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too little, too late

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It is summer in Yunmeng and the air hangs heavy with humidity, draped over Lan Wangji’s shoulders like a persistent hug. A bead of sweat trails from under his ear, teasing its way like the cool touch of a finger down his neck, before disappearing under his collar.

The crowd around him certainly does not help with the heat, but Lan Wangji finds that he does not particularly mind, entranced by the lively performance of individuals going about their day: women laughing by the market, exchanging gossip for recipes; boisterous street vendors hawking their wares, yelling after nimble, quick-fingered children as they make off with handfuls of fruits.

All the while, he pretends not to notice the curious stares directed his way, cutting through the crowd with ease as it parts for him like lotus stems around a boat.

A sudden bump against his leg and a flash of Yunmeng Jiang purple has him stopping in the middle of the bustling street.

The child, a Jiang Sect disciple, barely comes up to his waist, but the look he shoots Lan Wangji is one of careless confidence.

“Sorry!” He says with a broad grin; he’s missing a front tooth. Before Lan Wangji can reply, he’s already scampering off into the crowd, the soles of his bare feet kicking up dirt in his wake.

Lan Wangji swallows around the lump in his throat, ignores the pang in his chest, gives Lotus pier a wide berth as he makes his way through the streets.

A gentle breeze wafts by, carrying with it the crisp, sweet scent of lotus flowers over the heavier smells of sizzling meat and fried pancakes. Lan Wangji follows the scent like a purposeful bee as it leads him through the winding streets, the crowd slowly thinning around him. Squealing laughter and splashing water soon replace the clamour of the main streets, and Lan Wangji emerges from under the shade of an awning onto the bank of a lake.

The lake is small, the cupped palm of a giant bringing water to their lips.

He watches as children race in and out of the water, faces flushed from heat and happiness split in wide grins. They duck and weave around the lotus stems with the ease of fishes, graceful in their own sprawling, unconventional way. A couple of them snap off some lotus seed pods, sharing the seeds amongst themselves, making a game of tossing the seeds up in the air and catching them in their mouths.

The sound of their laughter trails Lan Wangji as he bypasses them and steps onto a narrow pier, barely wide enough for a single person to walk on. The wood creaks under his boots, but remains steady under his weight. A dragonfly skitters low over the water, body iridescent against the lily pads.

The midday sun looms high in the sky, catching and reflecting across the muddy blue of the lake.

Lan Wangji raises a hand to shield his eyes from a particularly harsh glare that makes him see stars.

And maybe it’s the trick of the light, or maybe a shadow cast by a passing cloud blocking out the sun, but there’s suddenly a man at the end of the pier where there wasn’t anyone before.

Lan Wangji freezes just steps away from him.

The man’s smile is as dazzling as the sun itself, as bright as Lan Wangji remembers, as familiar as the thud of Lan Wangji’s own heart against his ribs.

The ambient noise around him seems to fade away. All Lan Wangji can hear is the rush of blood in his ears. The man opens his mouth, eyes like the storm that’s in Lan Wangji’s heart.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! So you finally came to Yunmeng!” He brings his arms out from behind his back, holds two lotus stems out towards Lan Wangji. His smile is endlessly kind, yet a little wry with self-mockery. “Too little, too late, right?”

Lan Wangji vision blurs and between one blink and the next, the apparition is gone.

Wei Ying is gone.

Lan Wangji looks down at the ground. A droplet falls to the pier, turning a tiny circle of wood by Lan Wangji’s boots a darker shade of brown. Another droplet falls, and another, and another.

It is not raining, but no one is around to tell Lan Wangji that.

He is by the entrance to Yunmeng later that night, heart heavy as he spares the city one final glance.

A flash of purple, the tinkle of a bell. Lan Wangji falters.

Jiang Cheng storms up to him, eyes sharp as the blade by his waist. The air around him seems to crackle.

“What the hell are you doing here?” He demands.

Lan Wangji stares at him, gazes unflinching past the fury in his eyes down to the familiar grief, pain, longing.

“I loved him, too,” he says quietly, before turning away and walking out of the city.