This is the second time Wei Wuxian has fallen to his death. Poetry, he thinks. A cycle. He falls, he comes back. He falls again. A little more broken each time, something else creeping in to fill the cracks.
Turns out the single-plank bridge leads right off the edge of a cliff. It’s funny how the Wens always seem to be involved; now there are no more Wens. Soon there will be no more Wei Wuxian, either.
He should have hit the ground by now.
It’s different, this time. Back in Yiling, the first time he met the Burial Mounds, his passage had been guaranteed—he had a token, after all. The seal. This time he has nothing but the surging resentment in his veins, making him more like the dead he commands than a man of flesh and bone. This isn’t Yiling.
The dead here accept his body as tribute.
He awakens in a cave—not his. His body is his, the tattered clothes are his. There’s a stream just outside where he learns that the dirt and grime and congealed blood are also his until he lets the flowing water carry them away. Beneath his fingernails resides infertile, borrowed dirt from which they eked out a meager existence, and which will never bear life again.
How did he get here? He doesn’t know. Can only assume he walked, wasn’t dragged. Maybe the dead giving him life had puppeted his unconscious form away from that forsaken place to wherever he is now.
Nobody has come for him yet. They must all assume him dead. He can’t blame them—he would assume the same. He’d like to be dead.
Will Jiang Cheng mourn? No. Likely not. He’ll curse Wei Wuxian until his dying breath, and rightfully so: he has lost everything and it’s Wei Wuxian’s fault.
And what of Lan Wangji? What of the anguish in his expression when Wei Wuxian slipped from his grasp? Will he burn paper money, or will he thrive now that he is free of the burden of knowing him?
Yes, of course he will. After all, he is Hanguang-Jun: peerless, a paragon of justice and representative of all that is good in the world. A man such as he will do well to grieve and move on.
He did try to save Wei Wuxian. Did not know the impossibility of it, did not know that Wei Wuxian has been beyond his reach for years now. Soulmates, perhaps, but cursed onto different paths. Always traveling where the other cannot follow.
Despite—in spite of that, Wei Wuxian hopes Lan Wangji does not find it a burden to burn paper money for him, to let him pass on so he can disappear into the wind. There's nothing left for him here. Only memories, like tattered, soft-edged fragments.
Most of his are filled with white and blue robes, taciturn expressions, hints of a smile meant only for his eyes. How many nights had he spent in the Burial Mounds, struggling for the strength to continue? To eke out a living from the soil, to keep the Wens alive, wondering if any of this was worth it? How many times had Lan Wangji’s—had Lan Zhan’s—words echoed in his mind, tempting him?
Come back to Gusu with me.
Every time, he brushed the invitation aside. He’d thought, if he couldn’t be free, then he could at least choose his prison.
Wei Wuxian orients himself by the sun, confirms it by the stars, and journeys to Yiling.
He slips in the back way. His stone bed awaits and he collapses into it, pulls the shreds of his robes tightly around himself.
Whispering voices and the anger of thousands claw their bloody way across the cave walls. He is unfamiliar to them; he is different. Has carried in with him the peculiar stench of Qishan’s dead, still hateful but for a myriad other reasons. The Burial Mounds do not like it. They say, We do not know this Yiling Laozu. We do not want to share.
Will it be exile, then?
He sleeps. Hears shouting, demands for blood. They’ve found him, then? Or is he dreaming of his own regrets at Nightless City?
He hears, Wei Ying. Screams back, Get lost! Get lost, get lost, get lost! because—it’s important. He doesn’t know why, just knows he needs to be alone. Needs the Mounds to accept him into its fold again. It’s dangerous here, he’s weak, he cannot protect him, cannot—
He cannot protect anyone. Wei Wuxian has proven his powerlessness.
There is long-dried blood on the dirt outside when he awakens. He is certain it is not his. It was not there when he departed for Qishan.
The Mounds bring him to his knees for judgement.
The charred remains of the life built within its hold crumble before the Demon Subdue Cave, giving their testament in ash and dust. Gone, all of them. Wen Qing, Wen Ning. Uncle Four. Granny.
Leave us, Patriarch, the Mounds say.
Wei Wuxian holds out Chenqing in offering: a plea. “And go where?” he asks. His voice breaks, jagged like the stones guarding the entrance to this place. Dry and choked by soot that doesn’t want him here anymore even as it clings.
If they part ways, there will be nothing left of him. “Please,” he whispers. “There’s nowhere else I belong.”
Come back to Gusu with me.
The emptiness in his lower dantian thrums, his atrophied meridians pulsing with something akin to life, to breathing. Pure black resentment pours out of his qiqiao until he is spent, and he collapses into the dirt. Returns what he has borrowed. What will no longer remain his now that the debt has been repaid. His body, in exchange for his power.
This is not exile, the Burial Mounds say. This is freedom.
Wei Wuxian has never known freedom his entire life. Does not know how this could possibly compare. His prison has only changed forms; now he is trapped within his own mortal vessel and devoid of anything resembling liberty.
Gusu is a long way on foot for somebody without a golden core. It’s cold. Wei Wuxian has to stop and rest frequently, to scrounge for scraps of food, to drink on his hands and knees from streams and creeks. He might spend entire days and nights unconscious within the grottos in which he takes shelter, but he can’t tell. There’s nothing else but his own blood keeping his heart beating. There’s nothing in his head but his own thoughts.
He wishes he had a mount. He’d settle for a donkey; maybe he’d name it Jiang Cheng in honor of his former shidi’s stubbornness. His former zongzhu. His—
He grits his teeth when he remembers: that’s not his life anymore. Will never be his again. There’s no use in reminiscing when his shijie is dead. When her son is an orphan whom Wei Wuxian will never get to meet.
So, he will return to Gusu. He will find Lan Wangji and say, “Thank you,” and, “I’m sorry.”
Then he will leave, and he will not return.
Wei Wuxian wishes he had a mount. Even a donkey would do, and he won’t name it anything at all because getting attached only means having something else to lose.
The wards in this part of Cloud Recesses haven’t been active in years. Not since the lectures, back when Wei Wuxian made his solemn vow: stand with justice and live with no regrets. Will this place welcome him back, when he has failed to do both? Will this, too, be a second chance for him to squander?
Devoid of darkness, of light, Wei Wuxian is nothing. An empty vessel, mediocre. This is what he would have been, had his path not been chosen for him. He’ll have plenty of time to acquaint himself with mediocrity now.
He’s thankful for it. It’s what grants him access to the one place where he swore never to return.
(There had been a million reasons why he wouldn’t, or couldn’t; none of them exist anymore.)
Wei Wuxian slips past whatever safeguards are in place to deter foreign cultivators—yet another reminder that he truly does not belong to this world now. He is not even a shadow of what he once was, of what he had become. He is nobody.
His weary feet remember the old pathways; his heart leads him onward. To the Jingshi, where Lan Wangji must live now that he has had his crowning ceremony. That’s another precious memory for him to cling to—Wei Wuxian had seen it once in his explorations; it lived up to its name back then, too. Quiet, serene, like a masterwork painting come to life.
What an appropriate dwelling for such a beautiful, reticent man.
Wei Wuxian creeps forward, and the crunch of his footsteps does not resound. The distinct absence of the usual nighttime din—despite the fact that it’s Winter, despite the stillness of the Cloud Recesses—should be enough reason to take pause.
He is so intent to find rest, to sink to the floor in the one place, with the one person he trusts to give him safety and fair judgement, that he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing at first.
When he peers into the Jingshi, Wei Wuxian expects to see a man in meditation. A man in pristine white robes, so flawless in body and mind and soul that Wei Wuxian should tremble at his feet and beg forgiveness.
He expects orderliness and tranquility.
He finds blood, and bandages, and the scattered ashes of long-dead incense spilled from its burner.
There is a man inside the Jingshi, and he is broken.
The air tastes like grief. Its essence permeates the wood, the paper windows, the rumpled, bloody robes piled in a corner, forgotten. Grief is an experience—intangible, some might say, but Wei Wuxian knows its flavor well. Knows its weight, the burden it places upon one’s shoulders.
There aren’t any wards. Nothing to seal the Jingshi’s sole occupant inside.
There’s no need.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian gasps. “What have they done to you?”
On the bed lies the world’s best cultivator, skin torn to shreds like ripped cloth. Barely alive.
Wei Wuxian stumbles through the front door and lands hard on the floorboards in his haste, crawling the rest of the way to the bed on hands and bruised knees.
“Lan Zhan, I’m here.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes are glazed over, barely able to focus on Wei Wuxian where he kneels next to the bed. “You’re here,” he echoes, a question hidden just beneath.
“It's all gone, there's nothing left, so I—I came to Gusu, like you asked. I’m sorry I’m late.”
“No.” Lan Wangji’s pain-crumpled face pulls into a deeper grimace. “Leave me alone. Wei Ying is dead.”
He closes his eyes. Eventually, his expression loosens, but even in sleep the tight hold of pain never releases its grip.
Wei Wuxian sits back on his heels, helpless.
Wei Ying is dead. Of course Lan Wangji would think so. He’d tried to save him, and Wei Wuxian had flung himself away into the abyss of Qishan’s lava pits.
Is that why he’d been punished? For trying to save Wei Wuxian?
“Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian mutters, shaking his head wistfully. “So many bad things have happened to you because of me. And look, I couldn’t even die right.”
The congee next to Lan Wangji's bed has not been touched for hours. It’s cold, mushier than the usual Cloud Recesses fare. Perhaps it is part of the punishment.
If that’s the case, Wei Wuxian muses, then hopefully Lan Wangji won’t mind if he has some. He’s used to punishment, after all, and it’s the least he can do to take some of the burden off Lan Wangji’s shoulders.
Even if Lan Wangji is asleep. No use waking him over this.
The first spoonful enters Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and the next thing he knows, he’s scraping the last remnants from the bottom of the bowl.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs after guiltily swallowing the last bite. “I was supposed to save you some. Graciously allow this one to add another ‘sorry’ to the list when you wake up.”
He’ll—he’ll make it up to him, somehow. When his next meal arrives, Wei Wuxian will slip out of hiding and he’ll spoon-feed Lan Zhan right where he lies so he can focus on healing. He sets the empty bowl next to the bed.
Wei Wuxian startles awake when the Cloud Recesses gong sounds at five am. His back aches, but that's nothing new. He's slept in worse places. Candlelight flickers across the walls of the Jingshi, reflecting in the pair of amber eyes that are watching him from the bed.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs from his spot against the wall. “Still sleep and wake like clockwork, huh?”
There’s a sharp inhale. Lan Wangji speaks so quietly he is difficult to understand. Wei Wuxian thinks he hears: “...still here...”
He smiles wanly, explains, “Yes, yes, I’m still here. I have nowhere else to go,” before trying to move closer to Lan Wangji’s bed. It hurts. It hurts everywhere and so much but he keeps trying. Wei Wuxian needs his name in his mouth again. “Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. I’m not dead.”
A single tear slips down Lan Wangji’s face. He whispers, “That’s impossible.”
“I thought so too. Here I am, though.”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes. "No. Wei Ying is gone."
Wei Wuxian waits, barely breathing, behind the screen separating the bathtub from the rest of the Jingshi.
Lan Xichen had arrived a while ago with food. Noble, Wei Wuxian thinks, not to leave that task to a disciple. He’d always seemed the filial sort; he proves that now as he attends to his brother. Wei Wuxian can hear every word.
“You’ve eaten,” Lan Xichen murmurs. “That’s good; you need your strength.”
He speaks with the same tempered hopefulness Granny Wen and the others had when they spoke to A-Yuan. Hopeful, but tempered by sadness for the situation at hand. By feigned belief that better things are yet to come. All of them carried the same burden—the duty to soldier on because somebody weaker was relying on them.
Except Lan Wangji is not weak. He is the strongest person Wei Wuxian knows, even if his voice sounds brittle when he replies, “I don’t remember. I saw—I don’t—”
“Ah, Wangji,” Lan Xichen soothes. “Nightmares again? Would you like me to bring you something to help you sleep?”
Yes, Wei Wuxian thinks. Anything that relieves some of his pain. Anything for a respite.
But Lan Wangji makes a pained noise. “No,” he says. “Let them come.” His voice drops to a whisper, “I deserve them.”
It is nothing short of Heavenly intervention that the sound of Wei Wuxian’s heart shattering into pieces does not immediately draw Lan Xichen’s attention.
“No,” he whispers.
The silence stretches.
Finally, Lan Xichen sighs. “Alright,” he says. “At the least, I am glad to see you are no longer practicing inedia. You need your strength.”
Lan Wangji does not reply, and Lan Xichen sees himself out.
Wei Wuxian clambors to Lan Wangji’s side as soon as his brother is gone. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks, wincing at the stiffness of his muscles after being in one place for so long. He ends up on the floor by the bed again.
“Leave me alone,” Lan Wangji breathes. “I have told you why.”
“No. You haven’t.”
Lan Wangji pins Wei Wuxian with his gaze. There is something burning and fierce behind his dulled eyes. “I have told you.”
Wei Wuxian reaches out to brush wet hair from Lan Wangji’s forehead, damp with a sheen of sweat. Lan Wangji tracks the movement, but as soon as Wei Wuxian’s fingers make contact with his skin, he startles.
Wei Wuxian retracts his hand quickly. “Sorry,” he says, trying to sound whole. Not broken. Strong, like Lan Zhan needs him to be. “Sorry, Lan Zhan. I won’t touch you. I know you don’t like that.”
Lan Wangji stares.
Knowing he must look a sight, Wei Wuxian glances down at himself with a grimace. In the stark daylight now filtering in, it is clear he is unwashed, that his clothes are tattered and dirty. He should have known better than to enter here.
But Lan Zhan says, “Touch me again.”
So Wei Wuxian does. He brushes his hair away, and runs a thumb over one perfectly-sculpted cheekbone—over the bruised and swollen skin resting atop it.
Painfully, Lan Wangji pulls an arm out from where it is crossed with the other one under his head. “Leave it,” he says when Wei Wuxian tries to pull away. He rests his own hand on top of it, trembling.
Lan Wangji says, “You are real.”
He says, “You are not dead.”
He says, “You are here.”
Wei Wuxian is real. He is not dead. He is here.
He is here.
It is a strange thing, to be the recipient of this much casual touching, especially by someone who used to abhor it. Lan Wangji is so weak, but every time he returns to consciousness and sees Wei Wuxian sitting next to him, his fingers seek Wei Wuxian’s and thread together with them.
Wei Wuxian is supposed to say, “Thank you,” and, “I’m sorry.” He is supposed to leave. Instead he pours out the pain of his regrets on Lan Wangji’s sleeping ears, apologies which ring hollow even though he puts everything into them.
Funny, isn’t it. Wei Wuxian rings hollow, too.
He wakes up to somebody saying, “Wangji, who—”
There’s a gasp.
“Wei Wuxian,” in carefully-pronounced syllables. Lan Xichen, Wei Wuxian’s sleep-heavy mind supplies. Lan Xichen, here.
Here, where Wei Wuxian is sitting next to the bed half-awake with his face pillowed on his arms. In other words, not hiding.
A voice next to him says, “Xiongzhang. You lied.”
Lan Xichen’s voice carries the sourness of desperation when he speaks. “How is he here? Wangji, is he a corpse? He—he died in the Burial Mounds. It tore itself apart, and him along with it.”
No, that’s not how it happened at all. Wei Wuxian’s eyes still won’t open, held down like there are fishing weights attached to his eyelids. He can’t use them to say, that version of me is gone. I am nothing now. I am nothing. I am nothing. I am
“Wangji, he looks half-dead. How...?”
How did I survive? Because I am nothing and because I am empty. Because the only thing that could have killed me was taken and now I am hollow.
Fingers encircle his wrist. It’s wrong, they shouldn’t touch there; Wei Wuxian can’t remember why. He never remembers. He drifts.
“—his mistakes,” he hears when he awakens again. “He hurt you, Wangji.”
“He’s alive. I will defend him.”
“You are in no shape.”
“I will defend him.”
Silence. Silence, silence. It echoes like a cavern. Hangs, fraught with a bond of years being tested to its breaking point. Wei Wuxian knows these silences. Has participated in them himself, knows the special sort of tension that comes with disagreements about the things one holds dearest to their heart.
He opens his eyes, looks at Lan Xichen, and says, “Zewu-Jun, I will leave.”
There is a great deal which can be hidden behind a smile. The one on Lan Xichen’s face makes Wei Wuxian shiver, frosty enough to chill him straight to the bone. “You would hurt him like that again, Wei-gongzi?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer. Lan Xichen leaves.
The scars overlap too much, and Wei Wuxian loses count at fifteen. He knows the punishment whip well, has long-healed scars of his own littered across his skin. He’s never been struck this many times.
“How many times?” he asks.
Lan Wangji won’t answer him. He stops asking.
The water in the basin reeks of metal. Its acrid scent fills the air like the rusted, ancient fixtures crumbling inside a long-forgotten estate. It reminds him of the first time he was freed from the Burial Mounds, when the smell of brittle hinges resembled the overbearing stench of death. Even now it takes all of his will not to be sick.
He dips the cloth in again, wringing out the water and draping it over Lan Wangji’s skin. “I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian murmurs when he sucks in a quietly anguished breath. “I know it hurts.”
“Mn. Do not be sorry,” Lan Wangji says.
He’s sounding stronger these days.
Soon, he’ll be strong enough for Wei Wuxian to say what he came here to say.
Lan Wangji’s every movement tugs painfully at the lacerations defacing his skin. They refuse to scab over, and the surrounding flesh blisters red and angry. At least he can sit upright now. Even if his face rests with a permanent tightness around his eyes and mouth—a quiet grimace like the one he had when his leg was broken. He does not flinch when Wei Wuxian applies the balm Lan Xichen brought to them, nor when the cloth is draped once again over his inflamed skin.
“You look better,” he says. “What happened after—”
Wei Wuxian waits for Lan Wangji to finish his sentence. He always finishes his sentences.
But he doesn’t.
“How are you alive?” Lan Wangji whispers instead.
Wei Wuxian dunks the cloth in the basin again. He asks, “Why were you disciplined?”
Lan Wangji frowns.
“We both like our secrets, you and I,” says Wei Wuxian. There is no venom in his words; this is not a request or a command for Lan Wangji to stop probing and mind his own business. It is simply a fact.
“Secrets,” Lan Wangji repeats. “Then, if I tell you, will you tell me?”
Wei Wuxian raises a brow at him.
Lan Wangji raises one back. Says, “Perhaps we can compare.”
He means, are my secrets worth their weight in yours?
Wei Wuxian turns away. When the basin water begins resembling the blood pool in the cave he used to call home, he takes it outside and adds it to the river of red staining the pristine white gravel behind the Jingshi.
They argue sometimes. It feels like the old days, when Lan Wangji’s cultivation was soaring to new heights, and Wei Wuxian was sinking deeper and deeper into his strange relationship with ghosts.
It’s good. Makes Wei Wuxian feel alive. Lets him know Lan Wangji cares enough about his opinions to indulge his stance, lets him know that he’s alive, too. They’re both alive. They’re both here. But sometimes it doesn’t feel real, spending his days with the man whose opinion he cares about above all the rest.
“The dead do not like to be indebted,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji one day over a meal of bland congee and steaming Oolong tea. He receives a sharp glance in return. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow in confusion. “It’s a fundamental principle of cultivation, Hanguang-Jun. The first step, Liberation. You are familiar.”
Lan Wangji watches him coolly as he takes another bite of his meal. Setting the spoon aside, he clasps his hands in front of him on the table. He asks, not unkindly, “What is your point?”
Wei Wuxian matches the cool stare with a benign smile. “I harnessed the resentment of Qishan’s dead. They considered me their benefactor. That is how I am still alive.”
“Why did you return to Yiling?”
“I don’t know.” A pause. “How did you know I was in Yiling?”
Lan Wangji resumes eating and remains silent.
There are thirty-three strike marks on Lan Wangji’s back.
One for every elder wounded by his hand in the siege of the Burial Mounds.
Fury courses like ichor through Wei Wuxian’s veins. “What siege?” he demands. It has been a long time since his words have crackled with resentment. His anger now is pure, hot, and uncontrolled—a stark contrast to the frosty chill of Lan Xichen’s quiet rage.
The sect leader sets his teacup down and stares at him, the hard set in his jaw reminding Wei Wuxian so much of Lan Wangji. These weekly visits are already tense by virtue of his presence. Usually he tries keeping the peace.
“You were there. How could you not know?” Lan Xichen asks.
Wei Wuxian blinks, confusion momentarily dulling his temper. “I was. There was... no siege.”
“You were there,” Lan Xichen repeats. “He told you how he felt, and you told him to get lost.”
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji’s voice cuts into their standoff. “He doesn’t remember.”
Come back with me, Wei Ying. Please.
Wei Ying, I lo—
I said GET LOST!
Wei Wuxian wants to know what happened, and he doesn’t. He does not ask. If he asks, he can’t unknow. But if he doesn’t ask, knowing an answer exists is enough.
He looks at Lan Wangji’s face.
Wants to ask.
It has never been about what Wei Wuxian wants. It never will be.
There used to be three people in the entire world who knew that Wei Wuxian doesn’t have a core. Two other people with whom he could share the burden of knowing why he followed the path he did. Of knowing that yes, his choices led him here, but they were not the choices everyone else assumes he made.
Not the choices Lan Wangji believes he made.
Sometimes he plays with the idea of telling him so he doesn’t have to be alone in his knowledge anymore.
The decision isn’t even his, in the end.
It’s such a simple thing. A little headache in the middle of spring that doesn’t leave him after a day. After two days. Three, and his entire head throbs. Four, and he’s so warm and so cold at the same time he can’t keep still.
Five, he doesn’t remember.
When he wakes up, his mouth is dry and his body aches in the way it had when the Wen remnants—
At least the hammer-on-rocks pounding in his head has subsided. When he can finally think straight, he realizes he is no longer in the Jingshi.
“Wei-gongzi,” says an unfamiliar voice to his right.
A young woman floats into view, her white headband tucked neatly into her hair. A healer. His healer. Wait. Wait.
There are four people in the entire world who know that Wei Wuxian doesn’t have a core.
Wei Wuxian’s body undergoes a metamorphosis. Once, it knew the warmth of a golden core. Then a cold, plunging nothingness—like having his head held underwater—filled with resentful energy. He had been ordinary as a child, starving and scared in the streets of Yiling. Coreless. Alone. Ordinary.
All he has to do is learn how to be ordinary again.
When he returns to the Jingshi, Wei Wuxian expects pity. Contempt. “All of that,” he imagines Lan Wangji saying, “for this?”
But when he returns, Lan Wangji is not inside. He is kneeling next to where Wei Wuxian always lets the blood-red river splash over gravel, his gaze fixed ahead. He trembles.
“I’m sorry,” he will say later. “I did not know. If I had known, I would have—”
And Wei Wuxian will not let him finish that sentence. “You would have what,” he will interrupt. “I made the choices I made. There was nothing you could have done.”
It will be an understanding between them. They will accept it. For now, though, Wei Wuxian climbs into the nearest bed—not his—and falls asleep the moment he sinks into the pillow.
Wei Wuxian continues climbing into the bed that is not his. He climbs in to sleep, mostly, but he also climbs in for comfort, to mourn when his shijie’s birthday comes and goes. Even as the dampness of Spring turns into early Summer heat and starts making everything too hot, too sweaty, he keeps climbing into that bed.
“Come,” Lan Wangji says one night when Wei Wuxian is drinking bitter tea and staring at the wall. He means with him. Come to bed with him. As if it’s the most normal thing in the world to ask.
Wei Wuxian’s face softens and he tries to stop thinking about other, heavier things.
About loss—of family, of friends, of freedom. There is not much he can do about the first two now, but...
Wei Wuxian has to stay at the Cloud Recesses. But even if he didn’t, if it weren’t a veritable prison, would he want to?
He still needs to say “thank you.” He still needs to say “I’m sorry.”
But he begins to wonder if he still needs to leave.
Without realizing it, somewhere along the way Wei Wuxian begins thinking of Lan Wangji as his.
His Hanguang-Jun, meditating. His Hanguang-Jun, repeating every Lan tenet to himself over the course of an afternoon. So steady, his Hanguang-Jun.
Wei Wuxian wakes up with him, sometimes. Once, he’d gotten so upset with Lan Zhan for keeping to a strict schedule even while in seclusion that he didn’t talk to him until later that evening, but he kind of gets it now. There’s a certain calmness to the world before the sun rises. “Lan Zhan,” he says quietly on one such morning.
“You’ve never asked why I don’t get angry anymore.”
Lan Wangji turns to look at him. He asks, “Do you want to tell me?”
Wei Wuxian stays quiet, anchoring himself in Lan Wangji’s presence. Solid. Steady. Finally, Wei Wuxian nods. He says, “Someday.”
“Then I will wait.”
“One more thing, Lan Zhan.”
“Do you remember when Zewu-Jun said? That back then, you told me how you felt. And you said I didn’t remember.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replies, pained.
“No, please,” Wei Wuxian says, voice dropping into a whisper. “Lan Zhan, I dream sometimes. About what you said. But the words don’t always come through.”
Lan Wangji swallows. He closes his eyes tight, takes in a breath, opens them again. This close, Wei Wuxian can see all the dark flecks, all the little streaks of color as they’re swallowed by his pupils. There’s a ring of deep gold around both irises. Lan Wangji asks, “Can I show you instead?”
Lan Wangji’s hot breath over Wei Wuxian’s face sends little tendrils of hair dancing away before they fall to rest again on his cheeks. Fingers trail down his jawline, caressing his chin. His lips. Wei Wuxian keeps his hands obediently on Lan Wangji’s knees. Keeps himself tucked between them so Lan Wangji doesn’t have to lean in.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, voice curling into Wei Wuxian like incense smoke.
“Yes,” he breathes in response. He tilts his head, seeking the comfort of Lan Wangji’s palm on his skin. “Show me.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats. “If your feelings—if you do not feel the same—”
Wei Wuxian sways forward. “Lan Zhan. Show me, please.” He lets his eyes close.
Nothing—then, the heat that comes right before skin touches skin. “Okay,” Lan Wangji says softly, right before his lips brush featherlight against Wei Wuxian’s.
He’s so warm, and soft, and yielding. He’s perfect. This is perfect.
Everything is Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian, and the slide of their mouths. Lan Wangji’s hands on his face. A smile pressed into their kiss, a teardrop falling, hitting Wei Wuxian’s cheek on the way down. It isn’t his.
Every unspoken word exhales with their quiet laughter. A reminder that there is still happiness in the world. That there is still happiness for them.
Wei Wuxian surges forward, hands leaving Lan Wangji’s legs to tangle in his hair instead. He deepens the kiss and Lan Wangji licks inside, a sudden presence searching the contours of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, mapping his palate and his teeth and his tongue.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, Lan Wangji pulls away with a gentle bite at Wei Wuxian’s lower lip. He rests their foreheads together, the little emblem on his headband pressing into Wei Wuxian’s skin, and they breathe each other’s air.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers. His mouth feels empty.
“That’s how you truly feel?”
“Show me again.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to name what he feels. Naming it means being aware of it, of what he could lose. He’s lost everything and lived; he doesn’t know if he could survive such a loss again. Is this what freedom looks like? Knowing a decision might hurt, but knowing it’s worth the risk and making it anyway?
He kisses Lan Wangji at night, when they both taste of tea and the comforting burn of chili oil. There is not much else they can do while there are wounds that still need re-dressing.
During his evening baths, after Lan Wangji has fallen asleep, Wei Wuxian takes his time quietly imagining what the future might hold. What it would feel like to lie on top of Lan Wangji and give him pleasure; has he ever known what that’s like? Has he ever taken the time to learn how good a body can feel?
Wei Wuxian’s own pleasure feels different now. He’s surprised he can still feel it at all.
Ripples lap at the shore of the Cold Spring. Not too far away, Lan Wangji sits in meditation, submerged up to his chest.
It’s early. Far earlier than Wei Wuxian would like to be awake, but they must make use of the permission to come here whenever it is granted—even if that means making a trip before the sun has shown its face.
He perches himself on a rock at the edge of the pool, knees pulled up to his chin. He’s bored already, and cold, too. Whatever heat draws steam from the surface of the water hasn’t yet seeped into his bones.
“Lan Zhan,” he whines. “Come here and kiss me.”
Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows, opens his eyes. Fixes Wei Wuxian in what he can only describe as an amused stare. He asks, “Why don’t you join me instead?”
“You know I can’t do that! It’s freezing. I have no way to warm up.”
“Hm. I will keep you warm.”
A flush blooms across Wei Wuxian’s cheeks. “Hanguang-Jun,” he demurs, hoping the excitement in his voice isn’t noticeable even as he hides his grin behind his knees, “that is hardly proper. You aren’t even wearing your under robes.”
“No,” Lan Wangji agrees. He makes his way over, climbing out of the spring as frigid water streams in rivulets off his skin. The wet, translucent fabric of his pants clings indecently to his legs—Wei Wuxian can’t help but look. He’s been looking.
Time for a subject change. Anything to keep his mind off of Lan Wangji standing next to him, as good as naked. Now who’s the shameless one? Wei Wuxian thinks. He shakes his head fondly and says, “You certainly put up with a lot of teasing from this weak and feeble man.”
“It means you are alive and well. I do not mind.”
“Lan Zhan. You make it sound like you enjoy having me around. Don’t you find me ridiculous? Do I have to switch tactics until you do?” Wei Wuxian grins, but stares resolutely into the settling water of the spring, ignoring Lan Wangji’s burning gaze.
“You are ridiculous,” Lan Wangji says lightly. “I like that about you.”
“Aiyah,” Wei Wuxian chuckles, breathless. “Never thought I’d hear that after—after everything. You used to hate me.”
Lan Wangji places a hand on Wei Wuxian’s knee. “Wei Ying,” he murmurs, “I have never hated you.”
Ah. There’s that swelling feeling in Wei Wuxian’s chest, that pressure rising up behind his eyes and threatening to make him look a sodden fool. There’s no need for tears, he tries to tell himself. He’s had his time to cry. He’s lost what he’s lost; the world thinks he is dead. He doesn’t want to be, and Lan Wangji knows he is not.
It shouldn’t be enough. But it is.
“Lan Zhan,” he says softly, “for what it’s worth, I’ve never hated you either.”
Later, after Lan Wangji dons his robes again, Wei Wuxian pulls him close by the sash, dragging the tips of his fingers down his thigh. “When we get back,” he says, “I think I’d like to show you how I feel.”
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji, ears turning red.
Snow drifts pile up beneath the overhang, and Wei Wuxian kicks at one with the toe of his boot. “You know, it doesn’t snow like this in Yunmeng,” he says as Lan Wangji approaches him from behind. A weight settles onto his shoulders—one of Lan Wangji’s thick, lined outer robes. He slips his arms into the sleeves and murmurs, “Thank you.”
“Mn. The only place that receives more snow than Gusu is Qinghe,” Lan Wangji replies.
“I didn’t see this much snow here last year.”
“You arrived after the worst of it had passed.”
“Ah. I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. That I took so long. That I said those things to you.”
Lan Wangji buries his nose into the hair at the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck and hums. “You were in pain,” he replies. “I do not blame you.”
Wei Wuxian shivers. “You were, too.” Lan Wangji traces a line down his nape, finishing it with a kiss at the top of his spine in acknowledgement.
They watch the snow fall for a few moments longer before he whispers, still against Wei Wuxian’s skin, “Come inside.”
They situate themselves at the table. Lan Wangji pours Wei Wuxian a jar of Emperor’s Smile, which he keeps hidden below the floorboards. Because they cannot resupply, Wei Wuxian insists they only bring it out for special occasions.
“We will be receiving a visitor today,” says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian looks up from inhaling the floral scent of his favorite wine. So that’s what this is about. “Oh?”
“Mn. I did not want to say anything until Xiongzhang confirmed that we could see him. Wei Ying—” he takes a deep breath, catching Wei Wuxian’s eyes before he delivers the news: “A-Yuan is still alive. He is being raised as a member of the inner family as Lan Yuan.”
Wei Wuxian nearly drops his Emperor’s Smile. He sets it down on the table—barely—before returning his shaky hands to his lap, clasped tight.
“Lan Zhan, you—he—how?”
“I found him, when I was looking for you. I tried to bring you both back here.”
A-Yuan is alive. A-Yuan survived. A shard of a remnant, living and breathing, right here in the Cloud Recesses.
Wei Wuxian had not failed after all—Lan Wangji ensured it.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, voice suspiciously wet, “good thing you told me before he got here. I refuse to let my son—or, your son?—see me cry. I refuse!” He laughs, but it turns into a sniffle.
“Our son,” corrects Lan Wangji. He pauses. “Unless—”
“Our son,” Wei Wuxian echoes, hiccuping over another laugh. “Lan Zhan, our son.”
Lan Wangji’s responding smile warms Wei Wuxian to his bones. “Mn.”
Wei Wuxian catches a drip of oil with the edge of his hand and works it gently into Lan Wangji’s back. “Lucky you, Hanguang-Jun,” he says. “Massages with oil, morning, noon, and night. Doctor’s orders. She’s spoiling you, and that has to be against at least five precepts I can name off the top of my head.”
A little amused puff of air escapes Lan Wangji’s nose. “She said morning and night. It is Wei Ying who is spoiling me.”
“Mn. What were you asking her about earlier?”
Wei Wuxian pauses the kneading motions of his fingers. “Aiyah, you heard us? I thought you were asleep.”
“I do not sleep in the middle of the day.”
“That is a blatant lie, Hanguang-Jun.”
Lan Wangji laughs again. “Mn. My apologies. I do not usually sleep in the middle of the day.”
Wei Wuxian kisses the back of Lan Wangji’s neck. “Mmm, better. I was asking her about some, ah, delicate matters,” he says, dropping his voice and leaning in. Lan Wangji’s ears immediately turn red, as Wei Wuxian had hoped they would. He leans even closer, letting the bare skin of his chest lay along Lan Wangji’s back. “Did you know this oil has additional uses, Lan Zhan?”
“Mhm,” Wei Wuxian replies, teasing his oil-slick fingers around Lan Wangji’s side and along the crease where his thigh meets his torso. “I also asked if you’re in any shape to be having that kind of fun.”
Before Lan Wangji can reprimand his shamelessness, Wei Wuxian wraps his fingers around him and strokes once, eliciting a satisfying little gasp.
“More fun than we have been having, anyway. Don’t worry! I didn’t tell her that part. Some things can stay within the walls of the Jingshi.” He strokes again. “Or under the floorboards.”
“...You found the books.”
Wei Wuxian chuckles. “Ages ago, Hanguang-Jun.”
“Is there anything specific you would like to try, Wei Ying?”
Wei Wuxian pretends to contemplate. “We have already tried a lot of what’s in those pages,” he says.
“Then let’s try what we haven’t.”
“Hm! I like the way you think, Lan-er-gege.”
Wei Wuxian might never admit it out loud, but it feels so good to have a soft, pliant Lan Zhan under his fingers. A Lan Zhan only he gets to know, to touch in all the ways he wants now that his wounds have healed over.
Uncaring of the oil on his fingers, Wei Wuxian coaxes them through Lan Wangji’s hair, separating sections before plaiting it into a loose braid. It’s a calming little routine he’s taken up lately—the smooth slide of hair between his fingers, Lan Wangji’s steady breathing. All of it reminds Wei Wuxian that he is here. He is alive. Real.
“Let me make you feel good,” Wei Wuxian murmurs as he moves to kneel on the bed in front of Lan Wangji. He flushes like he always does when his lover takes in his naked form, eyes no less hungry now than they were the first time he disrobed in front of him.
Lan Wangji allows Wei Wuxian to settle him into a position in the middle of the bed, sitting upright with his legs splayed out. His arousal, glistening with oil, stands proud and flushed along his stomach. Almost good enough to eat, Wei Wuxian thinks. But he’ll save that thought until after their evening bath. For now, he focuses on Lan Wangji’s dark eyes, on his hands as they roam over Wei Wuxian’s belly, chest, and flanks.
Wei Wuxian straddles and kisses him, tasting the sweet remnants of the fruit they’d been given with their lunch. “You feel okay, baobei?” he murmurs when he pulls away.
“Mn. I will let you know if it starts to hurt.”
“Good. I’ll do most of the work anyway,” Wei Wuxian says, grinning and leaning in to nip and lick below his jaw. He shivers when Lan Wangji’s fingers brush over his length. “Hey, Lan-er-gege. Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, pressing a quick kiss to Wei Wuxian’s temple as he does. “No. Right on schedule,” he says, taking him in hand and teasing his thumb up and over the tip. Wei Wuxian can’t help his groan, and it’s obviously exactly what Lan Wangji is looking for because he swipes his thumb up again.
“Don’t get too excited. You’re big, you know. It’s going to take me a bit.”
“Let me help?”
It’s one thing for Wei Wuxian to explore his body when he’s alone, but Lan Wangji has never—well. Since they’re already trying something new...
He passes the oil over solemnly and says, “Alright. Make sure you do a good job.”
“Mn. I will,” Lan Wangji promises, voice low, as he pours a small amount onto his palm and runs it over two of his fingers. He watches Wei Wuxian with parted lips as he explores along the curve of his backside, dipping into the cleft until he finds what he’s looking for. After Wei Wuxian softly gasps, he asks, “Good?”
“Do you? Have you done this before, Hanguang-Jun?” teases Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji nods. “To myself,” he admits.
Oh, Wei Wuxian thinks, and presses himself instinctively against the querying fingers. “Did you think of me?” he breathes.
Pressing the tip of one finger inside, Lan Wangji nods. “Yes,” he replies, equally breathless. “Often.” He leans forward. “Enthusiastically.”
“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian moans.
“Mn. Yes, please,” whispers Lan Wangji. He slides the pad of his finger in a half-circle around Wei Wuxian’s entrance. It doesn’t take long before he is able to slide one finger inside, and then two.
The stretch from this angle is better than anything Wei Wuxian has been able to achieve alone and he is not shy about letting Lan Wangji know, writhing and squirming against his attentions. It’s what he wants, but it’s not enough—and then the fingers are gone, leaving him empty and wanting. “Please,” he whines. “Lan Zhan, please.”
“Patience,” Lan Wangji says. He picks up the bottle of oil again and silently pours more into his hand, slicking up himself first and then Wei Wuxian. His thighs flex with a halted attempt at a thrust. Agonizingly, he takes his time recorking the oil bottle and setting it aside.
Wei Wuxian yelps when Lan Wangji’s fingernails dig into the meat of his ass, maneuvering him firmly into place. One hand lets go, leaving a burning brand against Wei Wuxian’s hip, while the other guides him down onto Lan Wangji’s erection. “Ah, Lan Zhan—”
“Mm. Wei Ying, don’t rush. You feel good.”
“I want—” all of you, he thinks, even if the burn would be too much right now. Don’t rush, Lan Wangji said. So, he won’t rush.
Down he goes, so slowly his thighs tremble with the exertion. A steadying hand returns to his hip; panting breaths blow hot against his skin. Every sensation—the overwhelming stretch, the slide of their thighs as he moves—grounds him like a tether, anchoring him to the moment and to Lan Wangji even though his body only wants to float adrift.
He’s rewarded with a groan when he seats himself fully, ripped low and guttural from Lan Wangji’s throat. “Lan Zhan, yes,” Wei Wuxian gasps. “Oh—there’s so much. Lan Zhan is so big, did you know that? Ahh. Filling me so full. You’re enormous, you’re going to ruin me.”
“Good,” Lan Wangji says. The red flush has spread from his ears down his neck, a few beads of perspiration already clinging to his hairline.
Wei Wuxian is certain that if he moves too much, Lan Wangji is going to split him wide open. Bracing himself carefully on Lan Wangji’s shoulders, he gives a trial thrust—a slow grind back and forth over the hard length inside him. “Annh, so much,” he whimpers. “Too much, you’re too much, er-gege. No no don’t stop—ohh. How does it—how does it feel for you?”
“Tight,” Lan Wangji bites out. “I can feel when you clench around me.”
Wei Wuxian does it again, almost involuntarily. “Like that?”
The languid motion of Wei Wuxian’s hips incrementally shifts into something a little more heated, a little less restrained, until he’s moving over Lan Wangji at a frenetic pace. His own hot, florid length lies neglected and leaking between them. “Ah, ah, Lan Zhan. Feels so good. I want you to fill me—ahhhn—fill me up! Please!”
Lan Wangji’s grip tightens. He pulls Wei Wuxian down with force to meet his upward thrust, groaning wordlessly. “Keep talking like that,” he manages to say, “and you’re going to make me come.”
“Lan Zhan, yes. I want to ache, make me ache, wanna feel sore and bruised tomorrow because of your c—ahhh!” Wei Wuxian keens, throwing his head back. “I can’t, Lan Zhan! You’re too much, keep—keep going, ahh!”
The angle changes, and Lan Wangji hits something inside of him that sends shocks thrilling into his extremities. “Oh,” he gasps. “Again, Lan Zhan. Again, please.”
Lan Wangji moans his name, driving into Wei Wuxian over and over until neither of them can string together a coherent thought. He’s panting, eyes dark and locked with Wei Wuxian’s, and then—
“Wei Ying, I’m—”
He doesn’t get to complete his sentence before he’s curling forward, head against Wei Wuxian’s chest, emptying himself deep inside.
The last few off-tempo thrusts hit just right inside of Wei Wuxian, sending him to new heights and dropping him right over the brink of pleasure with a flood of warm tingles spreading through his body. He blacks out for a second. When he comes to, his release coats the both of them and he’s clinging tightly to Lan Wangji’s shoulders, and Lan Wangji’s arms are wrapped securely around his middle. “Oh,” he sighs. “Mm. Lan Zhan is so good.”
A shudder wracks his body as he pulls away to look into Lan Wangji’s soft, orgasm-hazy eyes. He kisses his forehead, right above the ribbon, then down his nose, both cheeks, and finally, his mouth.
Lan Wangji hums contentedly. “Wei Ying is so good,” he counters.
They separate, get cleaned up, and settle into bed to bask in each other’s warmth. Wei Wuxian has never felt so at peace in his whole life.
Later, when Wei Wuxian is on the edge of consciousness, Lan Wangji pulls him close and kisses his forehead. “Wei Ying,” he murmurs.
“About my seclusion,” he begins, apprehensive, and Wei Wuxian tenses up. It won’t be over for a while yet, probably a couple more years, but all good things cease eventually, right? He should know this, be prepared for it. It’s been the plan from the start, to say his ‘thank you,’ his ‘I’m sorry,’ and leave, if that’s what Lan Wangji wants. He knows this.
Lan Wangji continues, “Once it ends, I would like to begin courting you formally.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes snap open. A beat passes in silence while he stares at him disbelievingly. “You... what?”
“If you’ll agree to have me.”
“Lan Zhan, ah, I can agree all I want, but your sect—”
“If you agree to marry me, there is no man or Immortal who will be able to stop us.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him a moment longer, at the determined set of his brow and the flames in his eyes, and then laughs nervously. “I’d never ask you to do that. Lan Zhan! Be serious.”
Lan Zhan raises a single brow. “Do I not seem serious?”
With a click, Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth. That old dream—the one that kept him sane when he hit rock bottom—stirs something deep inside of him. The desire to marry Lan Zhan. To own and be owned in turn. To be together, for whatever their forever will look like. He exhales, shaky, with the knowledge of it.
“Okay,” he whispers. “Okay. Yes, Lan Zhan. I’ll marry you. But don’t think it’ll be easy!”
Lan Wangji smiles, pulls him close, and says, “Loving you will always be easy.”
-Qinghe Cultivation Conference, Three Years Later-
“In accordance with the precepts laid out by our forebears, the Lan sect hereby no longer considers the Yiling Laozu, Wei Wuxian, a fugitive under the laws of the Cloud Recesses. The sect also proposes that new stipulations be ratified among all the major sects of the cultivation world regarding the lawful treatment of prisoners of war, and of innocent men, women, and children. These will be known as the Yiling Laws.”
Wei Wuxian’s body belongs to the fields. That’s what he likes to tell his husband, anyway. Lan Wangji enjoys the process of winning him back every night, of laying his claim anew every morning. It should come as no surprise to Wei Wuxian that his body thrums with energy for the rest of the day.
He takes a long drink from his waterskin, leaning on his spade under the shadow of their magnolia tree. Across the yard, A-Yuan—Lan Yuan—practices sword forms with his baba under the watchful eye of their two roosters. Wei Wuxian cups his hands around his mouth and calls out, “Lan Zhan! You’re going too easy on him!”
Piercing amber eyes catch his from afar, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth pulls up into a soft smile until A-Yuan’s practice sword meets his with a resounding clack! and he turns his attention back to their son.
An image flashes in Wei Wuxian’s memory of a mother and father, leading the donkey carrying their little boy down the road. All that’s missing from the scene before him is the donkey. Maybe he can find one in Caiyi town, and lead his little family on adventures of their own.
This is what true freedom feels like, Wei Wuxian thinks. The ability to leave anytime he wants, to go anywhere he wants, and choosing to stay instead. It means learning to rely on himself, on who he is as a person without his core, and trusting that he can rely on his husband, too. How can he think himself empty anymore, when he is so full of love?
A couple of li down the road blooms a lotus pond. Earlier in the year, their little family planted seeds together in the rich, fertile Gusu soil—one for every member of their family, including all those lost—and now the sprouts are nearly ready to join the rest.
One day, A-Yuan will hear all about his family. He’ll hear how they became his a-die’s family too, and how they braved the seasons together in a place far less hospitable than their home here. Wei Wuxian will tell A-Yuan how good they were to them both, that their goodness lives on in him, and how happy they would be to see him doing so well.
For today, though, Wei Wuxian will play their son a lullaby on his flute while Lan Wangji plays his guqin, and A-Yuan will fall asleep knowing he has a family and that he is loved. Together, they will build a life they can all be proud of—one with no more regrets.