did everything else earlier that day—as if he thought Wei Wuxian would break. “Do not force yourself.”
The tenderness of that touch was as close to mockery as it could get. Wei Wuxian wanted to bat Lan Wangji’s hand away, to scream at him until he backed off. It was the cruellest torture of them all to give hope for something impossible, something he had been yearning for for years innumerable.
All he had ever wanted was for Lan Wangji to reach back. Only the passage of time let him realise what ridiculous a dream that had been.
He sighed. It nearly tore his lungs to shreds and stirred some kind of pressure in his chest. He was nearly light-headed because of it, and the familiarity of that feeling was even more perplexing than that of the song.
“I...” He had to ask and hated everything about it. He had always rather gone without than ask—better yet, he would have found another solution if only he had not been weak as a newborn babe. “Could I have some water, please?”
A hum was all he got in response, but immediately after that Lan Wangji helped him up to a sitting position. Wei Wuxian’s limbs were stiff and his body sore all over, but he propped himself on his hands and somehow, miraculously, avoided keeling over. He took a look around – they were back in Lan Wangji’s house.
His eyes immediately strayed to the sword stand. The sight of Suibian beneath Bichen mocked him greatly.
“Thank you,” he murmured when Lan Wangji gave him a cup. The water was blissfully cold on his tongue.
Only when he put it away did he notice Lan Wangji’s terror-stricken face. Had he ever shown any emotion before? Wei Wuxian remembered nothing but detachment, ever since that night they met for the first time on the moonlit rooftops of the Cloud Recesses. Later, it had turned into a scoff; later, it had become hatred that chilled him to the bone; later, Wei Wuxian wished they had never met.
He only looked up when his cup was empty. Lan Wangji’s eyes were boring into him with a frightening intensity. He could read nothing from them. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked rather than wonder about it. It seemed that he was going to have lots of time for wondering, but still, it would not be enough to figure out Lan Wangji.
That would take forever.
“You are unwell,” Lan Wangji said in his monotonous voice. His hands were hanging loose at his sides, fists clenched.
Wei Wuxian laughed; and only then did he realise how bad an idea it was. The wounds on his torso flared to life. He gasped, grasping for something to hold on to when there was nothing within reach but the bedsheets. Then, in a blink of an eye, Lan Wangji was by side, his arms steady and warm around him.
He who used to despise physical contact with other people. He who used to balk at even the smallest display of intimacy Wei Wuxian had occasionally teased him with. Maybe he still did; maybe he went against his nature out of pity. Maybe it was just a joke.
Even if it was, Wei Wuxian still let his head fall. He rested his forehead against those pristine white robes and inhaled deeply. They smelled of sandalwood.
It had always been Lan Wangji’s favourite incense. He had even brought it with him to the Library Pavilion from time to time and at the end of those days, Wei Wuxian’s clothes smelled like that, too.
“Of course I’m unwell,” he mumbled. One of Lan Wangji’s hands found its way to the back of his head, the other one pulled him closer. Wei Wuxian did not find it in him to object anymore. Exhaustion won over his will to protest. “With everything that happened, I’m...”
Heavens, he did not even remember what happened after he tore the Seal to pieces, but it could not have gone well for him. Especially not with the swarm of cultivators coming for him while the fire had burnt high and bright behind them, lighting up the Burial Mounds better than the sun itself ever could.
What he did remember, though, was the overwhelming desire for it all to just end.
“You should have never gone alone,” Lan Wangji said quietly. He started rubbing his back in small, soothing circles. “I... I will make sure—”
Wei Wuxian looked up at those unreadable light eyes and the perfect face unmarred by emotions. “Gone where? It’s not like I could’ve gone anywhere. Not with...” all of you in the way.
Lan Wangji’s gaze was heavy on him, but Wei Wuxian did not avert his eyes. Defiance was his only defence now, in this place he had never planned to return to. He would hold on to it for as long as he could, fighting tooth and nail for even the smallest thing to go as he wanted it to. The last time the choice had been taken from him, he promised himself he would never allow that to happen again.
And yet here he was, with only Lan Wangji and memories for company, having chosen neither.
He searched for words to break the silence, but for once they did not come. Instead, Lan Wangji sat down on the bed right next to him and gathered him into his arms without a moment of hesitation. Time itself seemed to have stopped. Wei Wuxian’s heart hammered on like a startled creature facing its last run. On the other hand, Lan Wangji’s beat surely and steadily. He could hear it perfectly, pressed close as he was. The GusuLan robes were soft to the touch, more delicate than anything Wei Wuxian had worn since he crawled out of the Burial Mounds with Chenqing in his hand and darkness in his chest.
Something settled in his heart, wholly at ease in warmth and contentment. He should have pushed Lan Wangji away rather than indulge in whatever bout of insanity brought that embrace to life. Instead, he let seconds pass, and every single one of them only made him more unwilling to let go. Shijie used to hold him like that, back in those carefree days of their childhood. Too quickly had they ended, yielding to the age and duties brought with it. Then, later, he had learnt to laugh when Jiang Cheng shrugged off the arm thrown around his shoulders.
Later, he had learnt to avoid touching Jiang Cheng altogether.
But this—no matter the cause and consequences, this was freely given. This was more than he had had in years; years filled with only A-Yuan’s soft hands wrapped around his neck as the child slept in his arms, and with Wen Qing’s occasional pat on the shoulder, which she always vehemently denied afterwards. This made him want to melt into the embrace, to crawl into it and never get out, to take and take and take until he had his full.
With the heart full of warmth and the mind full of silence, he did not even care about the reason why Lan Wangji relinquished the personal space he used to guard so ardently. Perhaps it was nothing but delirium. Perhaps Wei Wuxian would wake up at the Burial Mounds, treading the thin line between life and death. Or perhaps he would never wake up at all again. If that embrace was the last thing he would experience before dying, he was going to take it regardless if it were real or not. He was going to commit the feeling of Lan Wangji’s hand in his hair to his memory like a treasure. He was going to focus on the weight of Lan Wangji’s other hand on his back and on the warmth of Lan Wangji’s body against his bare skin. He was going to forget it was Lan Wangji in the first place and fool himself into thinking he was being held by someone who had no contempt for him in their heart.
Having nothing, he was going to hoard what little he could get his hands on.
Only a knock on the door finally managed to make Lan Wangji lean back. Wei Wuxian’s eyes never left him as he got up to open the door. Whoever it was behind it, Lan Wangji did not invite them inside. He stopped at the threshold instead, blocking the view, and Wei Wuxian found relief in that.
“Acting Sect Leader,” said the person outside. It must have been a junior, given how trembling his voice was. Memories of Nie Huaisang resurfaced in Wei Wuxian’s mind and he smiled at them. They belonged to better times, easier times. “My apologies for disturbing you, but a messenger from the LanlingJin Sect has arrived and requested to speak with you.”
Lan Wangji did not respond immediately. Wei Wuxian knew those nearly unnoticeable stretches of silence. He had always been on the receiving end of them whenever Lan Wangji graced him with words other than just ‘shameless’ or ‘pathetic’, rarely as that happened.
“Take him to the main hall. I will see him in a moment.”
“Yes, Acting Sect Leader.”
For a moment, Wei Wuxian wanted to ask. Only hazy images of white robes against the bleak shadows of the Burial Mounds stopped him from blurting out a question better left unspoken.
“I will be back as soon as I can.” Lan Wangji moved around him as if Wei Wuxian was a piece of furniture, ever-present, long-used to. He fixed the pillow and refolded the black robes still placed atop the covers at the feet of the bed. Wei Wuxian could only watch him. “I shall bring physician Liu with me. She requested to examine you in less stressful conditions.”
“Less stressful conditions,” Wei Wuxian repeated dumbly. Anything would be less stressful than staying in the Cloud Recesses. A night-hunt, to begin with. Facing Wen Ruohan if he were still alive.
“After what happened...” Lan Wangji’s voice trailed away. Almost as an afterthought, he picked up that red ribbon hanging from a scroll stand, folded it and put it on top of the robes. His movements were diligent and focused, and his fingers lingered on that long strip of fabric. “Rest. Meditate. If Physician Liu allows it, we will go to the cold springs later.”
Wei Wuxian decided to let that ‘we’ slide. The two of them had never been ‘we’. Nothing short of a miracle would ever change that. “How come she’s here?” he asked instead. “Your Sect has always been so adamant in keeping male and female cultivators separate.”
Lan Wangji paused to look at him. Had no one ever asked that question before? “It would be a waste of her skills,” he finally said. “Rest. I will be back shortly.”
“You’re saying that as if you expect me to run the moment you leave.” He did not even mask those words as a joke. There was no need; the look on Lan Wangji’s face spoke volumes of what he thought would happen as soon as Wei Wuxian was out of his sight.
Lan Wangji did know him well, Wei Wuxian had to give him that.
Rather than argue, Lan Wangji just moved to the side. “Get up, get dressed, walk to the door and back. If you do that, I shall speak no more of resting.”
It was a tempting offer, one that Wei Wuxian would usually seize the moment it was presented to him. Normally, he would have gritted his teeth and braved the act of walking, but now... He was not going to do that now, not when his legs were about to give way beneath him once he stood up. So in the end, he did nothing and said nothing—and Lan Wangji only nodded while his features reflected neither surprise nor satisfaction. Wordlessly, he leant forward and pressed his lips to Wei Wuxian’s forehead. They lingered just like his fingers had on the ribbon earlier.
And Wei Wuxian’s heart stopped.
He was staring at the closed door long after Lan Wangji had left, his mind in disarray and mouth gaping. No one had ever done that before, at least no one he remembered. His parents might have given him kisses when they were still alive, but he hardly recalled what they looked like, let alone the affection he had received from them. Jiang Fengmian used to tell him stories sometimes, short and disjointed as they had been. All he learnt from them was that his uncle had never stopped missing Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren, while Wei Wuxian himself never had the chance to get to know them long enough to truly yearn for what he had lost.
Now Lan Wangji was here, with arms wide open and kisses unexpectedly given, and that left nothing but fear in Wei Wuxian’s heart.
He touched his forehead. The skin was still tingling.
Restlessness filled his heart and caused his blood to rush. He wanted to get up and run; run and run and run until the Cloud Recesses became nothing but a distant shadow on the horizon. Maybe if he ran long and far enough, he would find a place where no one recognised him anymore. Maybe he would be able to settle down there, with only his thoughts for company for the rest of his life. He got used to that kind of solitude over the years. After all, it was all he had and – given the circumstances – all he could ever hope for.
The uncomfortable pressure in his chest did not lessen. He refrained from touching it – jostling the bandages would most likely aggravate the wounds and he was definitely not going to do that. Taking a good look around instead, he did his best to commit the details of the room to his memory. When he was well enough to move again, when the opportunity presented itself – he would need every advantage he could get for escaping Gusu.
The sword stand was close enough to the door that he could just grab Suibian on his way out, regardless of it being useless to him. Its sentimental value was unparalleled, even though the chasm separating him from the YunmengJiang Sect had been irreparable for years. Too many regrets lay between him and Jiang Cheng, and too much of Yu Ziyuan had been woven into his brother’s heart.
A minuscule, almost undetectable whisper of resentful energy drew his attention away from the sword. He reached out to it and it reached out in turn, and in a blink of an eye, Chenqing was in his hand, polished and well-kept. The red tassel was swaying gently as he clenched his fist around the flute.
He had noticed it before, had he not? It had been left unguarded on Lan Wangji’s writing table, perfectly within Wei Wuxian’s reach.
His skin was still crawling, unbearably hot, but at the very least his heart quietened somewhat. He gave up and rubbed his chest gently. The warmth within sprang to life and licked his palm, whilst Chenqing sang sweetly in his mind. There was something familiar in the way his heart pulsed, encased in warmth. Like a childhood memory, it escaped his grasp when he tried to catch it. Frustration blossomed in its wake but he decided against dwelling on it. It was pointless, and the time he had spent at the Burial Mounds had taught him that pointlessness no longer had any place in his life. It invoked carelessness and that was something that could get him killed in a blink of an eye.
All things considered, he was not that keen on dying.
And so he lay down on the bed too big for just one person. He held on to Chenqing even though the flute itself was the only thing laced with resentful energy in the Cloud Recesses. There was nothing and no one for him to command here, not unless he tore down the boundaries between the realms and called upon the ghosts that should forever be left in peace. He had toyed with that idea once. An unfinished array and a few sleepless nights had been all that came out of it. Only a sentiment had stopped him from burning those scribbles. It would change nothing if did – the array was going to forever remain in his mind.
Trees rustled outside. The wind whispered between their leaves and carried sounds that could have only originated in the training field. Wei WuXian’s hands craved to grab the sword he could no longer use properly and join them, to swing it and parry and laugh until he could no longer breathe.
Just like many other things, he would never be able to do that again.
He let his thoughts wander, fingers still curled tightly around Chenqing’s cool wood. A haze of disjointed images that were neither dreams nor memories flickered in and out of his mind. Claws were in them, and whispers about impossible, incomprehensible things. Heeding them would be a travesty, fighting against them – an impossible feat. The fire within his chest burnt ever brighter, up till the point he feared it would devour him from within.
Would it be so bad if he let it?
He opened his eyes to see Lan Wangji shaking him awake. When did he fall asleep? “Lan Zhan?” he mumbled. Exhaustion settled heavy in his mind and limbs alike. Perhaps he truly needed to rest.
“How are you feeling, master Wei?”
Liu YingYue was standing nearby. The moment he glanced in her direction, Lan Wangji was at his side, helping him up. He did not find it in himself to protest that blatant manhandling.
Had he not been so tired, his own complacency would have bothered him immensely.
“Like shit, physician... Liu, was it?”
She frowned, but it was gone before he could inquire about the reason behind her obvious displeasure. At least she did not tell him that swearing was forbidden. “Well,” she drawled instead, approaching the bed, “it was to be expected. On top of your injuries, you nearly went into Qi deviation at the infirmary. If I didn’t seda—”
He broke out laughing. There was no stopping it once he started, and he laughed and laughed until he cried, clutching his already sore stomach. Lan Wangji was watching him intently, remaining within a hand’s reach but never closing that distance. Wei Wuxian wanted him to come closer. He wanted to push him away, and to grab him and kiss him just to rile him up, and to run away from him never to see those light eyes again. He wanted—
He did not know what he wanted, except for the world to just cease to be.
He was so fucking tired.
“Lan Zhan, I was right.” His breaths were coming out in short, painful wheezes. He did not care about them. His lungs had been hurting for a long time now. “Your healers are useless after all.”
They were both looking at him now, Lan Wangji and Liu Yingyue. What the former lacked in facial expressions, the latter made up for a thousand times over. Wei Wuxian could not care less. He was going to swallow the nostalgia and the overwhelming desire for the warmth of another living human’s hand, and he would face them both like he always did; with a head held high and a heart full of defiance.
That attitude had got him through the Burial Mounds. Compared to them, the Cloud Recesses were nothing.
“I can’t get Qi deviation. You should’ve known that.”
“Contrary to popular belief, you’re not invincible, master Wei.” All traces of fondness were gone from her eyes. She reminded him of Wen Qing now. “You of all people should know that.”
“Qi deviation requires a golden core and I do not have it.”
There. He said it. It was easier than he thought it would be.
Before he could gauge her reaction, Lan Wangji grabbed him by the shoulders. For once, emotions swirled in his eyes and contorted his face for everyone to see. Plenty, they were; too many for Wei Wuxian to so much as recognise, let alone understand.
“Wei Ying,” he said, his tone pleading. What was he asking for?
“There you have it. The last of my secrets.” Wei Wuxian nearly spat. Chenqing was heavy in his hand, ready to sing the song only the dead would hear. “Are you happy now?”
Lan Wangji just shook his head and cupped Wei Wuxian’s cheeks. His eyes were darting all over Wei Wuxian’s face, looking for something only he knew.
“It seems that you were right, Hanguang-Jun.” Liu Yingyue’s voice was loud in the silence of the room. “It does look like a memory loss.”
Lan Wangji’s hands dropped. Anguish written all over his face resonated within Wei Wuxian’s heart stronger than Wei Wuxian was ever going to admit. No wonder about that. After all, he used to consider them friends, a long time ago, even though Lan Wangji had never shared his sentiment.
He knew not what they were now. Truth be told, he knew nothing and it scared him out of his wits. “What are you even talking about?” he asked because hiding behind false bravado was what he had always done. “I admit, my memory has never been stellar, but...”
“What is the last thing you remember, master Wei?” Liu Yingyue asked in a clinically detached tone. Inexplicably, it brought him comfort in the face of Lan Wangji’s disquiet.
Lan Wangji worrying for him. What a preposterous, dangerously titillating thought. Too bad he had no time to indulge in it.
“Fire,” he nearly growled, recalling the memories. Those, for once, were clear as a day. He practically tasted the ash in the air. “Fire and blood. Screams as you slaughtered the old and the young alike. I remember all of you coming to kill me.” He looked at Lan Wangji again and could not look away. “Tell me, Hanguang-Jun. You must have been there. Do I remember correctly?”
Lan Wangji’s mouth moved but no sound left it. He dropped to his knees instead and reached out to take Wei Wuxian’s free hand. His own was shaking. He said nothing, and neither did Wei WuXian.
“Master Wei,” Liu Yingyue finally broke the silence. “That was sixteen years ago.”
For a moment, he felt nothing. Then, between one heartbeat and another, thoughts rushed to his head like a storm. The fire in his chest was burning bright, transforming his blood into liquid flames. He looked at Lan Wangji again, at the face only scarcely resembling that which he remembered. No one could have aged so quickly in three months, least of all a cultivator so powerful as him.
His thoughts, already in disarray, shattered beyond repair.
“Physician Liu,” Lan Wangji said now, his voice even quieter than usual, “would you give us a moment?”
“I still want to examine him later,” she said and left without another word. Only when she closed the door behind her, Lan Wangji pressed his forehead to Wei Wuxian’s legs. He was shaking, holding on to him like a drowning person would to a lifeline. For once in his life, Wei Wuxian did not know what to do.
It still felt wrong. He could not even determine what ‘it’ was, exactly.
“Wei Ying...” It was nothing more than a broken whisper, a plea for something Wei Wuxian could not give him. If what they were saying was true, then Lan Wangji was asking someone Wei Wuxian was not.
“If this is a joke...” He let his voice trail away, for what else could he do? He was in no position to argue, let alone to fight. The world had fallen apart around him and he was lost amidst the pieces.
“I would never.”
Of course, he would never. Lying, after all, was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. “Then you know I can’t go into Qi deviation without the golden core.”
Lan Wangji’s hands tightened around his legs. “Summon Suibian.”
His body hurt; his mind even more so. Of all the things he wanted to do, arguing was the last of them, so he just gave up on it entirely. He reached out to his sword instead, calling it from the depths of his weeping heart like he used to do ages ago. Whatever Lan Wangji was expecting, would never happen. After all, Suibian was dead to him just like it had been ever since Wei Wuxian let Wen Qing cut his chest open and rip his core out.
Before he could blink, he had a sword in his hand. For a moment, he sat motionless, breathless even. Then he dropped it to the floor with a clatter that sounded like thunder to his ears.
“It’s impossible, I can’t... I don’t...”
Static. Static in his ears and static in his heart, and the roaring inferno of blood in his ears. He felt it now, the gentle pull of the core and the steady hum of spiritual energy in his veins. He had forgotten what they felt like, having given up on those memories willingly and intentionally.
“How...” His voice was nothing but a croak. “How?”
Lan Wangji handed him Suibian, unsheathed. Distantly, Wei Wuxian knew it should have been impossible, and yet...
So he took it, not knowing what else to do. He needed time to think and had none at his disposal.
“You died that day sixteen years ago.” Lan Wangji was not even looking at him as he spoke, but his hands still trembled where they rested looped around Wei Wuxian’s legs. “And you have been summoned back three years ago.”
“Summoned.” He had died. He had died and was brought back to life and... He looked down at the blade of his own sword and understood all that remained unspoken.
The face he was looking at, reflected in the stainless steel, was not his own.
“Oh,” he said. Breath caught in his throat as he pressed his hand to his chest, injuries be damned. Within in, pulsed a golden a core that was not his own. A heart beating there was not his either.
He had died and could remember neither that nor the three years that had passed since the summoning.
It’s wrong, his mind screamed at him. He’s wrong, they’re wrong!
His hands were cold and clammy. Shadows were rising like a wave in the corner of his eye, coming ever closer. If they did, he would drown in them, incapable of staying afloat. Let it happen, his mind whispered. Let it happen, Chenqing followed suit, its song alluring as never before.
“I...” Did he even still have the right to call himself like that? Was there anything left of him? “I’d like to be alone now.”
“Wei Ying...” Lan Wangji reached out with a trembling hand. Before Wei Wuxian could even register his body’s reaction, he had already recoiled out of reach. Lan Wangji’s hand fell to the floor.
He closed his eyes. It mattered not that he did, for darkness was already there, lapping at his feet. Nothing but moments remained before it swallowed him whole. “Please.”
Only the sheer strength of will helped him keep up the façade long enough for Lan Wangji to leave the house. Once the door closed, once he was again wrapped in the silence, with one hand curled around Chenqing and the other on Suibian’s hilt—
Only then Wei Wuxian allowed himself to weep.
Nights always came early in Gusu.
Wei Wuxian was lying in bed, counting hours that passed. Day had already given way to dreary dusk. It brought a drizzle with it, and a chilly wind that spoke of autumn looming on the horizon. He felt its chill, and the burning of the golden core in his chest did nothing to shield him against it.
His first core had never felt so turbulent, so foreign as this one did. It fluttered and thrashed against his sternum like a second heart, restless and inconsolable. Spiritual energy fluctuated with it like a wave; it left him nauseous and hoping that if he closed his eyes, the sensation would pass. It did not, so he took Suibian and Chenqing into his arms and curled around them. After a while, the pain from the wounds on his torso settled to a dull throbbing. After a while, the raging storm of his thoughts turned into a mellow buzz he could almost ignore.
After a while, he nearly convinced himself that the predicament he had found himself in was not troubling.
Sixteen years. Out of them, thirteen spent dead.
Did he have any right at all to call this body his? The features he wore now were unknown to him, softer and nearly boyish. He was slim now where he used to be broad, and weaker than acceptable. There was no scar in the middle of his chest, that constant reminder of the day on which Wen Qing had cut into him at his own request, and no Wen brand beneath his clavicle. No sign of the multitude of smaller scars remained. The bump in his right ankle was no more and those badly healed bones were intact again.
He listened to his breathing and the sound of his heartbeat, and they were wrong.
Sixteen years. Thirteen years. Dead.
He had died and did not remember it. He had gone to the afterlife and did not remember that either. How should he feel? Should the awareness of it sit like a stone in his mind and heart? Was it supposed to be a scar on his very soul, a tear between the worlds he would carry within up till the day death claimed him again?
Elbows-deep he had surrounded himself with the dead, but could not tell what it was like to be one of them.
Sixteen years. Thirteen years. A body that felt like a cage. A body in which he was an intruder. Blood under his fingernails was gone, but not that on his hands; never that. Shijie’s blood, Jin Zixuan’s, Wen Qing’s—
(...what I’m supposed to do now?)
—and countless others’. Blood in which he could bathe, overflowing even the pool in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. Blood that stained, blood that called, blood that seeped under his skin to stay and—
(Thirteen years. Dead. The shadow in his hand, eating into his soul. I will. It tore him to pieces and put back as it saw fit and it hurt and hurt and hurt and shijie lay on the ground in—)
—someone had taken their own life to give him back his own and—
(But he had never lost it.)
—now he breathed and thought and lived again at the cost of another life and what even was another life when he had taken so many and everyone who has ever loved you he stood with his back against a tree and—
(He was not dead, he could not have died, he lived and lived and it was wrong and everyone who has ever loved you and only then I will—)
—claws and blood and a hand around his throat fires burning they were coming from all sides swords out and talismans ablaze and he was late too late too late I will kill everyone who has ever loved you and A-Yuan’s hands reaching out for him when he turned his back to him to loved you and only then I—
—a hand clasped like chains around his arm, unshakable. He shot upwards despite the outburst of pain in his abdomen. Suibian was heavy in his arms, inviting and familiar, but it was Chenqing he thrust in front of him. “Get away from me!” he yelled even though there was no resentful energy in range he could draw upon to use. Defenceless he was, like a newborn babe or a senile man hunched under the weight of the years.
He opened his eyes and it was Lan Wangji who was sitting on the bed. Not the colourful mob that had long turned red by the time they came for him, neither the suffocating yoke of regrets that plagued his sleep and waking thoughts alike. Just Lan Wangji; white, unblemished, perfect.
He was looking intently at Wei Wuxian with a furrowed brow and a fistful of robes in a clenched hand. The other was on the bed next to Wei Wuxian.
“Lan Zhan.” He took a deep breath; the wounds flared to life but the pain was bearable. Perhaps he simply got accustomed to it. Heavens only knew he could hardly remember the last time nothing hurt.
Again? Was he still having them then, after all those years? “I... yes.” What did he dream about, this future him he had become? “Did I hurt you?”
Lan Wangji only shook his head wordlessly.
“All right, good. Good.” He made an attempt to uncurl his fingers from around Chenqing. They cracked, stiff and aching. He would have liked nothing else than put them in a bowl of hot water and grab some of Wen Qing’s ointment she had prepared—
But Wen Qing was dead and there was no more ointment and no more shouting he had grown so accustomed to. Reading between the lines became easier over time, and he learnt to recognise affection that lay hidden underneath. He had almost made her smile one day; just barely, but it was a success much greater than learning how to fly on a sword.
“What’s that smell?”
Lan Wangji pointed subtly at the tray lying on the writing table. “Supper. Congee, tea, and pain remedy.” He got up to bring it over and set it atop Wei Wuxian’s legs. Congee was still warm and – much to Wei Wuxian’s surprise – as red as it would have been had he prepared it himself. “Physician Liu will come tomorrow. It’s safe for you to go to the cold springs tonight.”
He was probably wolfing down his supper like a savage, but hunger turned that particular worry irrelevant. Any food they managed to grow at the Burial Mounds tasted bitter, like ashes and something old, nearly intangible. With no money to spare, he had given up on buying food in Yiling, and just—
Only after a moment did it come back to him. Years lay between him and the Burial Mounds now, years that were nothing but a phantom he could not grasp.
Suddenly, his supper no longer tasted as good as it did moments ago.
Still, he cleaned the bowl and drained the cups under the watchful eye of Lan Wangji. The intensity of his gaze was unnerving. Wei Wuxian felt it worm its way under his skin and cut him to pieces from within. He had no secrets left to unearth, no grand stories or glorious endings. Instead, there was ash under his skin and fear in his veins, and he had carried them for so long they no longer felt heavy. The Burial Mounds lodged themselves in his heart, immovable. A long time ago, the sun itself had come down from the sky and burnt him into a husk. He took what he could find in a place where everything only ever got lost and rebuilt himself with it.
So if he was doomed to carry the ash and the dead in him, at the very least he would do it proudly. Still, it was hardly something worth looking at.
He was hardly something worth looking at, especially if it was Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji had never looked at him twice, after all, and when he had, it was always with scorn and displeasure. One could withstand only so much displeasure before it got unbearable.
And unbearable it had got, a long time ago; back in those days of shadows and grief and the kind of life they were never supposed to get used to.
“Lan Zhan?” A hum was all got in response but it was all right. He had long known that Lan Wangji communicated in monosyllables and unreadable looks. “What are we?”
Lan Wangji folded his hands in his lap. If not for the frown, he would have been a mirror image of his teenage self, that silent boy bathed in innocent grace and ethereal timelessness. “Cultivation partners,” he said without a moment of hesitation. Wei Wuxian sucked in a breath. “Lawfully wedded husbands.”
He heard those words but they made no sense. It was impossibility summed up in five words. It was a thing that would never come to pass described in two short sentences. It was too bizarre a scenario to even happen in a dream.
The sun was more likely to rise in the west than Lan Wangji was to marry him.
Wei Wuxian could only blink. Speechless he was, and empty of ire.
“Wei Ying.” Perhaps it truly was worry in Lan Wangji’s light eyes, but Wei Wuxian had never been able to read him well. If things were different now, if Lan Wangji finally made sense in this life they were seemingly going through together, Wei Wuxian was now stripped off all knowledge. “I know this may—”
“You don’t know shit,” he snapped. “Does this mean I’m in your clan’s registry now? As who?”
“Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, the Yiling Patriarch,” Lan Wangji said. He did not flinch or scowl. His face reflected nothing and Wei Wuxian wanted to scream. “Husband of Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji, Hanguang-Jun.”
“If you Lans weren’t unable to tell jokes, I’d say you’re making fun of me.” His laugh was a dry sound that scraped his throat and left a bitter taste in his mouth. Hopes of companionship and intimacy had been haunting his dreams for longer than he dared to admit, but he had never expected them to come to fruition. Not like this. Not with Lan Wangji. “So what, are you trying to tell me that you care for me? That you—” He could barely even acknowledge the word he needed, let alone say it out loud. “That you love me?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said as if admitting that was the easiest thing in the world, as if it did not uproot Wei Wuxian’s existence and scatter it all around him.
That gave Lan Wangji pause. His brow furrowed slightly and his eyes lost some of that terrifying focus. Wei Wuxian knew that look. He had seen it often enough in the past, directed at a book or a particularly complicated piece of research. Numerous were the occasions he had taken advantage of this minuscule slip of attention, and startling Lan Wangji at times like that had always given delightful results.
How stupid he had been. How naive.
“Sometime after the archery competition and before the cave of Xuanwu. After the burning of the Cloud Recesses.” Lan Wangji’s eyes became pensive, distant, as if he was looking over the veil of time at the past long gone. Wei Wuxian did not dare to say a word. He did not think he could speak at all, with the heart in his throat and a mind full of buzzing thoughts. “I remember hoping you wouldn’t have to stand against them alone.”
“I...” He rubbed his face. It saved him from the necessity of looking at Lan Wangji. “You hated me. All those years, ever since we met. You hated me.”
“Everyone knew.” The memory of it still hurt. Nie Huaisang had looked at him with pity, Jiang Cheng’s voice had been full of scoff – and yet Wei Wuxian had always laughed at them and held on to hope. Eventually, time brought an end even to that. “Everyone saw.”
“No.” Lan Wangji was like a mountain, immovable in his conviction. “I never hated you.”
“Well, you’ve done a shit job at showing it, then.” Did he truly dare to claim he loved Wei Wuxian? He had looked down upon him, brushed him off, refused even the tiniest offer of help, but it still took a sword pointed at him for Wei Wuxian to finally take the hint.
Lan Wangji heaved a sigh and closed his eyes. His face reflected nothing. “I know,” he said after a moment. With hesitation so unusual for him, he took Wei Wuxian’s hand and brought it to his lips. The kiss was gentle, but his breath was scorching hot. “It’s easier now.” He flipped Wei Wuxian’s hand over and pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist. This time his lips lingered. Only after a shuddering exhale did he let go. “I’m learning. We both are.”
“I don’t...” Wei Wuxian bit his tongue before he could finish the sentence. What was he even about to say? ‘I don’t remember any of that’? Or maybe just, ‘I don’t love you’? Thoughts in his head ran in circles like startled animals. Incredulity bordering on mortification set his face aflame and did not help in the slightest. “I can’t even...”
“It is all right.” Lan Wangji kissed his forehead and pulled him gently up to his feet. “The cold springs will help.”
Wei Wuxian could stand upright but that was the end of it. His legs still shook beneath him. “I don’t think I can walk that far.” Curse those injuries, curse his weakness; he was tired and furious at them in equal measure. “Maybe I should wait until I get better.”
“No need.” Lan Wangji wrapped that black robe around him and picked him up as if he weighed nothing. The outburst of pain was brief and nearly negligible considering Wei Wuxian’s earlier carelessness. Panic always made him act first and think much, much later. He had forced that habit down and buried it deep within his heart the moment he brought the Wens to the Burial Mounds. It would have done them no good if he acted like an irresponsible child – and after all, he had not saved them only to doom them later because of his own recklessness.
But doom them he had, had he not? He had lost his wits on that one occasion he should have kept them about him, and it brought pain and death upon everyone. The whisper of destruction in his palm became a thunderstorm that swept everything on its path and he let it.
However, that was then. Now, the Cloud Recesses were quiet around them and only the stream murmured constantly nearby. The drizzle had already died down. Lan Wangji said nothing as he walked, and Wei Wuxian was glad for that. For once, no words came to his mind to fill in the silence.
If memories were what made a person, then what did that mean for him? He knew not what led him to the place he despised. He knew not what made the man incapable of feelings shower him with adoring touches. His life was ripped from his hands and a resurgence of the past was what he was given in exchange. And in that past, a phantom writhed at his feet and whispered sweet nothings directly into his heart until he could not take it anymore.
He had created death and then laughed in its face as he destroyed it. Now they told him he had died that day and even though he could not remember the moment itself, it was a price he had been expecting to pay.
“We should keep the bandages dry.”
They were at the spring already. Wei Wuxian did not even notice when they arrived, but he let himself be put down without a fuss. Every sound was muted as if the world itself became distant. He did not mind the stillness – maybe his turbulent golden core would finally quieten down as well.
“This place hasn’t changed at all.” He let Lan Wangji take off his robe and unwrap the bandages. It was harmless enough an action to spare him embarrassment. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend it was Wen Qing. “How none of you Lans come here after sunset is beyond me.”
“We do, so no one else comes.” Lan Wangji folded the robe with ease and placed it on a rock nearby. The bandages soon followed suit. “Privacy.”
“Privacy? Why would—oh.” Blood rushed to Wei Wuxian’s face again and the chilly air suddenly became stifling hot. The thought itself made his insides church, let alone the implications of it. “Fuck, Lan Zhan. Isn’t that against your rules?”
Lan Wangji took off his own robes and extended a hand for Wei Wuxian to take. “Extenuating circumstances.”
He left that without any further comment as he walked into the blissfully cool water. So long as he did not dwell on the matter, he could pretend it was irrelevant. Too much lay on his mind, too many unspoken questions were there, begging for attention. He ignored them all for now, and his heart settled somewhat. Time would come for him to unravel the threads of this life; thinking about it now was going to bring him nothing but frustration and that was the last thing he needed.
He watched Lan Wangji instead, this statue of a man at his side, holding his hand with one-sided familiarity. A Wen Sect brand was on his chest, and a tangled mass of protruding scars covered the entirety of his back. In their teenage years, he had had none of that, and later Wei Wuxian had not had the opportunity to see him undressed. The war left its imprint on everyone – on some even more so than the others. He would know; he bore a fair share of them himself.
Or he had, as he reminded himself once again. The feeling of wrongness came back with full force and lodged itself in his brain like a nail. He supposed that this was how having his life snatched from his fingers felt like, this emptiness in a place where memories used to be. His heartbeat echoed within in, just as empty.
“What happened?” he asked. Lan Wangji hummed under his breath, so he took it as encouragement. “During all those years I—” missed, whispered his stubborn mind, “don’t remember. What happened?”
“Meditate,” Lan Wangji chided him. He moved to stand behind Wei Wuxian; water lapped around them in small waves. “Cultivate. It will help you heal.”
His proximity made Wei Wuxian’s skin crawl. He had had enough of looking over his shoulder to last him a lifetime. “Yeah, yeah, I will.” The wounds were not nearly as bad as his golden core, but it was neither time nor the opportunity to speak about that particular problem. “Tell me while I do?”
And tell him Lan Wangji did, in words that were few but thus counted all the more. He spoke of grief that passed and hope that did not. He spoke of a hunt for answers that uncovered decade-old truths and ruined relationships that were even older. He spoke of happy days and glorious nights, and of a long journey of learning each other and picking apart layer after layer until no questions remained.
Wei Wuxian wished he could remember it all. Lan Wangji’s story ended in peace and contentment; after everything he had gone through, it would be a blessing to experience them. And now it was gone, having left only emptiness behind, and that brought fury to life in Wei Wuxian’s heart. At himself or the world, he did not know, but it was there, growing.
It smelled of blood.
“So the junior who came to see me earlier,” he said, trying to keep his mind from dwelling on what was lost. He attempted to piece Lan Wangji’s story together instead, those threads of events and knowledge he was no longer privy to. It was too good to believe in, that one particular part, but what if. What if. “Are you telling me that was A-Yuan? Little Wen Yuan I buried in the ground between radishes?”
“Lan Yuan, yes.” Lan Wangji’s voice was quiet behind him, like a gentle murmur of a faraway waterfall. Everything about the Cloud Recesses was quiet and only he, Wei Wuxian, was not. “Lan Sizhui. I found him after the—after. Adopted him. Raised him. He’s ours, now.”
‘Father,’ the boy had called him, and Wei WuXian had taken that word and broken him with it. Disgust spread like poison in his heart.
“I have to apologise, I didn’t... I didn’t treat him well.”
A hand on his shoulder, warm and strong and yet so gentle. Wei Wuxian’s breath hitched as indecision nearly tore him in two. Should he shrug it off? Or should he put his own hand on top of Lan Wangji’s as if nothing changed?
In the end, Lan Wangji decided for him and moved further away. “Sizhui will understand. Now cultivate. Your wounds will heal faster with spiritual energy.”
Normal cultivation was like a limb Wei Wuxian had lost but always felt despite its absence. It had taken him many days to stop trying to reach for something that was no longer there – days that could have cost his life had he dallied any longer. He used to dream about flying on Suibian, about the warmth and weight of the golden core in his body, and those dreams always left him shaken in the morning.
And if he shed a tear after waking up, there was no one beside him to know.
Now that it was within his reach again, he held back, reluctant. The power was there, at his fingertips, and all he had to do was reach out and seize what he had once willingly given up. A second chance at life granted him by a nameless man – it was already more than he could have hoped for.
So he closed his eyes and let his mind wander inward. The golden core was right there, waiting; much weaker than his old – his first, his original, his greatest treasure given away without a second thought. Still, it mattered not; it was more than he had had up till now—more than he had before his death.
It still felt surreal. It still felt wrong.
He pushed that thought aside lest it distracted him. The core lay waiting, so he seized it like he used to all those years ago. It felt like holding a sun in his palm, only the sun was in his heart; it shone in his veins and warmed his mind, and he wanted to weave a cloak out of it and hide in its shadow. He would disappear from the world and the world, in turn, would forget about him, and in time he would emerge to face a world changed. A fresh start and a quiet home, and a place to rest would all be there; and he would sit down and breathe without the burden of the past.
For the first time in years, that nostalgic musing was not a weakness that could kill him, but an indulgence he was more than welcome to enjoy. So he did, and his heart felt lighter.
The golden core was solid and steady in his mind’s hand. An exhale – and he let it settle, warm and steady. It was calm for a change, had been ever since he woke up. Then an inhale – and he pulled spiritual energy into his meridians. Just a small wisp of it, no more than a junior disciple barely out of their crib would. The flow was steady and seamlessly joined what was already coursing through his body. For a moment, he felt blissfully light-headed, doused with contentment and awash with warmth. For a moment, he could not care less that this was but a fraction of energy he had had at his disposal before the Sunshot Campaign. For a moment, everything was perfect.
Then the core jolted suddenly and it felt as if Wen Qing was cutting him open all over again.
He swayed on his feet, breathless. Lan Wangji was by his side within a blink of an eye, before Wei Wuxian uttered so much as a groan of pain.
“Wei Ying?” His arms were warm around Wei Wuxian’s waist. “What is the matter?”
Goosebumps rose on his skin as the water suddenly got even colder. “Nothing,” he said out of habit. The core shuddered again – his spiritual energy surged as well a breath later. His veins were full of fire while his lungs collapsed around his heart – and for one, terrifying moment Wei Wuxian was certain he would burst open right where he stood.
“Wei Ying!” Lan WangJi turned him around. He was taller than he had been in the past. “Talk to me.”
“I don’t think cultivating so soon after Qi deviation was a good idea.” Only now did he realise he gritted his teeth. Opening his mouth to speak was painful, and drawing a breath felt akin to swallowing flames. “That’s it for today.”
Lan Wangji’s arms tightened around him. It did nothing to ease his breathing. At any other day and any other time, in circumstances that would be his choice, it would please Wei Wuxian to have that effect on someone, to have someone who cared for him.
Now, all he wanted to do was escape.
“Lan Zhan, I’ll be fine.” He could tell himself that his voice was clipped, more bark than civil tone. “Your doctor said so, didn’t she? I just need to rest.” Tentatively, he put his hand on Lan Wangji’s arm. Muscles under his skin were tense, stone-like. “Please. I want to go to bed and sleep. I probably should’ve just waited a few more days before actually doing anything.”
Lan Wangji closed his eyes for a moment. Eventually, he nodded wordlessly, and Wei Wuxian considered that a success he would have never achieved in the past. The satisfaction he felt at that was warm; it spread through him and filled him with contentment, soft and fragile. It was such a nice change, to be free of Lan Wangji’s ever-present hostility.
He let himself be led out of the springs and up the stone steps. Lan Wangji draped the black robe meticulously around him and only now Wei Wuxian could appreciate the softness of the fabric. He did not mind the assistance. Even though his golden core was less than agreeable, the pain of his wounds subsided greatly. Whatever magic the Lans had cast upon their springs ages ago, it still worked perfectly. Wei Wuxian decided to go and burn a handful of incense sticks in the Ancestral Hall the moment he felt well enough to walk on his own. Having married into the clan, surely he was allowed to enter the Hall whenever he wanted, was he not?
Married. To Lan Wangji, of all people. He still had a hard time wrapping his head around it.
Lan Wangji scooped him up without a preamble. Not even Wen Chao had rendered him speechless and yet here he was, Wei Wuxian, with a silver tongue and mind swift like a viper and just as deadly, left without a single word. And what could he even say in a situation such as this? What did anyone say to a person who cared for them, who loved them, all the while they remembered nothing of it?
Wei Wuxian glanced at the line of Lan Wangji’s jaw and could not even tell how he felt about him. Too many times had he heard, ‘He must hate you now,’ to not start believing it himself.
The house was quiet and dimly lit when they got back. Lan Wangji put him down on the bed, hands lingering and eyes averted. They spoke more than he ever could.
“I don’t remember... whatever this is between us,” Wei Wuxian blurted out before he could change his mind. Lan WangJi backed away as if burnt—and maybe he was. After all, words sometimes cut deeper than any knife. “But you... I don’t want you to behave like a stranger in your own home. I’m not going to have sex with you right now—”
Lan Wangji blanched and it would have been amusing if only the circumstances had been different. “You’re injured!”
“—but you can touch me,” Wei Wuxian finished, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. Whatever experience he—they—had, he forgot it all and that left him with nothing but his imagination to draw from. That, in turn, gave him absolutely nothing. “You don’t have to treat me as if I’m about to break. I’m not. I’m injured, not made of golden foil.”
After a moment of silence, Lan Wangji sat down next to him. Another, even longer while had to pass before he took Wei Wuxian’s hand. It was trembling slightly; Wei Wuxian squeezed it gently, trying to convey reassurance while pretending he did not need it himself.
“I...” Lan Wangji’s voice was quiet, uncertain. It had always been like that and so when he spoke, the wind itself stopped blowing and the mountains stooped down to listen. Now Wei Wuxian could hardly discern his words, even though he was sitting right next to him. “I do not...”
Wei Wuxian lay down slowly, mindful of his wounds and the nauseating fluctuations of spiritual energy. He tugged at Lan Wangji’s hand even though his heart was beating like mad. Whatever Lan Wangji wanted now, was more than Wei Wuxian could possibly handle.
But it did not change the fact that he had a husband to comfort, and that husband was little more than a stranger to him.
“Come,” he said, tugging again at Lan Wangji’s hand. His voice was suffused with bravado so false that even he cringed at it. “Don’t be like that.”
An eternity passed before Lan Wangji lay down next to him, stiff as a board. Wei Wuxian waited in silence; at the very least, he could offer that small comfort. What would the future him do? Would he tease until Lan Wangji break? Would he laugh and talk until no one remembered what silence even was? Would he take Lan Wangji’s face in his hands and kiss it all over?
Eventually, finally, Lan Wangji gripped his hand tightly. He pressed his face into Wei Wuxian’s arm and Wei Wuxian had enough self-restraint left not to comment on the dampness he felt on his skin.
“You almost died.” He had never heard Lan Wangji so shaken, so broken. His voice was that of a man from whom life had ripped everything he held dear. “I cannot lose you again.”
“I’m not that easy to kill, Lan Zhan.” He always resorted to humour when words failed him, but never stopped to think twice about it. Now Lan Wangji went rigid next to him, his grip tightening even further. Any more of it and Wei Wuxian would have to start to worry about his hand. “Sorry, sorry, don’t mind me. I know...”
He shut his mouth. After all, he did not know.
For a long while, Lan Wangji’s shaky breathing and Wei Wuxian’s own thundering heartbeat were the only sounds he could hear. The silence that fell over the Cloud Recesses at night was that of a yawning grave.
“How did I get injured?” he asked the question that was nagging him mercilessly from the moment he had seen the wounds. They were extreme even for a cultivator – and this body seemed to be mediocre at cultivation at best. Chenqing remaining within a hand’s reach was enough of a clue to realise that he still relied on demonic cultivation even as a Lan in anything but name. “You didn’t tell me earlier.”
“A night hunt. You were supervising the juniors.” Amidst the shock and confusion, a sliver of warmth found its way to Wei Wuxian’s heart. Even after everything that had happened, they still let him take care of the kids. It was inconceivable—it was wonderful. “They were investigating rumours about a demonic beast. It came after you rather than them and...” Instead of speaking, Lan Wangji put a hand on Wei Wuxian’s abdomen. The wounds stung a bit but all discomfort evaporated when spiritual energy followed the touch like nights followed days. “You killed it but it was fast enough to hurt you. And then...”
“Then you drew an array with your blood and activated it.”
He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at Lan Wangji. “Why did I do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know it happened? Were you there?”
Lan Wangji looked away from him. “I arrived after. Too late.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sizhui’s report. He described everything.”
Something was not right, but Wei Wuxian did not know what or at which point. “What kind of array was that?”
“I don’t know.” Displeasure was written clearly on Lan Wangji’s face, but Wei Wuxian could not tell what it was directed at. Neither did he know how to ask. He never knew with Lan Wangji. “I only saw a circle of scorched ground with you bleeding out in the middle of it.”
Lan Wangji’s desperate grip on his hand tightened again, so Wei Wuxian lay back down. What was he supposed to do now? Intimacy had been an unknown before – and now that he finally found out what it was like to have someone to rely on, he forgot it all.
How much time did they spend on learning about each other? How many days did they devote to acquainting themselves with the shape of their bodies and the cadence of their voices in the throes of pleasure? What exactly happened to make him look at Lan Wangji and think, ‘I want to marry that man’?
Now Wei Wuxian was seeing only a person who had once almost become his friend.
Still, he snuggled against Lan Wangji’s side as much as his wounds allowed. Maybe if he kept doing that, his heart would remember what his mind did not. “I’ll figure it out later,” he mumbled, putting a considerable effort to make his voice sound more tired than he truly was. This was neither time nor place for him to unravel the tangled knot of his relationship with Lan Wangji. “Please don’t wake me up at some unholy hour in the morning.”
Lan Wangji said nothing. Instead, he brushed his lips against Wei Wuxian’s forehead in a kiss that was more a whisper than actual touch. Lying so close to him, Wei Wuxian smelled only sandalwood that permanently clung to his robes. He did not mind. Even though it lacked familiarity, anything was better than the smell of ash and decay that ruled at the Burial Mounds.
Curled against Lan Wangji’s side, he lay awake long into the night, thinking of nothing.
Liu Yingyue came back in the afternoon with Lan Wangji hot on her heels.
Wei Wuxian was in and out of it the entire morning. When he slept, he dreamt of unclear shapes and incessant whispers. Being awake brought him endless thoughts and the throbbing of the golden core in his chest. There was no escape from either, and exhaustion grew every time he woke up.
By the time they arrived, he wanted to scream.
“Master Wei.” Liu Yingyue dropped familiarity she had treated him with the day before. He did not mind that in the slightest. To him, they were strangers. “Hanguang-Jun told me you couldn’t cultivate yesterday.”
“I’ve... had some difficulties,” he admitted, too tired to think about flowery excuses and half-hearted lies. Whatever was affecting his golden core, he just wanted it to stop. There was already more than enough on his mind. “How much time has to pass after Qi deviation before it’s safe to use spiritual energy again?”
“It depends on the person and their cultivation.” She approached the bed and held out her hand. “May I?”
Wei Wuxian smiled at her, and there was nothing pleasant about that smile. “You’re the doctor.”
Lan Wangji was standing right next to him, watching Liu Yingyue without a word. His face was impassive save for a nigh imperceptible furrow. He had left in the morning before Wei Wuxian even woke up, and came back a few hours later with a tray of food. ‘Acting Sect Leader,’ someone had called him the day before. Wei Wuxian could see it – the harried look in his eyes and the need to be everywhere at once that bled out of him and soured the air itself. He remembered it well – uncle Jiang had acted the same way many, many years ago when the Lotus Pier still stood and the ground was not coated with blood.
It was an incredibly bad look on Lan Wangji.
“Your golden core is completely out of sync with your meridians,” Liu Yingyue said after a while. She was still holding his wrist. Wei Wuxian felt his pulse throb against her fingers. “It wasn’t like this before your injury.”
“Qi deviation?” Lan Wangji asked before Wei Wuxian could. His voice was steady, but his hands were balled into fists. Had he been doing that in the past as well? Wei Wuxian could not recall it no matter how hard he tried.
“No, it would have escalated by now.” She probed further, and he felt tendrils of her spiritual energy mingle with his. It was a weak, dull sensation; as if someone cut off his hands and told him to touch something. “Use your spiritual energy, master Wei.”
“Anything.” She was looking at him but he doubted she was actually seeing him. He felt bare under her scrutiny, taken apart piece by piece. “Just a little bit.”
And thus he poked her hand, putting as much force in it as a toddler would. At first, he felt nothing; then another wave of energy rippled through him like a wave, bringing nausea back in the full force.
“You don’t have it under control,” Liu Yingyue said, still watching him avidly. “It’s as if your body responds to you will with delay.”
How marvellously useless her words were. Annoyance rose within him and Wei Wuxian did nothing to control it. “What does it mean? How do I fix it?”
“You tell me, master Wei,” she shot back. “It’s your body. You should’ve noticed warning signs earlier.”
“But it’s not my body, isn’t it? Not really. Some desperate idiot sacrificed himself to summon me.” He looked at Lan Wangji. “At least that’s what you told me yesterday.”
Liu Yingyue gripped his hand tighter. “Tell me about the body offering ritual,” she demanded. Her spiritual energy expanded in his meridians; being cut open from within would probably hurt less. “It’s your invention, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s...” He sucked in a breath when a more insistent nudge left him breathless and blind for a moment. Whatever she was doing, he was more than tempted to tell her to stop. “The caster sacrifices his soul and pays in his body to summon a ghost of their choice.”
“And? What about the summoned soul?”
“It gets bound to—shit—the body as if it were born with it.” He wheezed in a breath when Liu Yingyue tugged at something in his mind and pulled, and it felt like his mind shattered in two. “Will you stop?!”
“Can it be undone?” She was still holding his hand but at least the incessant probing stopped. “The binding created by the ritual.”
“No.” When did he even invent that ritual? It had to have been one of those days that were nothing but a blur of urgency and whispers in his memory. “There are two arrays involved in this. The one outside is the summoning circle, but the one on the body is what binds the ghost to it.”
“So if the soul was banished from the body, the binding would activate again and pull the soul back?”
“In theory, yes.” He gave her a mirthless smile. “Physician Liu, are you planning on learning demonic cultivation? I don’t even know if I’m taking students right now.”
“No students,” Lan Wangji said quietly. He had not moved in a while and resembled a rope with only one last thread still intact. Any careless move, any stronger gust of wind, and it would snap. Wei Wuxian did not want to be the one to make that happen. “You do not teach demonic cultivation.”
“Good.” He still remembered the cold on that first day he had touched it, and the slimy movement of resentful energy under his skin. It crawled and crawled until there was nothing else left inside him. “I don’t trust anyone with it.”
“Physician Liu,” Lan Wangji said, “why the questions about the body offering ritual?”
She finally let go of Wei Wuxian’s hand. He still felt the echo of her spiritual energy in his meridians. It resembled a tiny speck lost amidst the vast nothingness, just as far out of his reach as his own was. Perhaps this body should have never developed the golden core. If nausea and discomfort were the price to pay, he would rather live without it.
“Master Wei’s soul used to be frayed. Weak.” She looked at Wei Wuxian and he could read nothing from her face. “This one isn’t.”
Lan Wangji turned to face Wei Wuxian faster than he had ever moved before. Wei Wuxian did not even glance at him, focused as he was on Liu Yingyue. “What are you talking about?”
“Hanguang-Jun,” she said even though she held Wei Wuxian’s eyes steady and without flinching, “is there something you know your husband didn’t remember? Something only he would know?”
Lan Wangji swallowed – in the silence of the house, the sound of it was louder than a thunderclap. “The three months at the Burial Mounds. He only ever remembered coming out of them.”
“What?” Wei Wuxian whipped around. Lan Wangji’s eyes were wide and his face – pale. He looked like a ghost. Wei Wuxian would now; he had seen more ghosts in his life than living people. “That’s not true. I remember it. Maybe not clearly, because some things are better left forgotten, but... I remember. I carved Chenqing with a knife older than the GusuLan Sect. It turned to dust in my hands when I was done with it. I used bones as splints for my ankle because I broke it after Wen Chao threw me off the mountain. Do you know that bones are actually more durable than metal down there? It must be because of resentful energy, there’s no other way.”
Memories came back to him one after another, unbidden. He had tried to forget those days more often than not and never really succeeded. They were ingrained in his mind too deeply to ever be rid of them.
“Did you know,” he said, slower this time, “that the Burial Mounds have a heart? There’s a hill where no ghost, no corpse or wandering spirit ever goes to. The hill is empty and silent, and in the middle of it, there’s a blackened patch of ground. When you approach it, you can hear singing. An off-tune, wordless murmur – a lullaby sung to themselves by a child who’s never heard one.” He had never dared tell anyone that story. Not when the Burial Mounds stretched around them, silent but always listening. “I had Chenqing with me when I found that place, so of course I played to test it out. I called – and the worst thing is that he answered. And he saw me.”
It had haunted his dreams for so long, that day he called upon someone he should have never invoke. He had pushed out that face from his memory, but images of red and silver still remained, just like the feeling of an overpowering, debilitating terror. People used to say he was fearless during the war, but the truth was he had seen what fear looked like and the Wens could not compare to it.
“What must happen to a child for them to become a nightmare?” he asked them both, Lan Wangji and Liu Yingyue, and silence was his answer. “There’s no way I forgot that. Him. Not even the Seal gave me that many nightmares.”
Lan Wangji was looking at him and oh, this time Wei Wuxian knew exactly what kind of feeling was shining in his eyes. After all, he knew fear better than anyone.
“What does it mean?” Lan Wangji asked; quietly, breathlessly. Words came out of his mouth clipped and hasty. No matter how great his self-control was, it was now slipping. Wei Wuxian saw it in the way his eyes darted from him to Liu Yingyue, and in the force with which he clenched his fists. “Physician Liu. What does it mean?”
“It means,” she said just as quietly and even slower. Wei Wuxian wanted to grab them both and shake them until they stopped playing whatever it was that was unfolding in front of him. “It means that this isn’t your husband’s soul.”
Lan Wangji staggered right where he stood. Wei Wuxian spared him a glance and then focused his attention back on Liu YingYue. He could not handle both of them at once and as of now, he preferred answers. “What do you mean by that?” he asked and his voice made Chenqing rattle on the table where it lay. Lan Wangji must have put it back there in the morning because Wei Wuxian definitely had not done it himself. “I know who I am. Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, son of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze, the former head disciple of the YunmengJiang Sect. The Yiling Patriarch, as you all kept calling me. Who else could I be?”
“I didn’t say you aren’t yourself, master Wei.” For the first time since he met her, Liu Yingyue sounded unsure. Wen Qing would have never allowed herself such weakness. “I’m just... What did you say was the last thing you remembered?”
Voices. Voices all around him and inside his head as he had taken the disaster of his own making into his hands and attempted to undo it. “I broke the Seal. And then I woke up here.”
“Then that’s who you are.” Even though her voice was steady, she could not control her expression – and that screamed of uncertainty. “You’re still Wei Wuxian, but a different one. A younger soul, so to speak. Not yet damaged.”
“How?” he croaked after a while. Numbness spread in his body, but his mind was light, almost carefree. “Is that why I don’t remember anything?”
“Why would you remember memories that aren’t yours?” Sadness crept into her voice and made it brittle, weak. Her face was no different. “As of how... It’s your ritual, master Wei. You tell me.”
He had never known relief could feel like that – so light, so bright. “It’s... Uhm.” He swallowed a laugh that threatened to spill from his lips. “It’s an equivalent exchange. A soul for a soul. So if I’m here, then...”
He glanced at Lan Wangji and wished he could avert his eyes. Grief was an old friend of his and he would recognise it anywhere – even if it was on Lan Wangji’s usually expressionless face.
But oh, was it reflecting so much right now.
“I’m sorry,” he said even though it was emptiness wrapped in two words. What else was he supposed to say? What could anyone say in a situation such as this?
And then Lan Wangji was gone, and the silence reigned once more.
High above the rooftops of the Cloud Recesses, between the trees and the mountains, across the distance unimaginable, the echo carried the notes of Inquiry well into the night. Wei Wuxian knew who they were supposed to reach, just like he knew no answer would ever come. After all, they were for him.
Him, who was already dead.
Wei Wuxian had fallen asleep to an empty house but woke up to Lan Wangji’s quiet presence by the bedside.
Papers and scrolls lay forgotten on the writing table. Those had to be new – he remembered it being nearly empty save for Chenqing and a handful of notes. Lan Wangji must have brought them, most likely with every intention on working on them. But here he was, sitting on the edge of the bed with his face hidden in his hands. He made no sound and no move, not even the slightest twitch. Even his breathing was inaudible, and not for the first time Wei Wuxian was reminded why he and his brother had always been likened to jade. Immovable and untouchable they were, ethereal like the immortals they strived to become.
If only people knew it took losing a husband to break Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian’s heart twisted in... pain? Regret? Envy? He could not tell, for what he felt was overwhelming and nearly forgotten. It reminded him of all those times Lan Wangji had drawn a sword on him, his face as cold as ever. Had that truly been what someone would do to a person they cared about?
What a bloody joke.
He hoisted himself up into a sitting position, expecting a flare of pain from his wounds. Much to his surprise, nearly nothing came – at least compared to the days prior, when even breathing had hurt. Some of the pain remained, yes, and the uncomfortable tugging at the edges of the cuts still drove him mad, but it was nowhere near to what it had been.
Blessed be the GusuLan Sect’s cold springs and their healing properties.
Lan Wangji’s voice was a small, broken thing – a thing Wei Wuxian would rather hide from. But hide he could not and neither could he run, so he took a deep breath and turned to look at...
Who were they, now, given the circumstances? He feared the answer, knowing well enough that he was too weak to protest if he was forced to leave.
Lan Wangji made an aborted move as if he wanted to help him get up and then thought better of it. He remained like that, awkwardly hovering, half-standing, with arms outstretched and a mouth twisted downwards in a painful grimace. He sat back down eventually; after a while too long and too painful to watch.
“Are you...” He cleared his throat, eyes focused on his lap. His hands were folded there, shaking minutely and clutched around fistfuls of robes. It was a far cry from the cool and composed Second Jade of Lan he had always been. “How are you feeling?”
Once upon a time, Wei Wuxian would have brushed the question off and pretended to be invincible. At some point, he had even fooled himself into believing just that, having no other choice. But now a shadow of his own making lay at his feet and bared its teeth at him, broken but never forgotten; now memories of fire were burning bright in his heart – and Wei Wuxian was tired of himself.
“Better,” he said for that was the truth even if only regarding his injury. That at least seemed to be improving. He had enough of wounds that never healed. “The spring must have helped.”
Lan Wangji nodded like an obedient junior and if only the situation was different, Wei Wuxian would have laughed and teased him about it.
“We will go again today.”
Annoyance sparked to life and bubbled in Wei Wuxian’s throat but he swallowed it down lest it made him say something he would definitely regret later. Staying silent did not mean he disregarded it, though, this overwhelming feeling of being out of place. There was no fixing it, no forgetting – not when everything around reminded him of intruding upon the life he had no right to.
“I should...” Tentatively, he stood up, slow and sluggish, expecting an explosion of pain. None came; this current dull throbbing was bothersome but manageable. Lan Wangji made another aborted move, but in the end did nothing and Wei Wuxian was grateful for it. “I think I can go on my own today. You don’t have to—”
He glanced up, unsure when he even stopped looking. Lan Wangji was within a hand’s reach, no doubt ready to move at the slightest wobble in Wei Wuxian’s step. It should be reassuring, empowering even – and yet deep in his heart Wei Wuxian felt as if he was given scraps.
“You don’t have to bother with me, Lan Zhan. I’m sure you have things to take care of.”
“Uncle is responsible for the Sect today.”
So Lan Qiren was still alive? He had always been surprisingly resilient but having been forced to live in the same place as Wei Wuxian could not have been easy on him.
Living in the Cloud Recesses. It was a concept almost as inconceivable as marrying Lan Wangji. And yet the him he was not for some reason had chosen both.
“I’m sure he’s...” Happy that the pest he hated was on the brink of death? Fuming that his nephew decided to dump his duties on him? What was their relationship, Lan Qiren and Wei Wuxian’s from before? Somehow, he doubted they got along; things could not have changed that much.
Lan Wangji hummed – and that was it. Was Wei Wuxian supposed to understand what that hum meant? Maybe he had, once, that person he had become after dying and being brought back to life at the expense of another person’s life. But that version of him was gone for some reason, thrown back to the brink of death to careen right off it, and him he was now hardly knew anything about this life he was supposed to lead.
“An ill spouse takes priority.”
It was like a knife to the gut, like beastly claws tearing into the muscles of his abdomen. He could hardly forget the gravity of his situation and here Lan Wangji was, finding additional ways to remind him of it. It left a sour aftertaste in his mouth, taunting him with dreams of belonging he had once discarded but never forgotten. Now that he finally had them in his grasp, they turned out to be a stolen treasure.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji’s tone was pleading, his eyes searching all over Wei Wuxian’s face for... What was he even hoping to find?
A sign of the man he had married, no doubt. The man Wei Wuxian was not.
He looked away. Lan Wangji let out a shuddering, broken sigh and fell silent. For a moment, neither spoke, and the silence grated uncomfortably on Wei Wuxian’s nerves. He had never been fond of it. His thoughts had always been too loud to bear.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji spoke again, firmer this time. And only after Wei Wuxian looked at him again did he lower his head and knelt, a perfect picture of reverence and shame. “Forgive me. I have wronged you.”
Breath hitched in Wei Wuxian’s throat. For a moment, he neither spoke nor moved; he only watched Lan Wangji kneel in front of him with his head bowed and hands clenched around his robes. Words did not come. His mind was empty, tired, echoing with screams and curses rather than gentle whispers and affectionate promises. What could he even say? What was appropriate in this kind of situation?
He did not know how to handle Lan Wangji. He never had.
“Get up, please.” Even though the voice of this body sounded wrong to his ears, he knew it was even worse now, strained and choked. “Lan Zhan, get up. You did nothing wrong.”
Should he pull him up? Would Lan Wangji recoil under the touch of a stranger? Surely he must have got over his aversion to human touch to be able to share the bed and life with another person.
“I did.” Lan Wangji was still kneeling, his head hung even lower. “Yesterday, I... I didn’t stay with you.”
Wei Wuxian would lie if he said that Lan Wangji’s abrupt departure had not hurt. On the other hand, it had been completely justified and understandable, and he could hardly hold it against him. He probably would have acted the same way if he had realised the person he loved was no longer with him.
What was it even like, to love someone? To find comfort in another person’s embrace, to share the days and nights and the thoughts alike? What was it like, to have someone stand by him regardless of circumstances? Wei Wuxian had never found out.
“It’s fine,” he said now, forcing a smile that felt wrong on his face. “I’m not... I wasn’t surprised.”
That made Lan Wangji look up, and in his eyes was hurt unimaginable.
“After all,” Wei Wuxian went on and something in his heart uncoiled, poisonous and bitter, “I’m not who you thought I was. It would be... No one wants to stick around a stranger, I get it.”
Never in their teenage years had Wei Wuxian seen so many emotions flicker on Lan Wangji’s face. He used to think him immovable, heartless and cold, shaped by the rules no ordinary person could possibly follow. There was no sign of that Lan Wangji now. Neither had there been a day prior when he curled by Wei Wuxian’s side and clung to him like a drowning man.
“Not a stranger,” he said now. In spite of emotional turmoil, his voice was unwavering and full of determination. “Wei Ying is Wei Ying.”
Stabbing would be less painful. Wei Wuxian scowled and plopped back down on the bed, hard. “Lan Zhan, you know I... I’m not your husband.”
Lan Wangji’s face contorted in a grimace he could not read. It was the first time he had ever seen it, or perhaps he simply paid no mind to whatever emotions might have reflected on Lan Wangji’s face in the past. After all, one day he had simply stopped looking for who could take years of scorn and dismissal?
“Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeated now, as stubborn as ever. He extended his hand, palm up, and all Wei Wuxian had to do was take it. “My—”
“But I’m not him!”
Lan Wangji froze like that, with the hand in the air and a shattered expression on his face. Wei Wuxian had to take a deep breath to steady his madly beating heart and anger that bubbled in his chest. It threatened to bleed out of him in waves, unstoppable once it started.
“I’m not him,” he said again when he had his voice under control. It rang in his mind and thundered in his heart, and sounded just like the whispers of the Stygian Tiger Seal. “I’m not—I’m not. His experiences, the life you two shared, I don’t know that. I’m just a...”
What was he, really, if not merely a man who should have died but did not and robbed another one of the life he had made?
“You’re Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said once more as if those were the only words he knew. Hesitantly, he placed a hand on Wei Wuxian’s knee. The touch was feather-light, barely there. “Wei Wuxian. Son of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze. That’s what matters.”
“Am I supposed to believe it doesn’t bother you?” he asked before he could stop himself. Lan Wangji’s eyes darted to the side momentarily, but long enough for Wei Wuxian to notice. “It does, doesn’t it? That I’m not your husband?”
Uncertainty in Lan Wangji’s eyes gave way to determination. Without a moment of deliberation, he reached out and took both of Wei Wuxian’s hands in his. “Wei Ying is Wei Ying. The rest is...”
“The rest is what, Lan Zhan? Irrelevant? You can’t expect me to believe you really think that.”
Some part of him urged him to tear his hands from Lan Wangji’s grasp. It was a gesture for the man who was no more – a gesture Wei Wuxian so desperately wanted to be for him. And yet he did not move, and the comfort he found in Lan Wangji’s touch outweighed the guilt. One day, most likely sooner rather than later, he was going to have to give it up and when that day came, he would carve out his heart not to feel the loss.
“What matters is that you heal.” Lan Wangji finally looked at him, still just as determined. “That is a priority.”
Was that how he coped with loss? Wei Wuxian was definitely not going to call him out on that. How many nights and days had he spent cooped up in his cave, hoping to silence the memories and the barrage of second thoughts that nagged relentlessly at him all day and night? They had been his only companion for so long that life without them seemed impossible.
It was the kind of impossible that not even a YunmengJiang disciple could undertake and emerge victorious. It was the kind of impossible that brought people to their knees and left them bereft of everything they held dear, and only then did it take what was left.
His shoulders sagged now, bent under the weight of regrets. Only Lan Wangji’s grip anchored him to reality, warm and reassuring. It seemed familiar, bizarrely so, but the memories to which it called were lost to him. A lot of them were; others he could not forget no matter how much he wanted to.
“All right,” he finally agreed. “Healing first. Then I have to figure out what happened to me that caused...”
He left it unsaid. They both knew what he meant, after all.
Lan Wangji rose to his feet and extended his hand again. “The cold springs, then.”
Wei Wuxian was looking at it for a while. Once upon a time that was a few days which in fact proved to be sixteen years, he would have bristled and laughed. He would have swatted the hand and rejected the help that came with it, too proud to afford accepting it. There had been no place for it in his world, not on days filled with terror and nights resounding with whispers.
Not when the shadow had laid cold and heavy on his chest, when it had writhed in his palm and crawled up to embrace him in a mockery of a lover’s touch Wei Wuxian had never known.
Lan Wangji was neither of those and maybe for a little while it was going to be enough.
“The cold springs,” Wei Wuxian agreed and took his hand.
Lan WangJi’s attention was suffocating.
He walked by Wei Wuxian’s side and watched over him as he stepped into the cold spring. He hovered over him as he dressed, stretching and testing the pull of the wounds. He grabbed his elbow as they slowly made their way back to the house even though there was no falter in Wei Wuxian’s steps and no weariness on his face.
Lan Wangji was there, always, and it was more than he had ever done and much, much more than what Wei Wuxian was accustomed to.
He knew Lan Wangji’s scorn and righteous anger, he knew the feeling of his blade against Suibian and the coldness of spiritual energy clashing with his own. And yet now Lan Wangji had become a shadow, unshakeable and immovable, always there in the peripheries of Wei Wuxian’s vision. It reminded him of another shadow, one that had held him even tighter and just as sweetly, one that had whispered to his ear during the day and woven phantoms into dreams at nights.
He had nearly drowned back then; now, too, he was teetering on the brink with no way of escape.
A budding scream lodged itself in his throat. It grew with every touch and concerned look, every time Lan Wangji made a tiny move that would have probably resulted in him holding Wei Wuxian’s arm if he had only not stopped himself in time. Any more of it, and Wei Wuxian would lose control and let it out – and he was unsure he would be able to stop anytime soon.
He had swallowed years of screams and let out only whimpers at nights.
They were heading back—where, exactly? What should he call that spacious house where the only signs of life were his? A house? A home? It was not his; he had simply barged in announced and unwanted and taken another man’s place—even if that man was himself.
What happened to him that night? To them?
He stopped in the middle of the path without a word. Lan Wangji did the same a moment later, his expression inscrutable.
“I’d like to see A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian said. Who needed empty pleasantries in a situation such as this? “And read his report. You said there was one...?”
“En.” Lan Wangji looked around as if figuring something out. Whatever it was, it took a while long enough to make Wei Wuxian jittery with unease. “Sizhui—A-Yuan. He should be available in the evening.”
Too long to wait and yet not long enough to come up with an appropriate apology. It would have to do, though. “Then... the report?”
Was it normal for the GusuLan cultivators to write reports about every night hunt they attended? Wei Wuxian had only ever been the guest disciple – and even that had not lasted long. Whatever the customary rules were, he was unaware of them; be it all those years ago or now.
He did not care. After all, he was not going to remain here for long.
“The library,” Lan Wangji said. “I’ll get it for you.”
And Wei Wuxian was supposed to do... what? Go back to bed and wait? The very thought made him nauseous.
“I’ll go with you.”
For one tense moment, Lan Wangji said nothing. Wei Wuxian stood his ground and stared at him with determination that even a fool would recognise as fake. Lan Wangji of old would have called him out on it without hesitation, but this one only nodded and said, “Come.”
And Wei Wuxian followed.
A-Yuan’s calligraphy was as perfect as it could get. Wei Wuxian would have never been able to teach him that, not with his own style which – according to Wen Qing – resembled scribbles made by a twitching corpse. Letters he was looking at were prim and proper in a way that could have only been born of countless days of repetition and diligent studies.
Lan Wangji’s writing looked exactly the same.
Had he put the boy in his lap and showed him how to write? How to make the strokes one by one until they were etched in the muscle memory? Had he been gentle? Patient? A-Yuan had been such a lively child, always running off the moment something caught his interest. Wei Wuxian could hardly imagine him following all of GusuLan’s innumerable rules. It was even more difficult to think of Lan Wangji as a parent. Here he was, though, seemingly a successful parent that raised a child all the way to maturity.
For that alone Wei Wuxian would be forever grateful.
It did not change the fact that the contents of the report were... disappointing, to say the least. A-Yuan had written only a few sentences, short and succinct, lacking anything past the detached observation of facts. There were no assumptions hidden between the words, no ideas or hints Wei Wuxian could draw upon.
No. The report was dry and Lannish to the bone.
A demonic beast, vaguely canine in appearance, with unseeing, bleeding eyes and claws sharper than a cultivator’s sword. A moment of peace had come after its demise and then a hastily drawn and activated array had burnt the ground away and Wei Wuxian with it.
What a waste of time.
“Didn’t he say anything else? Anything at all?”
Lan Wangji gently took the page from him. It was crumpled around the edges – he did not even notice when he clenched his fists around it.
“If there was anything else, Sizhui would have mentioned it in his report.”
Of course he would. He was a Lan now, after all; Hanguang-Jun’s perfect son. Wei Wuxian swallowed a pang of irrational anger and firmly decided to ignore it. This was no reason for frustration. On the contrary: he should be happy that the child he had nearly come to consider his own got a chance at a better life.
But the seed of that illogical frustration remained in his heart, persistent, and fed on envy.
“I’ll have to ask him,” he spoke out loud, long used to talking to himself and hearing only the echoes in the cave. “Maybe there’s something he forgot about.”
There had to be.
“If you think so.” Lan Wangji’s voice was quiet, appropriately so for a library. “I will seek him out later and tell him you want to see him.”
It was such a novelty, to hear him forego his usual scornful quip. Those simple words and gentle tone contradicted everything Wei Wuxian remembered. Riling Lan Wangji up had always been easier than breathing, but this—oh, this was uncharted territory and he had to tread lightly.
“You’re... different,” he said, going through many a possibility and in the end choosing the simplest one. A questioning hum was all he got in response and yet it was more than enough. “You used to be so angry when you were a teenager. Or maybe it was just me who made you react that way.”
In the beginning, Lan Wangji had settled opposite him. Now he got up and moved to sit right next to him, closer than he would have ever done in the past. Wei Wuxian’s first reaction was to scramble to his feet and flee, or at least put some distance between them. Everyone knew he needed space, for the shadow in his arms was suffocating enough without people hovering around him. If Lan Wangji only asked—
But there was no one to ask, not anymore. Death had claimed them all.
“It was your fault, yes,” Lan Wangji said, looking down at his hands. He folded them in his lap, proper as ever. “As it was mine. I didn’t know how to... come to terms with my feelings.”
Feelings. Right. He had feelings for Wei Wuxian, as ridiculous as that was. “I still can’t believe you actually...”
“And that is why it’s my fault as well.”
How many times had he talked about this with his husband? It must have been plenty – no words of his had ever flowed as easily, not even those spoken in anger in the midst of battle. The fights and arguments were exactly what Wei Wuxian was most familiar with. After all, Lan Wangji had rarely graced him with conversations on different occasions.
That one day in Yiling flashed in his mind and this time he did not push it down. Those few hours had been so precious, so unexpected. He had kept them alive in his memory and recalled phantoms of laughter and contentment whenever the weight of resentment in his heart and hand had grown too heavy. For months, he had been wondering why Lan Wangji had stayed with him that day and only now did he get an answer, sixteen years too late.
Had Lan Wangji been honest with him from the start, would he have stayed at the Burial Mounds? Or would Wei Wuxian have chased him away, terrified of the unfathomable and unacceptable?
Now, a part of him wanted to do exactly that.
“What a shame you don’t have my notes,” he said eventually, looking around the quiet library. It was empty save for the two of them and he was grateful for it. A bunch of rowdy juniors – or, at least, what constituted rowdy in the Cloud Recesses – was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now and in the foreseeable future. “I could’ve...”
Could have what? It was unlikely he would figure out how to settle the golden core in this body without knowing what had happened to make it so volatile.
“I—we do.” Lan Wangji’s stubborn streak would have been commendable if only the cause of it had been different. Now, though, hearing about the bond that no longer existed between them was unsettling just so to make Wei Wuxian want to run away from it. “They were recovered from Jin Guangyao after his death.”
They had talked about that, had they not? Under the starlit sky and to the soothing murmur of the waterfall. Wei Wuxian had paid little attention to the story, hoping he would eventually recall it all on his own.
As it turned out, he had nothing to remember, for those experiences were not his.
“Could you... tell me again what happened during those sixteen years?” he asked, more than certain that his request was going to be dismissed. “I’ll make sure to remember this time, I promise.”
Lan Wangji squeezed his shoulder – briefly, just for a blink of an eye – and said, “En.”
And yet his eyes were full of sadness – one that echoed in the emptiness of Wei Wuxian’s heart. Nothing could be said to alleviate it, nothing could possibly make it better – and so Wei Wuxian remained silent and listened, and something between them stretched and then snapped, its frayed edges slipping from his grasp.
He let them. They were not his to catch.
The afternoon brought him solitude Wei Wuxian so dearly missed.
After the fruitless visit to the library, Lan Wangji had accompanied him to the house, brought him dinner and excused himself. He had not come back ever since but Wei Wuxian did not mind. Quiet moments to gather his thoughts were apparently going to be a rare occurrence.
And so he busied himself with learning the layout of the house. He left no corner unexplored, no paper untouched. He went through the wardrobe and the desk, through the stacks of scrolls and the hidden compartment next to the bed. The wine was a sight unexpected but welcome, while the book of cut-sleeve pornography brought a blush to his cheeks and shame to his heart. He stuffed it back where he found it.
Coming to terms with Lan Wangji’s supposed affection was already difficult enough even without acknowledging the physical aspect of it.
Evidence of Wei Wuxian’s presence was everywhere – from the weapons and the notes to the clothes in the wardrobe. He ran his fingers over the fabric, much softer and better than anything he had ever worn. Various shades of black and red stood out in the midst of white and blue. There was even a full set of perfectly folded GusuLan robes that were far too small for Lan Wangji.
It took a moment for the realisation to sink in but when it finally did, Wei Wuxian backed off as if bitten by a dog, his heart reeling.
A heavy, bitter bile settled in his throat. No matter how many times he swallowed, there was no getting rid of it. It tasted like failure and loss, and he knew it better than anything.
Thus he threw himself into work like he always did when his mind refused to quieten. His notes were unsorted, projects – mixed up; some of the pages were bloodied and others covered in soot. Talisman designs, pages upon pages of theories about resentful energy, each one of them wilder than the previous one. He hardly remembered writing those – a good chunk of them was the result of delirium he had succumbed to at the end, when the Stygian Tiger Seal had taken a hold of him and he’d had nothing more to lose but himself. Surprisingly, even a handful of arrays survived the destruction that had befallen the Burial Mounds. The body offering ritual was amongst them, just like that abandoned half an array he had never dared to finish.
Despite that, it was one of the few he could draw and cast regardless of circumstances. He would never risk that, though. The cost was too great and the consequences of failure – unimaginable.
On a whim, he buried that particular page beneath a pile of scrolls covered by a thin layer of dust. It was enough for now; perhaps one day he would be brave enough to burn that array and pretend it never existed.
It was easy to lose the track of time – he had done it so many times before that it felt like a second nature now. Only a soft knock on the door managed to bring him back from the haze of countless notes and endless diagrams. The evening had already come and he did not even notice.
For a moment, he considered ignoring the knocking. Lan Wangji would have already entered if it were him; Wei Wuxian’s desire to see anyone else was non-existent. Before, he could hide behind an excuse of a memory loss, but now even that was no longer within his reach.
What was everyone going to think when they realised the man they knew was no more?
Another knock, and then a familiar voice asked, “Senior Wei?”.
Wei Wuxian was on his feet before he even registered he moved.
A-Yuan – Lan Sizhui, that was his name now and he better remembered that – was standing on the other side of the door. Nothing broke his composure, not even a twitch of a finger, and his face was the perfect example of the Lans’ otherworldly benevolence. Even his forehead ribbon was adorned with a cloud motif, making it obvious for everyone that he had been adopted into the clan itself, not only the sect.
Had Lan Qiren coughed up blood upon hearing about Lan Wangji’s decision to adopt a Wen child?
“Senior Wei?” Lan Sizhui asked again, quieter this time. Even though his face reflected nothing, hesitation made his voice quiver.
It was enough to shake Wei Wuxian out of his stupor. “Come in!” He stood aside, wincing at the volume of his voice. Echo carried it over the Cloud Recesses and broke the silence that had already begun to settle in for the night. “Come in, please.”
Lan Sizhui’s smile reminded him of Wen Ning. One had to look closely to notice the similarities between them but once it happened, the resemblance was uncanny. Even the slope of his nose was the same as Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s.
Oh, how Wei Wuxian missed them.
“Hanguang-Jun mentioned you wanted to see me?” Lan Sizhui asked, looking anywhere but at him. Even though Wei Wuxian had been expecting that kind of reaction, it still hurt.
Thus he did what he had always done – he smiled as widely as he could, and hoped it hid how dreadfully wretched he felt because of that.
“Yes, I did. I...” Had Lan Wangji even told him anything? Wei Wuxian had to be sure. “Are you aware of what happened?”
Lan Sizhui opened his mouth and then closed it without a word. His brow was furrowed and eyes troubled; it was just the kind of answer Wei Wuxian needed.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out without thinking. “I’m so sorry for...”
What was he even sorry about? Letting the Wens down all those years ago? Taking away the husband and the father, leaving his family with an old, broken version of himself who saw no light at the end of the road? He knew not; he hardly had time to sit down and come to terms with this situation.
Maybe even that was unneeded. Maybe all he had to do was find out how to reverse it, even if it meant going back to face the death he had so miraculously escaped.
“What are you...”
Wei Wuxian bowed before him; deeply, reverently, as if he was a junior before a senior. If anyone saw him, they would have laughed and mocked him for it – and he would take that scorn willingly.
“I failed you,” he said, head low and hands clasped in a perfect picture of respect not even Madame Yu had got out of him. “You and your family. I promised I would protect you and I failed. I should’ve fought harder, I—”
“Senior Wei.” Lan Sizhui grabbed him by the arms and pushed him back up, gently but with determination impossible to resist. “Senior Wei—father. You don’t need to apologise. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
The bloodshed he had caused, the death toll on his conscience – how could those be anything but his responsibility? Even though he had been holding onto life with his teeth and bare hands, there was no escaping the consequences of what he had sown.
Shadows closed above and swallowed him, and he let himself drown. “I have. I was too weak. The Sects had come and slaughtered everyone and I couldn’t stop them.”
Lan Sizhui’s hands on his arms were the only thing that kept him from slipping deeper into the hellish mud of his own thoughts. The touch brought him comfort, even though he hardly deserved it. He had nothing to give in return, no word to make up for the massacre he had failed to prevent.
“Father.” Lan Sizhui spoke softly, quietly. “My previous clan—I buried and mourned them. They’re at peace now. I am at peace. I’ve had a good life, all because of you. Because you hid me. You saved me. Does that count for nothing in your eyes?”
Wei Wuxian wanted to scream ‘No!’ until his throat was hoarse and bleeding, until he felt even a fraction of suffering the Wens had gone through. He grabbed Lan Sizhui instead and pulled him into his arms. His embrace was too tight and he knew it, but there was no loosening it, no letting go of the child who had once been the only good thing in his life.
He still saw traces of that child in the man Lan Sizhui had become.
Time lost its meaning as they stood in the middle of the house, neither letting go. It was Wei Wuxian who eventually moved back and smoothed Lan Sizhui’s wrinkled robes. Only now did he realise that between the two of them, he was the shorter one. He smiled, unable to hold it back – and Lan Sizhui smiled back.
“What did you want to talk about?” he asked, his voice a tad brighter and softer than moments ago. “Hanguang-Jun said there was something you wanted to ask.”
“Yes, I...” Wei Wuxian waved his hand around. “Why don’t you have a seat? Somewhere. Wherever you like.”
Every family had a routine, quirks only they knew. Perhaps Lan Sizhui had a place he usually sat in, or maybe he never came by at all. Wei Wuxian did not know – there was only so much Lan Wangji could tell him.
So when Lan Sizhui settled at the table, Wei Wuxian sat down opposite him. The notes he was yet to sort through were strewn all over the surface. He pulled them closer in an untidy heap; promising himself he was going to tidy up later and knowing it would never happen.
“I wanted to know everything about that night hunt.”
Lan Sizhui blanched and blinked a few times. “I wrote a report, everything’s—”
“I’ve read it.” Not that it had taken long. “Wasn’t there anything else? Something you didn’t include in the report?”
“Why would I do that?”
It was probably against the rules to withhold the information. Wei Wuxian knew he was grasping at straws but the choices he had were limited. If worst came to pass, there were other juniors to ask, too, weren’t there? Whoever they were, he would scour the three realms in search of an answer.
“Sometimes things we consider irrelevant prove to be anything but.” Hadn’t he grabbed a sword once and thought nothing of it? How wrong he had been back then, how gravely mistaken—and for that, he had paid the price in blood thrice over. “So is there anything, anything at all...?”
For a while, Lan Sizhui remained silent, staring pensively at the hands he folded in his lap. At that moment, he looked like Lan Wangji’s flesh and blood rather than a child adopted out of the goodness of the heart.
Wei Wuxian hoped Wen Qing would be proud of her nephew.
“After you killed that beast, I ran over to help you stop the bleeding.” Lan Sizhui bit his lip as his eyes glazed over, gaining the faraway look of someone delving deep into their memories. “You said you were fine, but I didn’t listen. It was a cloudy night and the shadows were deep, but...”
“But they were deeper around us. Colder. I... I think something touched me.” He pointed at his neck, precisely where one would look for a pulse. “Here. Then you pushed me away and drew an array on the ground with your own blood.”
Wei Wuxian did not even dare to breathe, let alone ask for more. And yet he had to know, so he got up to take that one page from where he had put it. His hands shook as he pushed it towards Lan Sizhui.
“Was that it?” he asked even though he already suspected what the answer was going to be. He would not be the only victim if he had called upon... that. “The array I drew?”
Hardly more than a glance was needed, but Lan Sizhui took his time to examine the unfinished design. “No,” he said and gave it back. “It was much simpler.”
And there was nothing in the world that would make Wei Wuxian so desperate to use it. Not even the joint forces of the great four Sects had been enough to force him to try and control the uncontrollable.
“And the shadows you saw?” he asked just to be certain. It was the only lead he had. “What of them?”
“I’m not sure that—”
“You saw something.” Interrupting was forbidden – Lan Wangji would have scolded him but Wei Wuxian could not care less about the rules and propriety. He was no Lan. “You felt something. You’re not someone to make things out of nowhere.”
Lan Sizhui levelled him with a stare that was pure steel and Wei Wuxian had never been prouder of anything in his life. “The moment the array went off, they were gone.”
And so, it seemed, was Wei Wuxian.