Lan Wangji has known all his life that his family are afraid of something . He is not allowed to mingle with the other disciples. When guests come to Cloud Recesses, he is locked away in a room surrounded by talismans and instructed to open the door to no one. His uncle is stricter with him than he is with Lan Wangji’s brother. Lan Wangji must not run, or walk swiftly. Lan Wangji must wear gloves before he touches a book (“The paper,” his uncle says, and that is apparently explanation enough). Lan Wangji must avoid sharp implements. He cannot even hold a sword, even though he is ten years of age, and old enough to learn.
This, he loathes. He would like to be a proper cultivator. He would like to nighthunt and protect the weak, and fight for the good of all people. But he cannot.
“Is it because I am like mother?” he asks his brother, once.
“What do you mean, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asks, tilting his head just so.
“Mother was also in seclusion,” Lan Wangji clarifies. “Due to her nature. Was she not?”
Lan Xichen looks troubled by this, and Lan Wangji is immediately contrite. “Wangji apologises,” he says stiffly.
“There is nothing to apologise for,” his brother responds swiftly. “And Wangji - you’ve done nothing wrong. Believe me.”
He is not a curious child by nature. He does not question. He is good at obeying. But his life does not make sense, and he cannot help but prod at the sore wound of it. Why is he treated so, if he is not inherently wrong in some way? What reason is there for the dark fear that flits through his uncle’s eyes, when he looks at Lan Wangji?
Then Lan Wangji dreams of Wei Ying.
He dreams of a lake covered in lotuses. There is a boy sitting on the pier, his trousers rolled up over his knees. The boy beams at him, his eyes narrowing to dark crescents, his mouth curling into a smile. He kicks his legs back and forth, light-flecked water flying around him.
“Hi Lan Zhan!” the boy exclaims. “It’s nice to finally meet you. My name is Wei Ying. Come sit next to me.”
Lan Wangji approaches cautiously, the boards of the pier creaking underfoot. He doesn’t sit down. Wei Ying looks up at him, tilting his head back.
“Do you know who I am?” Wei Ying asks.
“You are not human,” Lan Wangji says steadily.
“How do you know?”
“Your horns,” says Lan Wangji.
Wei Ying laughs. His horns are black, two elegant curving swoops above his long black hair.
“My Lan Zhan is so smart. So observant!”
“No,” says Lan Wangji. “Normal people do not have horns.”
“Not where you come from,” Wei Ying agrees. “Do you know what you owe me, Lan Zhan? ”
Lan Wangji shakes his head.
“Oh.” Wei Ying pouts, eyes sparkling. “Your family should have told you, Lan Zhan! That was rude of them. I told them to tell you everything. But that’s okay. I’m here now.”
Quick as a flash, Wei Ying is on his feet. He is standing before Lan Wangji, bare feet dripping on wood.
“When you were a baby, I claimed your life and your death,” says Wei Ying. “Before your nineteenth birthday, you’ll prick your finger on something sharp and fall into a sleep like death. No mortal man or woman will be able to wake you. I’m sorry.”
He doesn’t sound sorry.
“Why?” Lan Wangji asks, uncomprehending. “I do not know you. What have I done to offend you?”
“Some offences are older than mortal life,” Wei Ying says gravely. It sounds absurd from his lips. He looks no older than Lan Wangji himself, though he must be. “Some bargains are made long before we’re born.”
Wei Ying takes Lan Wangji’s hand. Places a lotus pod on his palm.
“I’ll see you again soon, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying calls out. “Be careful not to get hurt too soon, okay? It isn’t nice to dream your life away.”
When Lan Wangji wakes, there is a lotus pod clutched in his right hand.
Lan Wangji tells his uncle about his dream. He is a good boy. He doesn’t yet understand the necessity of lies.
(He does not mention the lotus pod. When he tries, his tongue knots. His throat grows dry. He hides the lotus pod away, as if compelled. When he thinks of it, it feels as if fingertips settle on lips. Hush. Perhaps even if Lan Wangji does not yet know the importance of a lie, Wei Ying does.)
His uncle is grey with fear. He insists that Lan Wangji should inform him immediately if the creature - as he calls Wei Ying - visits Lan Wangji in dreams again. “You must not trust it,” his uncle tells him. “Promise me, Wangji.”
Lan Wangji promises.
Then his uncle tells him the tale of the creature.
Generations ago, a Lan heir was grievously wounded by a blow to the skull, and would not wake. No medicine could cure him. His life was surely lost.
But the creature came, with the promise of a cure. All I ask in return for saving his life, the creature claimed, is to be acknowledged. When your children are born, light a red candle on their third night of life, and if I feel inclined, I will come and bless them. Do we have a deal?
The Sect Leader agreed. The clan obeyed. For generations, they obeyed. The Lan were not ones to discard vows or tradition.
On the third night of Lan Wangji’s life, a candle was lit.
His mother snuffed it out.
“She did it from fear,” Lan Xichen tells him later, when Lan Wangji presses for more knowledge than his uncle was willing to give. “Its blessing to me…” Lan Xichen shakes his head, smile tight. “She feared what it would give you, Wangji.”
I bless your A-Huan, Madame Lan, with the strength to kill what he loves. A smile, all curling lips, sharp teeth. Your son will need it.
No one tells Lan Wangji what blessing was laid upon his brother. But Lan Wangji dreams of the night that his brother was dubiously blessed, in bright, unnatural colour. He dreams of Wei Ying’s sharp smile, and his mother’s flinching fear.
He dreams, too, of the night his mother blew out a candle, Lan Wangji’s small body clutched to her chest. He dreams of Wei Ying, who was not a child or even a man, but a thing - a creature - of inhuman beauty. Skin as pale as bone. A rose mouth and jewel-like eyes.
Wei Ying did not even look at Lan Wangji when he cursed him.
You should have summoned me , Wei Ying said, in a voice deep and vicious and dark, as Lan Wangji’s clan surrounded Madame Lan, swords drawn. He turned from them all, walking off into a spill of shadow, his body uncoiling into smoke. You should have let me bless him. You should have let me protect him.
I did this all for him, after all.
After the truth is revealed, his uncle finally allows him to begin engaging in cultivation. Lan Wangji cannot learn to use a sword. He knows this. But he is determined to do something to honour the fealties he owes his sect. He is stubborn and insistent in his polite rebuttals against all his uncle’s fears. His uncle tells him he cannot fight. Lan Wangji agrees, and outlines all the other ways a cultivator may assist their sect, through music and healing and scholarship. His uncle tells him he cannot play the guqin, as Lan Wangji initially desires to. The strings may cut his fingers.
So Lan Wangji learns the dizi instead.
His brother offers to teach him the xiao, but it is the dizi Lan Wangji wants. The dizi feels - strange - to play. Sometimes when he is practising alone, in his talisman covered room, a memory that isn’t his own creeps over him, of long fingers holding a dizi up to red lips - of a soft smile. Of someone whispering his name. It makes his heart hurt in a way he doesn’t understand.
On his fifteenth birthday, at curfew, he feels a whisper in his head. A tug.
He takes out the lotus pod. It is still unnaturally fresh. He turns it over in his hands, and thinks of his dreams of the past. He thinks of Wei Ying.
For once in his life, Lan Wangji trusts his instincts.
He consumes one seed, and lies down upon his bed. Immediately, he slips into a deep slumber.
He wakes in a dream of a lotus pond. Wei Ying is waiting for him. He looks the same age as Lan Wangji, all gangly limbs and long hair, and a smile that glows as he runs to Lan Wangji and flings his arms around him. Lan Wangji stiffens, and Wei Ying bounds back, laughing.
“Lan Zhan,” he says. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! I missed you. Did you miss me?”
Yes , thinks Lan Wangji. And the voice in his head is his own, but also old and weary and aching with a grief Lan Wangji doesn’t understand. Wei Ying. Yes. Always.
“I have been learning to play the dizi,” Lan Wangji says instead. “Would Wei Ying like to hear it?”
“The dizi,” Wei Ying repeats. His eyes are like coins, wide and shining. “Really?”
Lan Wangji nods.
“Yes,” Wei Ying says eventually. He sounds oddly hesitant. With the gentle logic of a dream, a dizi appears in Wei Ying’s hands. It is black, embellished with a red tassel. He holds it out. “Use mine,” he says. “If - if you like.”
Lan Wangji takes it. Raises it up. He begins to play. It is not a melody he has ever played before, but it rises out of him as easily as blood flowers from a wound.
He stops abruptly when he sees the wetness of Wei Ying’s eyes.
“Wei Ying,” he says, alarmed. “You’re crying.”
“No,” Wei Ying lies. “Will you tell me the name of the song you just played, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji hesitates. “I… I do not know.”
“Never mind,” says Wei Ying. He is still crying, but now he smiles, tight-lipped. “It doesn’t matter.”
He takes the dizi from Lan Wangji’s hands. He presses it lightly, reverently, to his own mouth. Lan Wangji’s own stomach flutters when he realises that Wei Ying’s lips are where his own lips have just been. An indirect kiss.
“Be careful of the sun, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers, raising his head. The dream begins to fade, as ink in water. “It’s going to burn.”
Two weeks later, the Wen clan sends disciples to attend the lectures at Cloud Recesses.
A year after that, the great sects are at war.
“If our clan falls, my curse is of no consequence,” Lan Wangji says, kneeling, his scarless hands upon his lap. Outside the wind sings. Cicadas hum. The cultivation world is at war, but the insects do not know or care.
“And how can I go to war if I am afraid of losing you, Wangji?” his brother says. His uncle says nothing, watching Lan Xichen pace. “Please, Wangji. You must remain here.”
“Please,” Lan Xichen says, and his voice breaks, fractured by fear. So Lan Wangji bows his head, and says no more.
Lan Wangji remains behind, when his brother leaves with an army. He turns sixteen in a tense approximation of peace, as the Wen murder the Jiangs, and war with the Nie and Lan, dancing on the edges of an alliance with the Jin.
Lan Wangji is seventeen when the Wen clan descend and burn Cloud Recesses to the ground.
He tries to defend his clan as best as he can.
Music cultivation flings the swords from Wen disciple hands. Misdirection - a thrown noise, a trick of light - allows him the time to conceal the elders and allow his fellow disciples the opportunity to run. He takes a sword from a dead Wen soldier and kills two men, through sheer rage and desperation alone, before he is captured. His leg is broken.
He walks on that leg all the way to Nightless City.
His hands remain unmarked. It is amazing how much pain the body can endure, without skin being pierced. The journey passes in a fever. Lan Wangji has never known such hurt or degradation. It is difficult to endure. But whenever he thinks he can go on no longer, he dreams of Wei Ying and the lotus pond. Of Wei Ying gently combing his hair with soft fingers. Whispering a song in his ears.
He is imprisoned in Nightless City. His leg never heals as it should. He is one of dozens of cultivators trapped beneath the city, and they are all hungry and sick, dying by increments.
He thinks, perhaps, he turns eighteen. The doors of his cell splinter. A figure wreathed in smoke steps through the chasm and kneels down before him. Ruby red eyes. Curled horns. A mouth that curves into a smile that is like a flinch.
He has never seen Wei Ying outside of a dream before.
“Look at you, Lan Zhan,” he whispers. He touches Lan Wangji’s face and it makes Lan Wangji gasp, almost sob - those fingers are warm and gentle and he has only known pain for so long.
“Wei Ying,” he says back. Blood in his mouth. “I am - afraid.”
Wei Ying presses his forehead against Lan Wangji’s with a shudder.
“This isn’t what I wanted, Lan Zhan. This is exactly what I did not want. But it’s always the same, every time and I…” Wei Ying exhales. Draws back. His eyes glitter in the dark as he stares at Lan Wangji. He looks mad, inhuman, stricken by a grief Lan Wangji can’t possibly understand. But it comforts him, that grief. It rolls over him like a dark tide.
“A sleep like death,” Wei Ying says. “That is what you owe me. It’s time to pay.”
Lan Zhan holds out his hand.
“Take what I owe, Wei Ying,” he manages to say. His voice hurts.
Wei Ying takes his hand. Raises it up. Kisses Lan Wangji’s knuckles. His fingertips, one by one. Holds Lan Wangji’s hand against his face for a long, breathless moment. Lan Wangji can feel the edge of one horn; the cool softness of his hair.
Then Wei Ying parts his lips. Sets one needle-sharp canine against Lan Wangji’s fingertip. Cuts.
Blood wells up.
When Lan Wangji collapses to the floor, eyes closed, he is alone.
The first time -
The first time, he died from being whipped to death for a transgression against his sect. He remembers the kiss of the lash of his back. The whip paring his flesh down to the bone. The blood. He remembered warm arms carrying him; a kiss on his brow. Darkness.
The second time, he was no scion of a great sect. He was born the son of a wealthy merchant family. He had loving parents. Three sisters. Thieves invaded the family home. He was stabbed through the stomach. It took him days to die, surrounded by the bodies of his family.
The third time, there was a war. The fourth, the fifth, the sixth-
Twelve lives. Twelve deaths.
With a lungless gasp, he opens his eyes. In the distance, he can see the lotus pond. Light glimmers on its surface, the dream sun warm, the air sweet.
He walks towards it. Even in the dream, his leg is twisted, dragging slightly as he moves. At least he can walk upon it now. At least there is no pain.
Wei Ying is hunched on the pier, swaddled in black robes, head tipped forward. He looks up when Lan Wangji approaches. His eyes are wet.
“I can still taste your blood,” Wei Ying says. His expression is solemn. “Is the pain gone?”
“I have lived many lifetimes,” Lan Wangji says, carefully ignoring the question. “And died - many times. How many times have you tried to save my life, Wei Ying?”
“Every single time,” he says. “I thought this time I’d manage it. If your mother hadn’t…” He stops. Exhales. He rises to his feet, unfurling, dark as smoke. “But you’re here now. And this…” He stretched out his hands, gesturing at the pond, the sunlight, the wooden pier. “It’s the best I could do. I would have liked to bless you, Lan Zhan. But I’ve only ever been good for curses. So this… it makes sense.”
Wei Ying approaches him. No smile, no hug this time. There are shadows under his eyes.
“It isn’t the death that I hate,” Wei Ying continues. “Humans die. Even creatures like me die. It’s the way you die, Lan Zhan. And how young. Every time. You deserve to live a long life, and be happy. You deserve to be loved.”
Lan Wangji lets himself drink in the sight of Wei Ying. This is the creature that cursed him. This is the man that saved him, when he lay in the bowels of Nightless City, waiting for death.
“Will I be loved here?” Lan Wangji asks him.
Lan Wangji can’t read the look in his eyes. Want. Guilt. Shame.
“Look at yourself in the water,” Wei Ying whispers.
Lan Wangji looks.
His reflection is perfect, undistorted by the rippling water or the lotus flowers. But he does not look eighteen. He looks like a man grown and strangely, agelessly beautiful. His eyes are an inhuman gold. His skin is warm ivory. At his reflection’s back are two huge wings, graceful as a white crane’s, edged with a soft shadow of black feathers.
Lan Wangji touches his own back. No wings. He is still himself - still human, twisted leg and all.
“That is who you were, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, voice empty. “That’s who you were before you made the mistake of trying to protect me. Before you were punished - cursed to reincarnate and die badly, over and over again - for defending a dark thing like me from justice.”
Lan Wangji can’t look away from his own reflection. Memories are rolling over him. He remembers flying across pale, cloud-swept mountains. Remembers lifting Wei Ying up, as Wei Ying laughed in his arms. Remembers a flock of his own kind, and dark flowers growing through rock; remembers a sword in his hand, his arm bloody, shaking-
“You’re loved, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. “You’ve always been loved. I’m just sorry that my love keeps killing you.”
There are beings as ancient as the heavens.
Once, Lan Wangji was one of them. So was Wei Ying.
He met Wei Ying when Wei Ying was still the ward of a family of water spirits who protected a lake of lotuses. Lan Wangji fell in love with him the minute he saw Wei Ying drag himself from the water, flowers tangled around his horns, laughing as he clambered up on bare feet.
Wei Ying had no mother or father. I don’t know what I am , he told Lan Wangji, when they curled next to each other, tasting each other’s breath. But one day I suppose I’ll have to manifest magic, and then we’ll know. I guess my kind come into their power slow, huh?
One day Wei Ying’s powers bloomed to life - dark, shadow-smoke, drawing corpses from the earth and the night across a bright sky. And Lan Wangji’s heart broke.
Ancient beings obey ancient laws. And a creature of darkness cannot be suffered to live.
He protected Wei Ying. Hid him in a tower of crumbling rock and dark flowers. Held a sword before himself, fighting his own kind for Wei Ying’s sake. There was a battle, and when Wei Ying lay wounded, Lan Wangji fought on alone. He was captured.
Sentenced to a hundred lifetimes of mortal pain.
All this, he sees in his own reflection - in those sad, steady, golden eyes staring back at him. He drags his gaze away. He lurches over to Wei Ying, who catches him with firm hands around his waist, steadying him.
“Thank you, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji manages to say. “I have never remembered myself before. I have never remembered you. I am glad.” He traces Wei Ying’s sharp cheekbones with his fingertips, as Wei Ying leans into him, touch-starved. “But you must let me wake.”
Wei Ying goes very still.
“ No .”
“You cannot end my punishment,” Lan Wangji says gently. “You cannot cure a curse with another curse. And this curse - this dream - it costs you. I can see it.” He traces the shadows beneath Wei Ying’s eyes. “You aged with me as if you were - mortal. It took you my entire lifetime to enter the mortal world and seek me out in the flesh. Maintaining this dream - it must weaken you greatly.”
“It’s a small price to pay to keep you safe,” Wei Ying says steadily.
“What did you cast?” Lan Wangji asks. Wei Ying says nothing, and Lan Wangji holds him tighter. Says, “ Please . Wei Ying.”
Eventually, Wei Ying says, “The Sleeper’s Gift.”
It is not a small price. Lan Wangji knows this curse. In another lifetime, it was locked in his immortal family’s library, marked as forbidden magic. The Sleeper’s Gift. It creates a home for a lost soul, carved out from the caster’s own dreams. It creates a place of no pain, a place of safety and sweetness.
But the price of the spell is the caster’s own life. Eventually the spell caster will fall into a deathless sleep, their magic leached away. In the end there will be nothing left of them but the dream.
Lan Wangji lets out a choked, horrified noise.
“Let me wake,” he begs.
“I can’t,” says Wei Ying sharply. “A curse isn’t broken just like that. You know. You know there’s only one way to break a curse.”
Lan Wangji knows. He knows.
And even though Wei Ying is still speaking, even though there is nothing like hope in his eyes, Lan Wangji surges forward.
Wei Ying’s lips are soft. But he doesn’t kiss Lan Wangji back. He stays very still as Lan Wangji kisses him and kisses him. When Lan Wangji draws back, Wei Ying smiles that joyless smile of his and says, “A true love’s kiss only has power if it’s real, Lan Zhan.”
“This feels real,” Lan Zhan says.
“This is just a dream,” Wei Ying says.
“Real,” Lan Zhan says. And he means it. His body may lie beneath Nightless City. Wei Ying’s may lie elsewhere also. But they are both here. He kisses Wei Ying again, slow and deep, and feels Wei Ying’s eyes flutter shut. Wei Ying’s mouth part. When he draws back this time, Wei Ying’s cheeks are flushed, his lips swollen. “This feels real,” Lan Wangji says.
He draws Wei Ying’s own hand to his mouth. Kisses the tips of her fingers. Takes one into his mouth. Bites the skin at the inside of Wei Ying’s wrist.
He feels Wei Ying shudder. Hears Wei Ying whisper his name. Lan Wangji wants to tell him, There has never been anything more real than my love for you, and if ancient law and ancient magic do not acknowledge it I abjure them. You are the only real thing, Wei Ying. I honour nothing and no one but you.
But Lan Wangji does not have the words. Wei Ying would not want to hear them. So he takes hold of the collar of his own robes instead, loosening it. He places a hand around one of Wei Ying’s horns, feeling the silken warmth of it. Draws him close, setting Wei Ying’s mouth to his neck. Wei Ying groans, helpless, his teeth and his tongue obediently following the tendons of Lan Wangji’s throat.
“Wei Ying,” he whispers. “I missed you.”
Wei Ying’s hands fist in his robes and drag him to the ground.
Time passes with slow sweetness of honey. It is possible that years pass, or days, but this is a dream so Lan Wangji does not know. He does not try to know.
If this is all the time he has left with Wei Ying - if one day Wei Ying is going to vanish, swallowed by his own dream - then Lan Wangji will love him for as long as he can without reserve or fear.
They are swimming in the lake when it happens.
Lan Wangji feels a sharp pain. Grips Wei Ying by one shoulder as a spasm runs through his body - through his ruined leg to his skull. He coughs. Covers his mouth with his hand as Wei Ying, alarmed, calls his name, holds him up.
He lowers his hand. There is blood on his palm. Blood on his lips.
Wei Ying’s eyes are wide and horrified. Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying reach for his name, but Wei Ying’s hand is like glass, colourless and strange. Lan Wangji has only a moment to think, Is this how he fades? Is this how I lose him-
Lan Wangji wakes.
He can feel lips against his forehead. His face is wet from someone’s tears. Someone has kissed his brow. Someone has kissed him and he is awake -
“Wangji,” his brother sobs. “Wangji, you’re alive.”
Lan Wangji cannot speak. His throat aches.
“I need a physician!” Lan Xichen roars. He gathers up Lan Wangji, lifting him as if he weighs nothing. “I’m here,” his brother says against his forehead, still weeping. The air smells of fires and blood. “Nightless City has fallen. You’re safe, Wangji. I’m here to take you home.”
Lan Wangji barely survives the journey back to Cloud Recesses. He is grievously ill - muscles wasted, lungs weakened, malnourished and unable to walk. Without the shield of the dream, he can feel all the agonies of his body. But his brother watches over him day and night, leaving his side only when absolutely necessary, desperate to save Lan Wangji’s life. And for his sake - and Wei Ying’s - Lan Wangji survives.
At Cloud Recesses, his old rooms are still ash. He is housed alongside his brother and uncle in one of the few surviving buildings. He learns how to walk again with the help of a cane. He puts on a little weight and muscle. The physicians say they cannot fix his leg. It will always be twisted, a broken column, the foot at a strange dancer’s angle. In response, his uncle commissions him a new cane, a beautiful thing of dark wood, embellished with clouds of jade. He is gifted new shoes, built to cradle his twisted angle, to hold him steady. Lan Wangji is thankful to be loved, even if love has cursed him a thousand times over.
Wei Ying does not come. Wei Ying does not come in person. Wei Ying does not come in dreams.
Lan Wangji may be free from the Sleeper’s Gift. But Wei Ying is not.
Lan Wangji is absolutely sure, deep in his soul, that Wei Ying is still trapped in that dream he carved out to keep Lan Wangji safe. Wei Ying is dying somewhere alone. He likely does not even know that Lan Wangji is - at least for the moment - safe and alive. It is hard to breathe around the thought.
He goes to the ruins of his old room. Sifts through the ash. He is not surprised when he finds the lotus pod unmarked by flame, still as fresh and unmarked as it was on the day it appeared in his hand, when he was nothing but a child. It holds a little of Wei Ying’s magic inside it. Just enough.
He is not crane-winged any longer. His immortal life and immortal gifts have been cursed away. But he has enough cultivation for this spell, ancient thought it is.
“Show me Wei Ying,” he says to the lotus pod.
It shivers, transforming before his eyes into a compass. A shadow falls on its surface, making the way. He looks off into the distance.
“I am coming, Wei Ying,” he whispers.
“Wangji,” says Lan Xichen. “Please.”
Lan Wangji is already beyond Cloud Recesses, making his laborious way down the mountain, cane in hand, supplies tied to his back, when Lan Xichen catches up with him.
“I apologise for not making my farewells,” Lan Wangji says, more stiffly than he intends to. Emotion is - difficult. “But I cannot remain here. I am not fit for this life.”
“You do not need to be fit for anything. You do not need to be anything but what you are, Wangji.” There are tears in Lan Xichen’s eyes. “Please, Wangji. You are still ill. If you must go - only wait. Can you wait until you’re well?”
“I will never be well, in this life,” Lan Wangji says simply. Lan Xichen flinches. They both know it’s true. “I am cursed,” Lan Wangji continues. “I must face the blight that lays upon me, or I will never overcome it. This, I must do alone.” Silence. “This cannot be all my life consists of,” Lan Wangji says into the silence. “I have been a prisoner all my life, brother. Please. Let me go.”
Lan Xichen exhales. Slow, shattered. Closes his eyes.
Lan Wangji is glad that Wei Ying gave his brother the gift of being able to kill what he loves. Because Lan Xichen believes Lan Wangji is walking to his death, and he is still allowing Lan Wangji to go. Because of Wei Ying’s blessing, Lan Xichen will survive the loss of him. His heart will scar but it will continue to beat.
Lan Wangji turns away, and walks to meet his fate. His brother says nothing, but watches him until he is nothing but a speck in the distance. Until he is nothing at all.
The world is larger and stranger than Lan Wangji could ever have imagined as a boy.
He walks through great forests haunted by immortal animals, large as mountains. He sees starving children on the streets of wealthy cities. He crosses rivers guarded by women who are part-serpent, who drip venom from their lips. He rests at night at an inn where someone weeps in the next room, desolate. He crosses a mountain at night-time and sees a woman with wings of fire fly across the sky. He sees brothels and thieves, temples and palaces.
When he runs out of coin he barters his limited skills as a cultivator, banishing unquiet spirits the song of his dizi. When there are no spirits to be banished, he plays his dizi to entertain travellers at quiet inns. When there is no coin or food to be had, he allows himself to be hungry, and sleeps in the open air, under stars.
He is not good at conversation. But he talks to the people he meets, learning their local tales. Here, they are haunted by creatures of the deep, that swallow ships whole. Here, they tell a story of tragic lovers, separated into the halves of a tree split through by lightning.
In an inn, in a small village on the edge of a graveyard, he hears the story of a tower where a guardian spirit sleeps.
He does not dare hope he has found Wei Ying at first. In Lan Wangji’s first life, Wei Ying was called many things, but guardian spirit was not one of them. But the boy telling the story is insistent: the Yiling Patriarch is a horned immortal, red-eyed and dark-haired, and he is the guardian spirit of the town. For generations he has protected the village’s inhabitants, who were condemned long ago as a family for being thieves and murderers and driven out of their old home.
“But before I was born, he went into his tower and he’s never returned,” the boy says. “No one can reach him - a dragon guards him.” The boy shrugs, a little sadly, and says, “Will you have more soup, master?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. He rises carefully on his cane, pays the boy, and leaves. In the graveyard itself, he can see the shadow of a tower, dark and crumbling.
He holds the lotus pod before himself. It is not pointing anywhere, any longer. There is no need.
The dragon appears with a roar. It is monstrously huge, all bitterly sharp scales and claws, its serpentine body half coiled around the tower itself. It sets talons into the soil. Bares its teeth, shimmering with venom, at Lan Wangji.
“ Leave ,” it roars.
Lan Wangji ignores the pounding of his own heart. He bows his head, respectful. He is, after all, no longer an immortal.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he says. “Please allow me to pass.”
The dragon pauses.
“You know my name,” the dragon says. He is no small water spirit any longer, as he was when Lan Wangji first knew him. But his voice is the same - deep, rumbling, vicious. He leans in closer, scenting Lan Wangji. “Hanguang Jun?” the dragon breathes.
Lan Wangji says, “Please. Allow me to free Wei Ying.”
Jiang Wanyin considers him carefully.
“He did not deserve what was done to him,” the immortal says. “Nor did you.” His pale, violet eyes narrow to animal slits. “You know how to break a curse upon him?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“Then do it fast,” Jiang Wanyin snaps. “And if he lives, you take care of him for me. I’ve spent a dozen lifetimes trying to keep the fool alive, and he still manages to do this to himself. Promise me, Hanguang Jun - save him and take care of him, because the idiot certainly doesn’t know how to care for himself.”
“I promise,” Lan Wangji replies. “It is all I have ever wanted to do.”
Jiang Wanyin nods his great head, a rumbling noise of acknowledgement escaping from between his many serrated teeth. Then his serpentine body lashes sharply against the air, and he is gone.
Lan Wangji grips his cane tighter, and takes the first step into the tower.
Wei Ying lies at the centre of an array drawn in blood. Flowers have broken through the stone; twined around his throat and his wrists, tangled in his long hair.
His lips are blue. He is closer to death than life. Lan Wangji may already be too late.
Lan Wangji leans down beside him. Places his cane on the ground. His leg throbs and his heart aches.
He told Jiang Wanyin that he could save Wei Ying, but in truth, he doesn’t know. He only hopes. He touches a fingertip to Wei Ying’s cold lips. They are soft as they were in the dream.
If he cannot wake Wei Ying, then he will stand vigil here until Wei Ying is gone. And after that… he doesn’t know. The world is large and strange, but it holds little interest to him, if Wei Ying is not in it.
But he will have the memory of Wei Ying. He will know Wei Ying loved him enough to try and save him a thousand times over. A life can be made from less than that.
Lan Wangji has lived enough short, brutal lives to know the value of a sweet breeze, a warm sun. The way a moment of uncomplicated joy can sit in a heart, like a petal on still waters, lighter than any pain.
Lan Wangji doesn’t allow himself to think any longer. He leans down and kisses him.
Cold skin. Stillness
He does not move for a long time. Only holds the kiss, so that he does not have to let hope slip from his fingers. His eyes are wet. This is how it ends, then.
Wei Ying , he thinks. Wei Ying. Goodbye.
He raises his head.
A hand closes on his cheek.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says hoarsely. His eyes blink open. “Lan Zhan…?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji gasps out. His heart is soaring. “I am sorry for leaving you. My brother - he -”
But before Lan Wangji can say another word, a brilliance of pain rolls down his spine. He lets out a howl and feels Wei Ying hold him in weak arms. Wei Ying kisses his face, his cheekbones, his screaming mouth. Wei Ying calls his name again and again.
The pain recedes.
He feels Wei Ying’s hands, tender soft, make their way up his arms. His back. He feels Wei Ying’s fingers against his wings.
His wings .
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says shakily, looking up at him with eyes so bright they near burn. “This is better than any dream I’ve ever had.”
Lan Wangji smiles helplessly. And Wei Ying laughs, a laugh that is half tears, as he clings to Lan Wangji with his arms and his legs and drags him flat to the ground, kissing and kissing him, as Lan Wangji’s wings flare open, surrounding them in a shield of white feathers and black.
There is no curse that cannot be broken by true love’s kiss.
There is a small village, on the outskirts of a graveyard. The village is of no consequence. But its inhabitants are kind and humble, and the village inn is always happy to welcome a stranger. If you go to the inn and eat a meal and sit with the locals one evening when the liquor is flowing freely, one of the locals may tell you about the guardian spirits that protect the town.
The village is far too humble for even one guardian spirit, you may think. Many do. But if you reveal your scepticism, one of the locals may call over the boy who serves the soup, and little A-Yuan will tell you seriously that he has seen the spirits.
There is a dark one, horned and beautiful, and when villagers die and are put to rest in the graveyard, the spirit always comes to pay its respects and sing the dead to a peaceful rest. The other is pale as jade, winged like a crane. It comforts the sick. Once, A-Yuan had a terrible fever that should have killed him, and the crane spirit took away his pain. A-Yuan knows it came to him, because he heard the tap of its cane against the floor; felt the coolness of its hand on its brow, and the song of its dizi, lulling him back to sleep.
A-Yuan will tell you he saw them at night, once: The two spirits flying over the graveyard under a full moon. The crane spirit, with its wings unfurled, holding them aloft. The horned one, with its head tipped back, laughing. It was the most beautiful thing A-Yuan had ever seen.
If you go near the graveyard now, he’ll tell you, you may see them. Just walk out of the door. Look up to the place where the moon meets the tower, where the dark meets the light.
That’s where they’ll be.