This far into the mountains, Lan Wangji can feel the chill of winter even through the five heavy layers of his snow-pale robes.
It burns at his hands, his cheeks, the red tip of his nose. After sitting so long in the cold, his joints are growing stiff; every string of his guqin bites sharply into the skin of his bloodless fingers, stinging sharply despite the thick calluses he’s developed from years of practice.
The ghost in front of him screams, long and loud.
“It hurts!” she wails, dark hair flying. “Why are you doing this to me?”
Lan Wangji plays a note on his guqin.
She cries out again. “Where is my husband? What have you done to him? What have you done to me?”
Her paper-thin skin stretches tight across the bones of her face, cracking and brittle around the black holes of her sightless eyes and gaping mouth. Endless red tears drip down her cheeks, puddling on the damp floor of the cave into a crimson sea; the pool oozes out steadily toward where Lan Wangji is sitting.
Unconcerned, Lan Wangji plucks at a string again and speaks quietly, breath puffing out in white mist from his lips. “They are not here. You will not find who you are looking for.”
The ghost sobs, stretching out raw, ripped-nail fingers to claw at the ground. The blood smears across the dark stone. “Where is my family? I want my husband, I want my baby!”
“They are not here.”
“You’re lying to me! You lied! ” Her voice rips through the air. It bounces off the walls, multiplies in the echoing darkness; five screaming ghosts, all grieving. “What are you doing to me?”
“You must move on. Please, be at peace.”
Another note. Another wail.
According to Lan Wangji’s mental count, this is his tenth bereaved ghost since he set out from the Cloud Recesses more than half a year ago, tenth in an assortment of demons and ghosts and monsters. Distantly, he feels slightly concerned at how all those distinct creatures have been steadily morphing into each other in his head, melting in one sludgy swirl of case after case after case—but that does not matter.
Once he finishes here, he will move onto the next village, following the threads of chaos and injustice. This is the way of things. This is what he needs to do.
By the time the storm of anguish has died down into a hush, Lan Wangji’s hands are almost completely numb from exposure to the cold air. The ghost is sent off to rest with one final strum of his guqin—then, job finished, he dampens the strings with his palms, rises to his feet, and exits the empty cave.
Even through the soft filter of falling snow, the weak daylight is bright against the white ground.
Lan Wanji’s vision breaks into blinking spots as his vision adjusts, and when he can see again, he catches sight of the villager who brought him here, standing under a white-tipped pine in the greenery of the treeline.
The man is wringing his hands as he shifts about and peers at the cave; when Lan Wangji appears from the darkness, he jumps in place. “Ah,” he calls, “you’ve come out at last—is it done? Is it gone?”
It is only when Lan Wangji gives a silent nod that he untenses his fearful shoulders and trots forward, breaking out into a relieved and gap-toothed grin.
“Oh, Lan-daozhang, praise the goddess that set you in our path! That horrible thing has been terrifying us for so long, always screaming and moaning, we couldn’t even walk past this clearing without being scared out of our wits...now we can finally have a good night’s sleep, oh, thank heavens! Please, I cannot thank you enough, we must repay you somehow!”
“No need,” Lan Wangji says calmly. “A cultivator does not provide aid for the sake of money.”
The man laughs. “Come now, we cannot possibly leave you unpaid!”
“I do not require payment for my services,” Lan Wangji repeats.
In the past, he would have left such conversations up to his brother, who is—without a doubt—the more diplomatic of the two. However, in the months since he began to travel the countryside, he’s learned to suffer through this process himself. He has had no other choice.
“No, I won’t hear of it! A favor of this magnitude requires some sort of reward...oh!” The old man cuts himself off as his eyes dart upward. “You may not take money, but if it’s free shelter—you might have no choice in the matter, I think.”
Lan Wangji looks up too.
“Look, daozhang,” the old man says, grey whiskers twitching. “The first snowstorm of winter is about to begin.”
It is just as he says; grey clouds gather overhead, dropping fat white flakes, and the snow-cover on the ground is growing steadily higher. Already, the tracks he left from the cave entrance are being filled in.
Lan Wangji weighs his options before answering again. “I have traveled through winter before. It will not be a problem.”
The old man hums deep in his throat. “I wouldn’t be so sure, daozhang! It’s coming down heavy! I don’t know what area you’re from—”
“Gusu, my goodness! Daozhang, Gusu has never seen snow like ours. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you might be staying in our little village longer than you intended! Once the snow gets heavy here, there’s no way to get back on the road before it melts!”
Lan Wangji keeps his face blank, but the man must see something reluctant in his expression, because he waves him forward with a sigh. “Come, I’ll bring you to the road, let you see for yourself.”
And indeed—by the time Lan Wangji has been guided back through the thick forest, past the treeline, and down to the worn path that leads out of the mountains, he can’t even see the neighboring mountain peaks past the snow gusting through the air. One particularly powerful sweep of wind tugs sharply at his robes, and he tightens his grip reflexively.
Lan Wangji has lived through eighteen Gusu winters—some better than most—but on average, they are long and damp and foggy, with moderate ice and snow. Even during the heaviest of Gusu’s snowfalls, he and his brother would be able to walk around outside, unattended by adults, without much worry; Lan Wangji, still a very young boy, would catch melting flakes in the plump palms of his hands, wonder at the cold sting on his skin and the neat footprints he made in the snow between rows of gentians. Even then, things were orderly. Neat and proper as they should be, among the mountain’s frost and ice.
This, in comparison, is a full-on blizzard.
As thick flakes whip against his exposed cheeks, Lan Wangji stares out into the blinding flurry and swallows his resigned sigh.
In contrast, the old man at his side looks cheerful even under his healthy coating of white. “Looks like you’ll be staying, daozhang. Come with me!”
And then, without even waiting for a response, he turns on his heel and starts bustling away for the cover of the village center, kicking up snow all the while.
With no other choice, Lan Wangji follows behind.
“I live on the very edge of the village,” the old man explains as he bustles along, mustache collecting ice. “I would be willing to offer my home, beyond willing—but of course, I would never dare to provide such pathetic lodgings to an esteemed cultivator like yourself, no! But I had informed Jiang-cunzhang of your arrival earlier, just before I took you to the cave—and he would almost certainly be willing to host you in his guest quarters!”
Then, he lapses into silence, clearly waiting for a reply.
“That is very kind of him,” Lan Wangji says after a pause.
“It sure is! Our chief treats everyone this well, he isn’t just making exceptions for cultivators such as yourself, you know.”
“Mn. I see.”
They tromp through the village’s close and clustered buildings, passing by tightly-shut windows that leak golden slivers of light and the scent of things warm and bubbling. The old man at his side continues to chatter on about this and that, practically glowing with hospitable glee; Lan Wangji, for his part, does his best to ignore the incredibly uncomfortable dampness that has begun to soak into the tips of his shoes, and forges on silently.
At long last, they come to a stop before a building at the heart of the village. Despite its modest appearance—a curving tile roof piled high with white, and plain, unadorned stone walls—this property spreads out over a space three times the size of the other plots.
The village chief’s house, then.
With absolutely zero fanfare, the old man goes straight up to the heavy doors and starts pounding at them with the flat of his palm, shaking them in a surprising display of vigor. “Cunzhang!” he calls cheerfully over the noise of the now-howling wind. “Jiang-cunzhang! It’s lao-Huang! ‘Scuse me, anyone in there?”
After ten long seconds, there comes a pattering of footsteps. The door cracks open—and as Lan Wangji feels the accompanying flood of warmth soak into his chill-burned cheeks, the brightest pair of eyes he has ever seen peeks out from behind the heavy wood.
Lan Wangji’s heart beats, once.
“Aiya, Huang-bobo!” laughs that open, smiling face. “You look like a bear under all that snow! Your companion, too! Come in, come in, you must be freezing.”
As the boy in the doorway whips his head around to hoist the door open further, Lan Wangji finds his eyes catching on the fluttering of his red ribbon, a spot of vivid color against the vast whiteness of the storm.
Without further ado, they are hustled past the entrance and into a smaller greeting area. Huang-bobo approaches the brazier in the center with his hands outstretched, warming his fingers in the heat, but Lan Wangji hangs back. As he carefully brushes the snow free from his shoulders, he feels the burn of a curious gaze trailing up and down his body, lingering at the guqin still strapped to his back; when the sensation pauses at his face and stays there, he lifts his head.
The boy with the ribbon lights up at the eye contact, flashes another dazzling smile, and gives a little wave.
“You must be new here,” he whispers, something like laughter threaded into his voice, eyes scrunching into winking half-moons. “All dressed up in white like that! You might lose yourself in the snowstorm!”
Something stirs to life in Lan Wangji’s chest. It’s—uncomfortable, he decides, and so he steps away. Teasing should not be encouraged with a response.
Even with his body chilled as it is from the winter storm, Lan Wangji feels a strange heat creep into his skin. He attributes it to shock from the sudden change of temperature.
The village chief’s entrance breaks the silence, and Lan Wangji bows his head in respect as the man introduces himself. Jiang Fengmian is a kind-faced man with an open and friendly smile; when he has finished listening to Huang-bobo’s rambling explanation, he wastes no time in offering a space in his home.
“It would be our honor to host you, Lan-daozhang,” he says, tone warm. “We have plenty of room to spare. A-Xian, why don’t you go prepare the guest quarters?”
‘A-Xian’ perks up. “Yes, Jiang-shushu!”
On his way out the room, he pauses just briefly at Lan Wangji’s side, and grins at him once more.
Lan Wangji looks away pointedly.
Even though he doesn’t turn around to watch him leave, he is viscerally aware of the boy’s exit, and only brings his attention back to the front when Jiang Fengmian starts speaking again through his fond smile.
“That was Wei Wuxian, my adopted son. His room is right next to the guest quarters—You’ll be seeing him a lot, I believe.”
Lan Wangji refuses to let his face make any sort of expression. He nods once.
“Oh, but what kind of host am I being! Here, sit, have some hot tea while you wait. You’ve done a real service for our community tonight…”
As they sink down into chairs and Jiang Fengmian delves into the uncomfortable waters of smalltalk, Lan Wangji allows the words to wash over him and settles carefully into his seat, feeling the heat of the brazier soak into his bones.
When he looks down into his cup of dark and steaming tea, he thinks suddenly of the teahouse he’d been sitting in just three days earlier.
“Care for a refill for your tea, daozhang?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“No problem. Ah, and that village you asked about? I asked laoban-niang if she knew where it is, and apparently you’re getting pretty close. Travel along the main road towards the mountains—look out the window, daozhang, it’s those tall and purplish ones right there—for three days on foot, and you’ll be at your destination. It’s right in the middle of the mountain range, the only village in that area. You won’t miss it.”
“I see. Thank you very much.”
“It’s nothing, daozhang. Why’re you headed there anyway? Not much to see for a great man like you.”
“I received a request for my services.”
“Ah, really? That’s surprising. I didn’t think much happened there—boring town, if I’m being honest with you.”
“You know, I’ve never been but I hear others talk all the time here, daozhang. Although—there is one strange thing about that place. Just one.”
“...Is that so?”
“Eh, it’s not much. Probably just their luck. But they never go hungry, those people.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a rough land to farm, daozhang. A good harvest comes by every once in a blue moon, has been that way for years now. Something to do with the earth, I’d think. And the thing is—sixty years ago, those folk were scraping along just like everyone else living here during that time. Half-starved, just like we were. But something changed.”
“Who knows. But ever since then, they haven’t suffered like the rest of us. They’re lucky. You know, when I was a young man, it didn’t rain for a year. We were peeling the bark off the trees to boil it. Made it softer so we could chew on it; I must have eaten a forest’s worth of bark, and still my stomach ached every night like it was burning itself away from the inside out. But you know what I heard? Those people, up in their mountains; the whole damn time, they were eating rice. Isn’t that funny?”
“Mmhm. Good for them, I suppose! But still very strange. Ah, it’s a strange world besides. Don’t take it for the absolute truth—you know how rumors are.”
Lan Wangji looks up from where his gaze has drifted into the smoldering coals of the brazier. “Yes?”
Jiang Fengmian smiles and repeats himself. “I trust that this case was not too difficult for you? And the, ah, the ghost was taken care of quickly?”
“Ah...yes. It was no problem. I apologize—my attention strayed.”
Jiang Fengmian laughs kindly. “No offense taken, Lan-daozhang. It’s been a long day for you—why don’t we get you set up for the night?”
When Lan Wangji is finally directed to the guest quarters, the door to the left of his own creaks open as he passes by.
A head pokes out. It’s the boy from earlier—and again, that smile.
Lan Wangji says nothing.
The boy continues on, undeterred. “I don’t think we were properly introduced! I’m Wei Wuxian!”
Lan Wangji is not one to be rude, but he cannot swallow down the flare of irritation when the boy cuts him off before he can even respond with his own name, showing his infuriatingly bright teeth all the while.
“—And from what I hear, you’re ‘Lan-daozhang’! Nice to meet you! I’ve never met a traveling cultivator before, you must have so many exciting stories to tell—and hey, Lan-daozhang, it seems we’re probably pretty close in age, so I’ll even let you call me Wei Ying! What should I call you—”
“You will address me with my title, as is proper. Good evening.”
With a flick of his sleeves, Lan Wangji turns on his heel and walks away, ignoring the little yelp of indignation that follows him.
Safely behind the closed doors of the guest quarters, he allows himself to blow out one deep and barely-audible sigh into the darkness of his borrowed room.
There are things he needs to do as a cultivator, Lan Wangji reminds himself. Things he needs to focus on.
And these things—that lovely smile, the heat of his gaze, and Lan Wangji’s frantically thumping heart—are not among them.
To Lan Wangji’s deep and unending despair, it is nearly impossible for him to avoid being distracted by Wei Wuxian, who is—for a lack of better words—obnoxiously unignorable.
Clearly, after being deprived of the vast freedom of the outdoors by the winter storm, the talkative boy has taken it upon himself to latch onto the village newcomer as the next available source of entertainment—and Lan Wangji, not inclined to letting himself be bothered, finds himself steadily losing patience with almost everything.
“Lan-daozhang,” Wei Wuxian says as he drops a fistful of dried chili flakes into his bowl, looking like he’s just rolled out of bed despite the lateness of the morning. “Hey, Lan-daozhang, I think you need some flavor in your congee! You can’t eat it plain and white like that, so boring. Mix this in, it’ll taste great—ow! Jiang Cheng, why’d you kick me?!”
Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Fengmian’s biological son, settles back into his chair and swings his head around at Wei Wuxian, eyes narrowed.
(Lan Wangji will not go so far as to say he likes him or dislikes him, but Jiang Wanyin is currently the only thing standing between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s undivided attention. Lan Wangji can appreciate this for the gift it is.)
“Stop messing around,” Jiang Wanyin hisses from the corner of his mouth. “You’re annoying him. He’s here as my father’s guest.”
Unfortunately, the reprimand comes too late—Wei Wuxian has already stirred the chili flakes into the bowl.
Lan Wangji looks down forlornly at his now alarmingly-red congee—forget scooping them out with a spoon, he cannot remove the spices at all without simply dumping away the whole thing entirely. He resigns himself to choking it down lest he offend his hosts.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to speak. “Yes, that’s right! Isn’t it good? Here, I’ll add more—”
And then Jiang Wanyin, rising from his seat with his own empty bowl, drags his adopted brother out of the room by his collar.
Now without an audience, Lan Wangji allows his grip on his spoon to tighten just slightly with the pain of his burning tongue.
He finishes his congee.
In the afternoon, Wei Wuxian comes knocking at the entrance of Lan Wangji’s room, shouting loudly past the thin paper of the door. “Lan-daozhang! Are you in there? Can I try playing your guqin? I saw it yesterday, and it looks really pretty, and I’ve always wanted to try one out!”
Lan Wangji keeps his eyes closed and holds his breath. There is a certain futility in thinking this, but Lan Wangji does it anyway; Perhaps if I ignore it, it will go away.
A brief pause, in which Lan Wangji thinks that Wei Wuxian might have walked away and left him to his peace; but then the knocking starts back up again.
“I’m so bored, Jiang Cheng is training as always and I have no one to talk to! Hey, Lan-daozhang, you’re being really quiet, are you meditating?”
Lan Wangji, now stunningly un-meditated, snaps his eyes open and prays for a mercy that does not come.
When he finally does make the mistake of leaving the safety of his room, Wei Wuxian dogs his heels, pelting him with questions and unsolicited comments until he shuts himself back in.
Lan Wangji feels oddly drained, and it’s only halfway through the day.
Of course, Wei Wuxian takes a seat right next to him and immediately busies himself with trying to unload spicier and spicier bits of pork into his bowl, just as he did during breakfast. However, unlike their meal in the morning, Yu Ziyuan is present.
“Here, Lan-daozhang, you should try this! I bet you’ll really like it, haha—”
“Wei Wuxian! Is it not enough that you waste your day lounging around distracting my son, that you have to bother Lan-daozhang as well?”
Wei Wuxian blanches.
Jiang Fengmian may be the village chief, but Lan Wangji does not doubt that his wife is the real authority in the Jiang household. Yu Ziyuan is a woman of undeniable presence—when she speaks, her eyes flash like knives, and all around the table heads go down.
Jiang Fengmian picks at his rice like he‘s gone suddenly and totally deaf; Jiang Wanyin’s nose is practically glued to the table.
Wei Wuxian speaks timidly. “I didn’t mean to bother him, I just thought he might want a—“
Yu Ziyuan slaps her palm down on the table with a crack. The bowls rattle dangerously. “A what? A thorn in his side? He is here as the Jiang family’s guest. You’d best remember that, Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian, face now lowered, fidgets in his chair. “I apologize, Yu-furen.”
“And sit still for once! Heavens above, at least pretend your parents raised you well!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Wangji watches as Wei Wuxian’s spine snaps straight.
“Yes, Yu-furen,” Wei Wuxian murmurs quietly.
He is uncharacteristically sedate for the rest of the meal.
However, strange as his behavior might be, it does not last long; by the time the family is scattering to their rooms after dinner, Wei Wuxian has regained his spirit, and is back to chattering away, albeit with a bit less of his unrelenting enthusiasm.
All the way back to their rooms, Wei Wuxian follows him so closely that he is in danger of stepping on Lan Wangji’s robe hems.
“Lan-daozhang, how’ve you liked it here so far? What do you think? Too cold? Too rural?”
Lan Wangji invokes his ever-reliable maneuver of The Cold Shoulder. It does not work.
“Haha, I guess you don’t know much about the village though! Lan-daozhang, you’ve hardly left your room!”
Lan Wangji walks faster.
“C’mon, you’ve been ignoring me all day! Don’t be so unfriendly. We’re about to spend a whole winter together, can’t we get to know each other?”
Finally, Lan Wangji feels the tenuous thread of his patience—which has been unraveling at an alarming pace all day—snap cleanly in two. He whirls around.
“We do not need to know each other, Wei Wuxian,” he hisses.
Those wide grey eyes flicker minutely, and for a moment Lan Wangji feels a bit of regret—perhaps his tone was too harsh—but then, Wei Wuxian’s gaze turns determined.
“Yes, we don’t need to know each other,” he retorts, “but don’t you want to? Come on, you’re a traveler; you get to see different lands and towns and creatures wherever you go. Doesn’t getting to know other people come as a part of that deal?”
Lan Wangji stands his ground. “I travel so I may do my duty as a cultivator. Not in order to make acquaintances.”
Wei Wuxian huffs in amusement. “Ehhh, Lan-daozhang, no way. I would’ve thought that a friendly guy like you would have friends in every region!”
Lan Wangji’s jaw clenches.
“I do not need friends,” he snaps.
Mid-laugh, Wei Wuxian’s expression morphs into something...different. Something like pity.
It makes Lan Wangji’s hackles rise.
“That sounds rather lonely, Lan-daozhang,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lonely? Lan Wangji thinks, feeling oddly defensive.
If he is lonely, it is not Wei Wuxian’s business. If he is lonely, Lan Wangji does not care. When he was younger, he did not have companions his age, but he did not need them either, not when he had his rabbits, and Xiongzhang, and M—
He is, and has been fine on his own. He does not need more. He does not want more.
“I did not ask you for your opinion,” he says, and turns to leave.
But just as Lan Wangji has opened the door to his room, Wei Wuxian’s voice calls out from behind.
“I want to be your friend.”
Lan Wangji pauses, hand still on the doorframe.
Wei Wuxian’s words tumble out in a hasty spill, voice strangely hesitant. “ I get lonely in this village, sometimes. Like you must when you’re travelling by yourself. So why don’t we be friends? I could tell you about what it’s like living here, and I could show you around the place—not that there’s much to show other than snow, right now. But..don’t you think that would be nice? Having someone to talk to instead of staying by yourself? Don’t you want that?”
Lan Wangji, one foot over the high doorsill, stares silently into the darkened corners of his unlit quarters. He thinks of the road, empty but for himself. He thinks of Wei Wuxian’s blank face during dinner.
When Wei Wuxian speaks again, his voice wavers, just a bit. “I know I would.”
Lan Wangji still does not reply, and there is the sound of shuffling feet. “Okay. I guess not. Have a good evening, Lan-daozhang—”
Wei Wuxian grinds to a halt. “What?”
“Lan Zhan,” Lan Wangji says again, shocking himself as he turns back to look into Wei Wuxian’s equally surprised eyes. Now that he’s said what he has, there’s no turning back; but Lan Wangji is feeling oddly impulsive tonight. “Courtesy name Wangji.”
Wei Wuxian’s returning grin builds slowly, creeping in from the corners of his face until it stretches his lips, brilliant and sun-bright in the evening shadows.
“Wei Ying. Courtesy name Wuxian. It’s nice to finally meet you, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji looks away, nearly blinded. His ears burn.
Suddenly, Lan Wangji finds himself settling into a pattern in his days in the Jiang home. Every morning, after they’ve both had their breakfast, Wei Ying seeks him out to spend time together. Sometimes he asks Lan Wangji to join him in painting—and Wei Ying, to Lan Wangji’s surprise, is quite artistically gifted—and sometimes he sits quietly and listens to Lan Wangji practice on his guqin.
Sometimes, he even coaxes Lan Wangji into telling him stories about the places he’s been and the things he’s seen.
“That sounds so amazing,” he always breathes, amazement blooming across his face as Lan Wangji drones through the accounts of his travels. Lan Wangji has no talent for spinning tales, not in the way Wei Ying does—but Wei Ying always looks impressed nonetheless. “I want to travel like you do, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji, neck hot under such single-minded focus, always looks away, feeling large in his skin. Flustered, somehow. But that never prevents him from moving on to the next story.
Other times, Wei Ying will convince Lan Wangji to venture out of the house with him.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying one day as he sits off to the side and watches Lan Wangji slowly and steadily spoon congee out from his wooden bowl. “You can’t possibly enjoy that.”
Lan Wangji stares down at his spoon. There’s nothing wrong with his food, as far as he can tell—it’s the same white, ungarnished congee that he always has with lunch, and it tastes the same as it always has. He looks back up.
“I find no fault with it.”
“Yes, but just because you don’t hate it doesn’t mean that you like it! I’ve been telling you this, Lan Zhan—don’t you want some flavor? Imagine something better, a whole table of delicious dishes just for you! Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Lan Wangji sees no point in having so much to himself. At the Cloud Recesses, he lived without wasteful excess, as his uncle and elders expected of him; on the road, he found little use in taking more than he needed to survive.
He says as much to Wei Ying. “Do not be picky with food,” he adds. “Do not be greedy.”
“Greedy!” Wei Ying’s face lights up with bafflement, or amusement, or both. Lan Wangji cannot read him perfectly yet; something stings, sharp and hot, if he looks for too long. Like he’s holding onto a firecracker.
“Aiii, Lan Zhan, having more food than you need wasn’t my point, okay? Listen—is it greed to receive what life provides? If I buy spices to add to my plate because I like it that way and they’re right there for me to buy, is that a sin? If I enjoy good dishes because they’re on my table, am I wrong?”
“...It is not a sin.”
“Exactly! There’s so many tasty things out there, so what’s stopping you from trying them?”
Lan Wangji hesitates, and Wei Ying makes the decision for him.
“Get up, Lan Zhan! I heard the aunties are going to make rice cakes today. I’ll show you real food!”
Somehow, Lan Wangji finds himself being herded down the paths of the village to a small, fresh and fluffy snowfall squeaking quietly under his feet.
The air is sharp and crisp as he breathes in through his nose; there are clear patches of blue in the sky, and the sun winks off the icy fragments that gather on the tiled roofs of the houses.
Wei Ying finally slows to a halt in front of a hut with steam-leaking windows. He trots up and raps smartly on the door with his knuckles—and with that, the door opens to release a pouring wave of wrinkled, chattering older women.
“It’s little A-Xian! Come in, come in, are you hungry? Oh! And you’ve brought that nice Lan-daozhang, hello, it’s an honor, why don’t you come sit down—”
Overwhelmed, Lan Wangji can only blink as they pour out of the doorway and swarm about, herding him and Wei Ying into the warmth of the house like ants carrying leaf scraps into their nests. Their voices blend, overlapping, and Wei Ying laughs above all the chatter in the room.
“Lan Zhan, you look so startled! Don’t worry, don’t worry, they’re always like this.”
He steps close and leans in to whisper in a conspiratorial undertone—and Lan Wangji feels himself stiffen, eyes caught on the soft pink curve of Wei Ying’s cheekbone and the windblown sweep of dark baby hairs at his temples. He holds his breath.
“We’re two strong young men,” Wei Ying whispers into his ear, oblivious to Lan Wangji’s thundering pulse. “If we help out around the kitchen, they’ll definitely let us taste some of the rice cakes! What do you say? Spare an afternoon to help out the aunties?”
“Hn,” says Lan Wangji, trying not to notice how close Wei Ying’s lips are to his own cheek.
Wei Ying grins, evidently taking Lan Wangji’s smothered grunt as a noise of assent. Then, after what feels like a century, he straightens up, taking his wool-wrapped warmth with him.
“Ladies,” he says brightly, arms spreading out broadly, “Would you mind if we joined you for today?”
And this is how Lan Wangji ends up spending the better part of his day helping a roomful of older women make bai tang gao.
This was already evident from outside, but the entire kitchen is filled with haze and hot from the steaming rice cakes over the hearth. Lan Wangji helps stir the batter—“Yes, put those strong arms to use, Lan Zhan!”—and pour it out in bowls to place in the woven bamboo steamer, while Wei Ying roams around the room in circles and offers to help anyone else who needs an extra pair of hands.
Beside Lan Wangji, a silver-haired woman clicks her tongue and puts a firm hand on his shoulder. “Aiyo,” she says to everyone else in the kitchen, “look how well he stirs the batter! Daozhang, I do say you are wasted on cultivation. Why don’t you become our kitchen assistant instead!”
Wei Ying lets out a scandalized yelp from where he is crouched over, fanning the fire.
“Deng-nainai! You can’t say things like that to a cultivator! Now he’s really going to think we’re all just a bunch of bumpkins!”
Lan Wangji, strangely, finds the corners of his lips threatening to twitch up. “I am glad you regard my stirring skills so favorably,” he says very seriously to Deng-nainai. “I cannot speak for the future, but I can offer my services for as long as I stay in this village.”
Deng-nainai cackles and squeezes his shoulder. “A-Xian, this young man is a pleasure! You must bring him around more often.”
Lan Wangji feels Wei Ying’s laughter thrum in his chest even from across the room.
“Ah, nainai,” Wei Ying teases, “I won’t need to bring him back once he’s gotten a taste of your cooking. He’ll come back begging on his own!”
The women in the kitchen break out into raucous laughter, poking at him for being a sweet-mouthed flatterer, and Lan Wangji continues on stirring, watching Wei Ying’s red-cheeked smile out of the corners of his eyes.
Hei has never felt something like this—the buzz, the heat, the crowd. The wet and heavy and billowing steam on his face, and the flitting chirrup of many voices, in his ear all at once like the symphony of a forest. The slow-burn of his eyes on a smiling face, and of other eyes on his own—without malice, or judgement, or anything else. Just watching and laughing and sharing the space.
Lan Wangji thinks, quietly and to himself, that he likes it very much.
When the day wears on and the sun begins to dip lower and lower in the window, Deng-nainai takes the iron lid off of one of the pots in the kitchen to reveal a piping hot lamb bone soup. The broth is milky and thick with onion and cabbage, and she doles out two full bowls for both of the day’s impromptu helpers.
Wei Ying asks, “Nainai, aren’t you and the aunties going to have some?” even as he stretches out both hands to receive the bowl.
Deng-nainai shakes her head. “We old women already had some earlier. Why don’t you and your Lan-daozhang sit down at the table, take a rest. This is a reward for being such nice young men!”
Not one to argue with his elders—and unwilling to dwell too long on the phrase ‘your Lan-daozhang’—Lan Wangji settles down obediently at the small and rickety table in the corner.
Wei Ying soon follows suit with an extra plate of fresh bai tang gao, shoved onto him by one of the other women.
“Lan Zhan, look! We get the first taste! Deng-nainai even gave us honey to try it with.”
The rice cake is sliced into thick wedges, bubbly white surface revealing the honeycomb-celled insides. Wei Ying pushes the plate towards Lan Wangi and waits for him to take the first slice, eyes glinting in anticipation.
“Try it! I promise it’s good, I bet you’ll love it. Come on.”
He only turns to his own food once he’s watched Lan Wangji take his bite, chew, swallow, and nod in agreement.
“It is good.”
“What did I tell you! Lan Zhan, it’s your very good luck that you’ve come to us during a time when we have so much good food stored up for the winter and can stuff you full of yummy things! That’s gonna be my goal, getting you to try everything we have to offer.”
Attention suddenly piqued, Lan Wangji looks up from the bai tang gao. “This time? As opposed to a different time?”
Wei Ying shrugs, nonchalant. “Ah. I don’t know much about that, since it was so many years ago, but Jiang-shushu sometimes mentions that the harvests used to be really bad when he was a child. But they must’ve changed agricultural practices or something, ‘cause things are much better now! Lan Zhan, you should eat your rice cake before the honey drips on the tabletop.”
Wei Ying says all of this through a full mouth before chewing noisily and swallowing—and, horribly, Lan Wangji finds that he isn’t even annoyed by this.
He finishes his own rice cake in neat bites before starting on his soup.
“There was one season where we even had colored rice!” Wei Ying pipes up within seconds, unprompted. “Imagine that, Lan Zhan, red and purple and white grains all mixed together in one rice bowl! The flavor! I don’t remember too much because I was only, what, five? But Deng-nainai made rice cakes with the red rice that summer, and they were the sweetest, tastiest rice cakes I’d ever had in my entire life.”
Lan Zhan hums and lowers his eyes, tearing his gaze away from the honey-slick glaze of Wei Ying’s mouth to sip at his soup.
When Lan Wangji doesn’t add anything, Wei Ying throws him a sideways glance and amends,“Of course, I was basically a baby, and this is—well, this isn’t any big city. I’m sure you’ve seen better things. But eating those red rice cakes after a day of running around in the sun? I could’ve died happy. They were my favorite.”
“I have never seen such rice cakes,” Lan Wangji slowly, “but I’m sure they were very good, given Deng-nainai’s skill in cooking.”
Wei Ying brightens, and Lan Wangji feels the urge to draw another one of those gleaming-eyed looks out of him. He has never given much thought to the foods he’s had in the different places he’s traveled to, but he suddenly finds himself wracking his brain, trying to remember if he’s ever had anything chewy and sweet like what Wei Ying’s describing.
For some reason, it is suddenly very important that he’s tried something similar—that they’ve shared a similar experience.
“I do recall that the tangyuan I had once in Ganquan were quite good,” he offers after a pause. “They were made with tangerine peel.”
“Oh! Ah, that sounds like it would taste amazing, I really wish I could go and try it...oh, but speaking of tangyuan, Lan Zhan, there was this one year during Yuanxiao when Mu-ayi made them with red bean, and…”
Lan Wangji, content to listen, sits back and watches the dim winter day percolate through the steam-fogged window and wash over Wei Ying’s animated face.
It’s warm, he thinks.
Lan Wangji is aware that, technically speaking, he does not need to stay any longer in the village. He is a skilled cultivator, and the massive blizzard of the first day has long since faded away; if he really wanted to leave, he could make his way out of the mountain range by himself. He could even hop on his sword, ascend into the sky, and make his way to his next case within the day.
But then again, he hasn’t yet heard of anything that would require his services.
It can’t hurt to stay for a bit longer.
Ever since that tense, stony dinner on Lan Wangji’s first full day in the village, he has rarely ever seen Yu Ziyuan in the same room as Wei Ying for more than five seconds at a time.
He doubts that this is by chance.
It has not escaped his notice that despite Yu Ziyuan’s generally prickly attitude towards everyone in her family, she singles out Wei Ying the most frequently. At their subsequent shared dinners, Yu Ziyuan always has one sharp eye fixed on Wei Ying, gauging every twitch of his hands and word out of his mouth; when she catches him ‘loafing about’, she reprimands him for being unproductive; and when Wei Ying attempts to recruit her son into joining his and Lan Wangji’s weekly outdoor adventures, she spares no expense in verbally whipping Wei Ying’s metaphorical hide.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying is currently in the middle of complaining, “You can miss one afternoon of training, can’t you? Yu-furen’s got you practicing sword forms in the yard every single day, and that’s basically outdoors, so it doesn’t make a difference if you come with us and bring your sword! You’ll still be outside—”
It’s just past noon. They're all in the cleared area that sits in between the Jiang house and the worn-down, dark-ice path that carves its way through the village. Jiang Wanyin is standing before his brother, his sword dangling casually from his hand, and a mixed expression of exasperation and amusement on his face.
Suddenly, he stiffens. His eyes dart over Wei Ying’s shoulder.
Lan Wangji, who had been watching this entire exchange from the side, turns to follow Jiang Wanyin’s gaze and spots Yu Ziyuan at the edge of the paved-stone square, arms already crossed.
Unbidden, his shoulders tense up. He feels a storm coming.
Immediately, the wheedling expression drops off Wei Ying’s face, and he whips around, hands already held up. “Yu-ayi, I was just saying that—”
“I heard what you said, Wei Wuxian,” she barks, advancing on him. “Are you trying to test my leniency on purpose?”
“No! No, I’m not, but I was just thinking that Jiang Cheng has been practicing so hard lately, and it might be nice for him to take a break—”
Yu Ziyuan takes one more threatening step forward, face stormy, one arm lifting to point angrily. In another life, Lan Wangji would have no problem imagining her as a warrior—her eyes dark flame, something spitting and crackling in her hand. Fearsome.
But Lan Wangji isn’t looking at her—his eyes are on Wei Ying, who has jerked back just slightly from Yu Ziyuan’s raised hand.
Yu Ziyuan doesn’t seem to notice. “If you want to waste your time running around like a feral creature, I don’t care. But trying to drag my son into your nonsense? Know your place!”
Wei Ying nods silently.
Jiang Wanyin has, up until this point, been hovering awkwardly off to the side. To his credit, he half-tries to step in. “Niang, I really am almost finished for today, so Wei Wuxian wasn’t distracting me that much…”
Unfortunately, this attempt to defend his brother only makes Yu Ziyuan turn on him.
Yu Ziyuan whirls, teeth bared. “So you think training is a once-daily task that you can complete like housework? You think that you can get it over with and magically improve overnight? You idiot! How do you expect to be chosen as sanren like this?”
Jiang Wanyin lowers his eyes. “I didn’t mean that.”
“What else would you mean? Heavens, how did I give birth to a boy like you? Stop wasting time and get back to training.”
To Lan Wangji, she says, voice abruptly calm, “Lan-daozhang, I am sorry for this ridiculousness. There’s no need for you to humor Wei Wuxian so much, I’m sure I can find other things for him to do so he won’t bother you so often.”
Wei Ying continues to stare just past Yu Ziyuan’s shoulder, expression resigned. His face tilts down.
And Lan Wangji, looking at the sparse scattering of snowflakes on the top of Wei Ying’s dark head, replies, “There is no need. I enjoy Wei Ying’s company.”
Wei Ying snaps his head up, shocked.
Jiang Wanyin says nothing.
Yu Ziyuan raises an eyebrow.
“...You enjoy it.” she says skeptically.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji replies. He can feel Wei Ying’s eyes burning into the side of his face. “I am sorry to interrupt your son’s training, Yu-furen. Wei Ying and I will take our leave so that we do not distract him further.”
With that, he bows to Yu Ziyuan and turns away, only moving once he hears Wei Ying’s scuffling footsteps following behind him. Within a minute, they’re alone again.
Quietly, Wei Ying catches up to Lan Wangji’s side and reaches out as if to tug his sleeve. He stops there, hand hovering in mid air, and drops it back to his side before breaking his silence.
“You...you would tell me if I actually annoyed you, right?”
Lan Wangji frowns. “What do you mean?”
Wei Ying scuffs one shoe on the ground, not meeting his eyes. “I know it’s hard because we live in the same house right now, but you don’t need to play along with me all the time, Lan Zhan. You can tell me to leave you alone at any time and I’ll respect that.”
Indignation rises, hot and biting, in Lan Wangji’s throat. “I do not wish for you to leave me alone, and you do not annoy me. I meant it when I said I enjoy your company.”
“I—and thank you for saying that, but are you sure—”
“I do not tell lies, Wei Ying.”
“Okay. Okay.” Wei Ying pauses, and then says again, “But I’ve been dragging you around a lot lately, maybe you just want some personal time in your room? You can go back inside and rest or something—”
“No. You mentioned ice fishing yesterday; I would like to experience this, if you are willing to show me. Please lead the way.”
Finally, Wei Ying’s face softens, and Lan Wangji catches the glint of a smile in his eyes. “Well. Well, Lan Zhan, if you insist! Let me get my stuff, and then we can go!”
Lan Wangji allows himself to smile back, careful and barely-there.
Just ten minutes later, Wei Ying is leading him through the snowy forest, chattering on about everything and nothing. The trees are thick and closely packed, trunks dark and bare but for the clumping of snow and the occasional dark green bristle of pine. Despite the winter chill, the sky is blue and clear and open through the skeletal branches; every breath leaves Wei Ying’s lips in a warm, shining silver puff.
When Wei Ying stops him at a forest clearing, Lan Wangji expects to see some sort of body of water, and blinks at the simple sight of a boulder in the snow.
Wei Ying turns to him and spreads his arms out wide. “Okay, we’re not there yet, but I wanted to show you this first!”
Lan Wangji blinks at the boulder again. It sits there. It’s an unremarkable boulder. “What is it?”
Wei Ying leans in, a mischievous grin tugging his lip-corners up. “Did you know if you sit here, and you stay still enough, sometimes you can see wild hares pass by?”
Instantly, Lan Wangji feels his expression change with the mention of rabbits, and Wei Ying hoots in delight. “I knew you liked them! I could tell when I offered to make rabbit soup that one time, hah, you softie! C’mon, let’s see if we can get lucky today.”
He bounds forward and brushes the worst of the snow and ice off the center of the boulder before flopping down to sit. “Come on, Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji approaches, cautious. The area that Wei Ying has brushed off is awfully small—there’s barely space for him there.
“I can stand,” he decides.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” And with one strong tug from Wei Ying’s hand on his sleeve, Lan Wangji is pulled down onto the empty spot on the boulder.
As he settles down, he tries to stay as still as he can. They’re sitting awfully close together.
“Now we gotta wait,” Wei Ying whispers softly. “Let’s see if the little rascals visit.”
Five minutes later, there are still no hares in sight, and Lan Wangji cannot focus on anything but the rhythmic sound of Wei Ying breathing quietly, in and out, next to him. Abruptly, sitting here quietly with Wei Ying’s warm body inches away is too much for him to bear.
Uncharacteristically, he opens his mouth and breaks the silence first. “Yu-furen mentioned something called sanren, earlier. Is that a village tradition?”
Wei Ying, who has been staring intensely at the edge of the trees for movement, pops his head up. “Oh! I can’t believe I haven’t told you about that yet. Yeah, it’s a special position, that’s what everyone says. They only give someone the title of sanren every fifteen years, and the selected individual gets to act as kind of—a representative for the village, you could call it? They go on the road and travel all over the country to collect knowledge and send it back to us.”
Wei Ying’s eyes shine as he speaks. He seems almost wistful.
“They collect information?” Lan Wangji asks.
“That’s what Jiang-shushu says. They must send it back by letter, straight back to Jiang-shushu. You know, none of them choose to return back to the village when they leave. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t either—I mean, I’m sure they must’ve seen so many great places and people out there that they’d settle down with someone they’ve met or kept traveling, or something. But, yeah—the next announcement is going to be early next year, did you know?”
Wei Ying shifts from side to side as he speaks, knocking more snowpack loose, and Lan Wangji is struck with the sudden urge to reach out and put a hand on him. Not to touch, of course—just to stop him from moving so much.
He settles for clenching his hands a little more tightly in his lap, and ignores the way that Wei Ying’s fidgeting has brought his thigh one inch closer to his own.
“Mn. I’ve heard of this from Jiang-cunzhang.” As he speaks, Lan Wangji’s hair slips off his shoulder and into his face, ticking his nose; he tucks it carefully back behind one ear.
“Right,” Wei Ying says vaguely.
A pause. The distant creak of wintered land, shifting snow and ice, and then Lan Wangji turns to his companion and finds that Wei Ying is already looking back at him. “Do you wish to be chosen?”
Wei Ying blinks, startled. “Hm? What’s that? Sorry, I was d—I wasn’t paying attention.”
“The announcement next year. Do you want to be chosen?”
Something in Wei Ying’s gaze flashes, then dims. He laughs a bit too quickly. “I—what? I mean, I’d like to see the world, but...it’s a position for the best and bravest of the village, Lan Zhan, did you even hear me the first time? It’s gonna be Jiang Cheng, obviously.”
“You told me before that you want to travel—”
“Since when did wanting do anything?” Wei Ying says, smile tight.
“Wei Ying, you always tell me that—”
“That’s different. It must sound trivial to you anyway, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, cutting him off. His eyes dart away. “It’s all small village nonsense.”
Lan Wangji frowns. “Wei Ying—”
Wei Ying jumps up from the stone, voice abruptly loud. “It must be a bad day for rabbits, Lan Zhan, I don’t think any are coming. My butt is getting cold from sitting here! Let’s keep going, I think the lake should be just ahead. Follow me!”
He starts walking off without waiting for Lan Wangji to rise.
A pause; then, his eyes tracking the bounding red arc of Wei Ying’s hair ribbon, Lan Wangji trails closely behind.
What Wei Ying has so generously called a “lake” is, in Lan Wangji’s opinion, more like a larger-than-average pond.
Still, it’s deep enough to suit their purposes. As he steps out onto the frozen surface, Lan Wangji is about to take initiative and carve out an opening in the ice when Wei Ying jerks his head over to the side, indicating a hole that has not yet completely iced over.
The surrounding ice cover is thick and opaque from days of deep-freeze; however, this spot only has the thinnest of layers forming over the water, like it’s only frozen overnight.
At Lan Wangji’s curious look, Wei Ying shrugs. “I come out here a lot when I have free time. Nobody else would bother coming out and wasting their time here during the winter, so it’s like a place only I know about. It’s peaceful.”
Lan Wangji nods. He can understand the need for peace.
With this approval, Wei Ying sets about readying their fishing area. He clears the hole of any residual ice layer and untangles the fishing rod he had brought along. Hook baited, he drops the line into the water.
“This is really all there is to it,” he explains as he settles back onto his heels. “Fishing is a waiting game, so I usually come out here when I don’t want to talk to anyone or think about anything, and I just stay here and listen to the world. Sorry, it might not be as fun as you thought.”
Lan Wangji crouches down too, carefully arranging his robes. “This is fine. I am told that I am suited to quiet activities.”
“Hah! Lan Zhan, that’s an understatement.”
A while into their quiet contemplation of the crystal-clear surface of the water, Lan Wangji hears Wei Ying shift slightly on his feet.
“I should’ve said this earlier,” Wei Ying coughs, “But. Better late than never.”
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry you had to see all—well, you’ll be seeing more of it in the future too, so I guess I should apologize for anything to do with me and Yu-furen at any point this winter. It gets like that a lot. I’m sure you’ve noticed. You didn’t need to stand up for me, even though it was really nice of you to do that.”
Lan Wangji frowns. “It was only right for me to correct her. The way Yu-furen was speaking to you—”
“—is justified,” Wei Ying interrupts. “She doesn’t exactly like me, and I don’t blame her. I get Jiang Cheng into too much trouble. And they didn’t have to take me in, but they still did, so. I’m grateful enough for that.”
At Lan Wangji’s silent look, Wei Ying blows out a sigh and goes on.
“My mother was the last person to be granted the title. Cangse-sanren.” He picks at a stray splinter on the wooden pole of the fishing rod, voice measured and hollow.
“And my father, Wei Changze, was one of Jiang-shushu’s best friends. They left fifteen years ago for my mother to—you know, complete her responsibilities. Travel. Whatever. I was supposed to go with them.”
Wei Ying’s lips tighten.
“Jiang-shushu says they ended up deciding to leave me here, because it was too dangerous on the road. He said that they were planning on coming back in a couple years, when I was older, to take me with them again. I don’t really remember—I was too young—all I remember from that night is someone kissing my hair. And then the next day they had left.”
He shifts. Lan Wangji can’t see his face behind the fall of his hair.
“I guess it was lucky that I didn’t go, in the end. They ended up being killed on the road within the first year.”
“I’m sorry,” says Lan Wangji.
“Don’t be,” Wei Ying says, smiling. It doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I was too young to remember much about them anyway. Anyway, since my parents weren’t about to come back and take me off their hands, the Jiang family was stuck with me. Have been ever since. So I get why Yu-furen can’t stand me; she never asked for this. I’ve made my peace with it.”
Privately, Lan Wangji thinks that Wei Ying is very generous to let Yu-furen’s behavior slide for the virtue of not abandoning an orphaned child after his parents were killed. He considers his next words for a very long moment.
“Both of my parents died when I was very young,” he says. “It is hard to remember their faces.”
“Oh. Oh, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says, echoing Lan Wangji’s earlier words.
“It was a long time ago,” Lan Wangji replies.
“Sometimes that doesn’t stop it from hurting, does it, though?” Wei Ying laughs a little flatly. “Guess we’re more similar than expected. Who would’ve thought.”
Lan Wangji huffs. “Indeed.”
Then he says, “I have very few memories of my mother. Xiongzhang was older when she passed and remembers her better—he says I have her nose.”
(Lan Wangji has his mother’s nose.
Lan Wangji has his mother’s gentle smile, too; when he was a child, he learned not to laugh in front of the elders of his sect, because they would frown and tut at the reminder of her, and Lan Wangji was young enough that he knew only that he did not want to be frowned at. Lan Wangji has his mother’s lust for freedom, her desire to soar away, untethered; the day before he left the Cloud Recesses, Xiongzhang came to his quarters and put a hand on his shoulder and said, Wangji, she would be very proud of you. You know that, right? Lan Wangji has his mother’s face and her blood and her boundless, beating heart—)
“Perhaps that is a silly thing to hold onto,” he adds quietly. “But it brings me comfort to know that I have something from her.”
Wei Ying’s eyes soften.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, that’s so—”
—and then the fishing rod jerks in Wei Ying’s hands, and the moment shatters.
“Oh! The line!”
The wooden end of the fishing rod bends slightly under a sudden force, and Wei Ying scrambles to his feet. Lan Wangji gets up too, watching the string tug and dart under the surface of the icy water.
“Something’s biting! Wow, Lan Zhan, maybe we’ll actually go back with something to show for our efforts! You’re like a fishing good luck charm, I usually have the hardest time trying to get anything to bite—”
The line goes slack.
Wei Ying’s face falls. “Ah. I guess not.”
Something twinges in Lan Wangji’s chest at the disappointed tilt of Wei Ying’s brows.
Before he can second-guess himself, he’s gesturing Wei Ying aside and casting a hand into the folds of his robes. In the blink of an eye, he’s unearthed Bichen from the depths of his qiankun pouch—”Wow! Lan Zhan, how did you fit that in there!”—and unsheathed it.
With one sharp twitch of his fingers, Bichen leaps out of his hands and plunges into the dark water.
Wei Ying stills from beside him. “Uh, Lan Zhan, I know you must be disappointed with the catch too, but there’s no need to stab the lake. I don’t think that’s gonna—”
Lan Zhan shushes him. “Wait.”
One second passes, then five; and suddenly, Bichen breaches the surface of the lake spraying water droplets every which way as it returns to Lan Wangji’s outstretched hand, topped with a fat, wriggling fish.
Wei Ying whoops. “Heavens! Lan Zhan, forget ice fishing, you let me throw a string around in the water for thirty minutes when we could’ve been skewering fish with a flying sword?! That was amazing!”
Lan Wangji tries very hard to tamp down the glow of prideful embers in his chest. He fails.
“Shall I catch some more?”
Wei Ying’s answering grin blows the embers into flame.
As they shuffle back home with freezing fingers and numb toes and a bag full of freshly caught fish, Lan Wangji and Wei Ying pass by Jiang Fengmian in the corridor in front of the kitchen.
Lan Wangji inclines his head respectfully as he comes to a stop in front of the village chief. “Cunzhang,” he greets.
“Jiang-shushu!” Wei Ying cries cheerfully. He digs one hand in and pulls their most recent catch out of the bag, and the body of the dead fish thrashes at the contact, almost smacking him in the face with its scaly head. He dodges quickly, still beaming. “Look at what Lan Zhan and I caught! It was like nothing I’ve seen before, he used his sword and—“
“That’s good, A-Xian,” Jiang Fengmian says distractedly.
He looks—not quite there. His brows are drawn in sharply over his eyes; the corners of his mouth are set down in a harsh line. One of his hands lands on Wei Ying’s shoulder, and then darts away just as quickly, as if he’s been burned. “Ah. I have a—a document to review in my study. Excuse me.”
“Hm.” says Wei Ying as they both stare after Jiang Fengmian’s retreating back. “Jiang-shushu seemed kind of stressed! It must be administrative stuff, ah, I don’t envy him. Lan Zhan, let’s go inside and cook these up!”
“Mn,” says Lan Zhan. Before he follows after Wei Ying into the coziness of the kitchen, he stares after Jiang Fengmian for one more moment, watching as he hurries away down the hall.
He looks like he’s running away from something.
Lan Wangji turns away.
In the following weeks, Lan Wangji notes that the purple circles under Jiang Fengmian’s eyes have seemed to darken tenfold. His usual genial smile is missing; in its place, he wears a constant mask of exhaustion.
“He’s been acting kinda weird, don’t you think?” Wei Ying asks Lan Wangji one late afternoon as they and Jiang Wanyin (who had miraculously been given permission from Yu Ziyuan to join them after he finished practicing) wander about the snowy village in aimless boredom. “He seems tired all the time. You know, he doesn’t even ask if I want to play go or anything like that anymore. Do you think he’s avoiding me? There must be something bothering him.”
Jiang Wanyin scoffs, idly digging the tip of his shoe deeper into the ground. “Wei Wuxian, avoiding you is a symptom of mental stability. Don’t overthink it.”
He receives a snowball to the face for his comment.
When Jiang Wanyin has finished spluttering and swiping at his head, his face emerges red and irritated from underneath the flakes, and his legs are already moving in pursuit.
Wei Ying hoots with laughter as he sprints away.
“Haha, A-Cheng, if mentally stable people avoid me then why are you chasing after me? Hey—hey, put that down, that’s not snow anymore, that’s an ice ball! Wait, wait— ufffghhh! GET BACK HERE, JIANG CHENG, YOU JERK!”
Lan Wangji follows behind the trail of destruction with his arm tucked calmly behind his back.
Eventually, the bickering duo make it all the way to the edge of the village. By the time Lan Wangji catches up with them, they are tussling on the ground in the woods, just a few minutes from the cave system where Lan Wangji exorcised the female spirit on his first day in the village.
He mentions this, and Wei Ying’s eyes light up.
“Oh! That’s right, that was what brought you all the way out here! Haha, and then you got stuck here with us for the whole winter, poor Lan Zhan. I don’t think I’ve ever asked you, but what’s it like to fight a ghost? Is it scary? How can you tell where it is?”
Jiang Wanyin shoves Wei Ying away and picks himself up off the ground, dusting the damp seat of his robes off. He scowls. “You got snow in my ear, you bastard. And why are you asking so many questions? Is he your teacher or something?”
Wei Ying bounces up too. “I’m curious, Jiang Cheng, that’s what happens when you have a bright mind like mine.”
Lan Wangji cuts in before they can descend into another scuffling match.
“I do not mind answering Wei Ying’s questions. I do not consider it ‘scary’. Some spirits do not manifest visually, but most do, and all can be detected through their aura of spiritual energy. The man who led me here reported often feeling a ‘resentful presence’ when he was here in the past.”
“Hmm? A resentful presence?”
Wei Ying hums, tapping a finger against his chin. “That’s weird. I’ve passed by here before, and I never felt any bad presence at all! In fact, I thought it was kinda nice and calm.”
Jiang Wanyin snorts. “Maybe that’s because your skull is thick as a rock. Can’t sense any presences through that barricade of yours.”
“Shut up before I dunk your head into the snow again,” Wei Ying says sweetly. “Lan Zhan, how do you deal with spirits? Is that what your guqin is for?”
Perfectly willing to explain, Lan Wangji begins detailing the ins and outs of musical cultivation in the Gusu Lan sect, and in particular his own use of his guqin, Wangji. Without revealing too many details, he also describes how playing different melodies on an instrument may allow the wielder to perform different tasks, such as spirit cleansing and communication.
Jiang Wanyin mumbles a little quietly, but Lan Wangji can tell by the concentrated look in his eyes that he’s hanging onto every word. To his side, Wei Ying sits with unabashed amazement in his eyes.
“Oh! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, what about your sword?” he bursts out after a while, gesturing to where Bichen is hidden away in his qiankun pouch. “Don’t tell me you only use it for fishing.”
Lan Wangji hums. “In instances where a creature is particularly violent, yes, I will use my sword.”
Wei Ying gasps.
“Oh, wow...okay, I didn’t ask when we were fishing because it had fish guts all over it. But that’s—god, it’s so cool—can I touch it? If that’s okay?”
Jiang Wanyin, who had been listening silently, turns away from them and starts fake-gagging into the snow. “Can you guys not do this in front of me?”
Lan Wangji turns to look at him, confused.
Wei Ying turns too, cocking his head to the side. “What are you talking about?”
Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes at his brother. “You know what I mean.”
“Uhhh...no, I don’t,” Wei Ying says, brows furrowing. “Don’t be such a downer, this might be my only chance to use a proper sword, just once in my life!”
“You guys are seriously so gross,” Jiang Wanyin groans, dragging one snow-chilled hand down his face. “And what the hell are you talking about, your only chance, I have one—”
The brothers share a long, silent look that Lan Wangji does not understand, and then Jiang Wanyin huffs and looks away, seeming uneasy.
“Forget it. Touch swords or whatever you want. It’s getting cold, I’m going to head back first.”
“Hey! Jiang Cheng, wait—ah, he’s going.” Wei Ying sighs, and then watches as Jiang Wanyin disappears between the trees, heading in the direction of the village.
When he faces Lan Wangji again, his eyes are apologetic.
“Sorry about him. He’s just—touchy, I guess. The last and only time I handled a sword was when we were a lot younger, and it was a mess, haha.”
Lan Wangji inclines his head, and something in Wei Ying’s expression releases.
“I just...I convinced him to let me play with his practice sword, and Yu-furen found out.”
Wei Ying swallows. “She was furious. Swords are so expensive and hard enough to come by in a town like ours, and she was so furious that he just let me play around with it. She really laid into me that time, haha. And Jiang Cheng cried all night—isn’t that funny! He was the one sobbing into his pillow while it was my back that was all messed up. Silly A-Cheng.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to address any part of what he’s just been told without reacting inappropriately. Rather than say anything unbecoming, he silently retrieves Bichen and hands it over, unsheathed.
Wei Ying’s eyes widen. “I was mostly joking when I asked, I didn’t think you would actually...are you sure?”
Lan Wangji pushes the sword forward again. “I trust you.”
Wei Ying’s throat bobs in a gulp; then, with a cautious hand, he takes Bichen by the handle.
“Oh wow, this is so cool,” Wei Ying says as he lifts it up, practically vibrating. His fingers slide delicately over Bichen’s pale handle, and he brings the sword to his eyes as if to marvel at the way the pale winter sunlight dances across the shining blade.
“Lan Zhan,” he gasps, “do cultivators just feel like this all the time? Just incredibly strong and powerful and handsome because they have swords in their hands? My god!”
With one swift motion, he thrusts the sword out to the side, as if stabbing an imaginary opponent.
Surprisingly, his form isn’t too bad for someone who’s never properly handled a sword—with practice, Lan Wangji could see him becoming quite skilled.
He steps forward to fix Wei Ying’s form without thinking.
“A broader stance will help you stay balanced. Move this shoulder down...yes, better.” One hand ghosts down Wei Ying’s side to press against his waist. “Move your torso forward like this. And do not allow your wrist to bend so much—”
Reality hits him on the head like a hammer, and suddenly Lan Wangji snaps out of his haze and realizes that he’s standing almost tucked up behind Wei Ying’s body, one hand resting on his side, the fingers of the other wrapped gently around Wei Ying’s wrist.
He stills, staring into Wei Ying’s eyes—which are suddenly much closer than before—and Wei Ying gazes back like a frozen deer. His pupils are blown wide, and his lashes are so long, and Lan Wangji cannot help but let his gaze drop for a second, down to Wei Ying’s mouth, looking so soft and warm and close.
Wei Ying’s wrist flexes just slightly under Lan Wangji’s hand.
One eternally-long moment passes, and then Lan Wangji’s brain restarts and he steps back hastily.
“Ahem.” He clears his throat, face feeling awfully hot. He doesn’t know where to put his hands—they feel awkward, hanging by his side. “I apologize. I used to help the junior disciples practice sword forms. It seems I have formed a habit.”
Wei Ying appears to fluster, sword hand coming down immediately and his other hand going to scratch at the back of his head. “Oh no, don’t apologize! I doubt I’ll ever have any proper instruction anyway so—thanks! And thank you for letting me even touch your sword in the first place, here, I’ll give it back—”
He hands Bichen back to Lan Wangji hastily, and their hands touch over the handle. Wei Ying’s hand darts away quickly, but Lan Wangji feels the brush of his pinky like it’s been imprinted into his own skin.
For another moment, the forest is excruciatingly quiet around them. Lan Wangji can practically hear the still air churn in sympathy—he bites just slightly at the inside of his cheek, looking down helplessly at Bichen in his hands. Before meeting Wei Ying, he had never been bothered by long silences that others considered weird or awkward, but now Lan Wangji feels as though he might explode if this moment drags on for any longer.
As always, Wei Ying is the one to initiate. “Well, I think it’s going to get dark soon! We better head back, right?”
Lan Wangji latches onto this olive branch with gratitude, reply coming fast and almost gracelessly eager. “Yes. It is getting late. We should go.”
He’s just turning to go when Wei Ying speaks again.
“This really was nice of you, Lan Zhan,” he says softly, looking almost shy. “I really appreciate it.”
Lan Wangji’s breath stutters at the downward swoop of Wei Ying’s eyelashes.
“It was nothing,” he says, drowning out the stubborn thump of his heart with his voice. He’s sure that if it beats any louder, Wei Ying might hear. “I would be willing to teach you more in the future, if you would like.”
Wei Ying blinks in surprise, and when his face splits in a grin, Lan Wangji feels a responding tug in his chest.
“I’d love that,” Wei Ying says. His eyes are bright, starlike.
Lan Wangji doesn’t feel awkward anymore. It’s been replaced by something different; a swirling rush in his ribs, one that roars out from his center and slides along his skin, all the way up to his fingertips. He feels it wash over him, strong and inevitable like the tides of the sea, and take him under in a foaming mass of bubbles.
Head below the surface, Lan Wangji shuts his eyes. He’s not yet ready to look into the depths.
The two of them walk home side-by-side, Wei Ying humming slightly off tune and the purple shadows of the trees stretching out long and stark against the snow—and the whole time, Lan Wangji is vividly aware of the scant inches of space between their nearly-brushing shoulders.
It’s warm, Lan Wangji thinks. He makes me feel warm. He makes me feel—
Just a few weeks after the winter solstice, Jiang Yanli visits for dinner.
“A-Xian! A-Cheng!” she cries out through the house when she steps into the main room, her voice like the bright chiming of silver bells. “Come here and let me see how much you’ve grown in three months!”
Lan Wangji hears—more than sees—her entrance. As he often finds himself, he is in the middle of looking at Wei Ying, drinking in the scrunch of his nose and the catch of his pink tongue between his teeth as he focuses on the wood that he is whittling idly—and so Lan Wangji is also able to see how the happiness breaks over Wei Ying’s face like dawn, lighting up his eyes and curling in his scattered-sun smile.
Wei Ying leaps up from his seat, and so does Jiang Wanyin from across the room.
Personally, Lan Wangji has only known Jiang Yanli through the endless childhood stories and waxing praises that Wei Ying—and, at rare times, Jiang Wanyin—have relayed to him, but a mere hour in her presence solidifies his impression that her brothers’ adoring worship is justified.
Lan Wangji has never had a sister, nor has he ever dreamed of having one—but he imagines that if he had, he would’ve wished for someone like Jiang Yanli.
“Lan-daozhang,” she says to him just before she blows into the kitchen and insists on taking over for dinner, “Thank you so much for keeping my brothers company this winter. I wish I could be here more often, but life gets so busy, and I could only manage to make it here today because the snow melted a little bit so I wouldn’t get stuck on the road.”
Life is Jiang Yanli’s residence in a village not far from her hometown, alongside her newly-wed husband, Jin Zixuan. Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin curse the man’s name whenever it comes up, insisting that he is not good enough for their sister; but Jiang Yanli seems happy with him, so Lan Wangji withholds judgement.
“I should be the one to give thanks,” he replies. “Your family is being kind enough to house me during the winter.”
She smiles gently. “Only after you exorcised the spirit in the caves, from what I hear! Please don’t be so modest, Lan-daozhang. You’ve done a great thing for us.”
Lan Wangji dips his head. “It is simply my job as a cultivator.”
“Well, if you insist.” She pauses. Jiang Yanli has a sweet and open face, but now there is something mildly teasing about the set of her lips. “You and A-Xian seem very...close.”
Inexplicably, Lan Wangji feels his ears burn. He doesn’t know why he feels so caught—he hasn’t even done anything wrong. He clears his throat. “Wei Ying is a good companion. He is very kind to me.”
Something about the glint in Jiang Yanli’s eyes makes him uncomfortable.
“I’m glad he has someone to play around with,” she says simply. “I’ve never seen him this lively. Please do take care of my little brother—he can be quite rambunctious.”
Suddenly, Wei Ying cries out from across the room for Lan Wangji’s attention. “Lan Zhan! Look! The wooden spoon I carved out actually doesn’t look too bad, you can have it if you want!”
When Lan Wangji has nodded his thanks and turned back to the woman in front of him, Jiang Yanli is already wearing a knowing smile.
“...But, you know what, Lan-daozhang?” she says, eyes sparkling. “I think you have everything handled.”
Then, before he can open his mouth and say anything in return, she bows politely and moves into the kitchen.
When dinner comes, the table is nearly groaning under the number of dishes laid across the surface. Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin gush over the quality of the food between enthusiastic mouthfuls of soy sauce chicken and stir-fried cabbage; even Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan seem to relax in their chairs, expressions softer.
Jiang Yanli smiles bashfully at the praise being thrown her way, and giggles as Wei Ying declares her cooking to be ‘number one in the world, better even than the royal chefs of the Emperor himself!’
“A-Xian, you’re so ridiculous, what would a silly boy like you know about what the royal chefs make? Besides, I rarely have time to even cook a full meal nowadays—the shop keeps me busy.”
Jiang Wanyin chimes in here. “A-Jie, that’s because you have so many customers! You’re the best seamstress in your town, of course you don’t have to cook—you’re busy running your own shop!”
Jiang Yanli laughs again and swats her hand at both of her brothers before sighing. “Oh, you—what am I going to do with you both. Ah, but it’s so lovely to see everyone’s faces again. I do wish I could stay for longer.”
“Then you’ll just have to come back more often after the snow melts!” Wei Ying says cheerfully—and then his expression turns sly. He nudges his brother with his shoulder.
“...And when Jiang Cheng here finally gets his title, he can drop by your village for a visit before he sets off on the road! Isn’t that right, Jiang-sanren?”
But despite the shove he delivers to his brother’s shoulder, Jiang Wanyin does not conceal the pleased smile inching across his mouth. Even Yu Ziyuan, sitting at the head of the table, has a proud look in her eyes at Wei Ying’s words.
Lan Wangji notes that Jiang Fengmian is the only one who looks uncomfortable.
After the meal has wrapped up—and Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin have fought over who would be cleaning up the dishes for the meal, and then over who gets to hug Jiang Yanli goodbye first—Wei Ying comes skipping up to Lan Wangji’s side in the main room of the house.
“Hey, Lan Zhan, let’s go out before it gets too cold and windy! There’s this place with really pretty icicle formations that I want to show you, and if we wait until tomorrow it might melt—”
Someone clears their throat. They both turn to see Jiang Fengmian standing just behind them, shoulders slumped.
“A-Xian,” he says, “Could I have a word with you?”
It’s not phrased like a request.
Wei Ying blinks. “Of course, Jiang-shushu. Hey, Lan Zhan, you go get ready first! Just wait for me to finish, okay?”
Lan Wangji nods, and watches them both go—Wei Ying, still bouncing on his heels, and Jiang Fengmian, back slightly hunched in his now ever-constant exhaustion.
Back in his room, he adds an extra layer of robes to protect himself from the chilly winter night. On a second thought, he also adds a thick muffler to the contents of his qiankun pouch—Wei Ying always forgets his and then complains about how cold his nose is. When he is certain he has everything he needs, he settles down to wait.
Five minutes pass.
Lan Wangji refolds some of his extra robes and tucks them away again, careful to avoid wrinkles.
Ten minutes pass.
He sits at his guqin and strums idly, just to do something with his hands.
Finally, a quiet knock comes at his door. Lan Wangji rises to his feet immediately, not even embarrassed at his own eagerness, and hurries to open the door.
Wei Ying is standing in the entrance, bone pale.
“Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I think we’ll have to hold off on the icicles.”
Immediately, Lan Wangji forgoes his disappointment at the cancelled plans and jumps straight to feeling worry at Wei Ying’s strange, vacant expression. He’s so used to seeing him vibrant, bounding, spilling over at the edges with life; the boy standing in front of him seems like someone else entirely.
(He’s reminded of a Lan junior from his cohort, one who suffered from sleepwalking; at night, the poor boy would sit up in his bed and babble nonsense, eyes wide open. Lan Wangji had looked him in the face during one of these occasions, and it had unnerved him deeply. The other boy had been staring back into his eyes, but there was no light, no focus; it was like he wasn’t seeing anything, not really—it was like he was a dead man walking.)
Wei Ying continues, eyes distant. “I—this massive headache came out of nowhere, and going out in the cold probably won’t do me any favors, so I think I might lie down early tonight. Sorry.”
”There is no need to apologize,” Lan Wangji replies, taking in Wei Ying’s sagging shoulders with a pang of alarm. “You should rest early. Your head will feel better with sleep.”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says faintly. His voice is a thin rasp. “Maybe it will.”
They bid each other good night, and with that Lan Wangji is left alone in his open doorway, candlelight slanting out into the dark corridor. He watches Wei Ying drift the remaining steps to his own door, aimless and spectral, before he retreats back into his quarters.
In the end, he shrugs off his now-pointless winter layers before sleeping early as well, trying to ignore the uneasy pit that has opened up in his chest.
Oddly, when the next day comes, it is like the hollow and blank-eyed Wei Ying of the night before was a mere dream.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he pipes as he enters his room, “Sorry for backing out on you like that last night! But I feel a lot better now, why don’t we check out those icicles after you’re finished here—oh, are you free now? Wonderful! Let’s go!”
Lan Wangji follows gladly, the tightness in his chest relieved by the return of color to Wei Ying’s face and his cheerful expression—but he cannot help but notice how, when they pass Jiang Fengmian on their way out to the entrance, Wei Ying bites his lip and watches the ground as they walk by; how Jiang Fengmian’s haunted look seem to grow deeper and darker; how neither of them seem to be able to look at each other in the eyes.
Winter passes slowly, like the slow-drip formation of the beautiful icicles in the forest.
Lan Wangji savors this gentle, steady parade of days and nights more than he is willing to admit. Every break of dawn brings something new of Wei Ying—the gape of his joyful mouth, opened in surprise when Lan Wangji demonstrates a sword forms for him; the warmth of his hand, gripping Lan Wangji’s arm tightly as they both attempt skating on the frozen lake for the very first time; the sound of his embarrassment, when he trips into Lan Wangji on a walk and laughs at his own clumsiness, face buried in Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
With his attention to detail, Lan Wangji is also the first to notice the retreat of winter from the village.
He tries not to notice the drops of melting ice from the tree branches or the slow budding of green through the snow drifts, but when he returns to the lake with Wei Ying one day and finds that its icy cover has cracked into chunks that bob and roll in the water, he is forced to acknowledge the fact that he has no reason to stay any longer.
His departure is inevitable.
When he says this to Wei Ying, Wei Ying is silent for a long, long time.
“You’re right, Lan Zhan,” he says finally, looking out across the cracked ice. “You were only here because you got snowed in with us, after all. I guess I just—forgot.”
Yes, Lan Wangji does not say. I forgot, too.
(There are things he needs to do as a cultivator, Lan Wangji knows this. He needs to be diligent, and fair, and moral; to perform acts of chivalry and justice; to defend the common people from the chaos that plagues their nights. There are things that he needs to do, things that he needs to focus on.
And these things—
—Wei Ying’s lovely smile and the way the sight of it fills Lan Wangji’s chest up like an overflowing riverbank; the heat of his gaze, and the way Lan Wangji feels himself glow under its rays; Lan Wangji’s own thawed heart, and the way it shatters its creaking-ice shell and expands, boundless and beating and alive, alive, alive—
—are not among them.
He’d just forgotten.)
They do not talk about it after that.
And if Lan Wangji begins to stay up later and later before bed to spend the last hours of the day chatting in the room next door, hoarding his time with Wei Ying like a precious treasure—that’s his own business.
The announcement of the new sanren title comes four days before Lan Wangji’s scheduled departure.
“You are still welcome to join us,” Jiang Fengmian says as he and his family stand at the front of their house, ready to head off to the village center. “The ceremony may usually only be open for village citizens, but we rarely have visitors in the first place. We can surely make exceptions for someone who has been with us for a whole season.”
Lan Wangji declines anyway. Tradition is tradition; it wouldn’t feel right to interrupt something like this.
“He’ll find out once the news spreads anyway,” Jiang Wanyin says, looking drawn and nervous. He’s been fidgeting ever since last night. “No way to keep secrets in a small village like this, hmph.”
Wei Ying, surprisingly, doesn’t say a word. If anything, he looks even more anxious than Jiang Wanyin—Lan Wangji supposes that it’s finally hit him that his brother might be leaving the village.
He steadfastly does not think about the fact that soon he, too, will be leaving Wei Ying behind, and tries to give him an encouraging look.
Wei Ying smiles weakly in return. His face is so stiff that it appears more like a grimace. Then he turns, slinging an arm around his brother’s shoulders, and follows after Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan through the brown slush of the melting snow.
Lan Wangji watches them go, and then settles down outside to occupy himself as he waits.
He’s organized the contents of his qiankun pouch and has moved onto cleaning and polishing Bichen within the hour. By the time he’s started wiping down the blade, the sun has risen high in the sky; and Lan Wangji is thinking that the Jiang family will return at any minute now when Deng-nainai, who he has helped several times after that first day making bai tang gao, walks by the house and calls out to him in a loud whisper:
“Lan-daozhang! Lan-daozhang, did you hear?”
Attention diverted, Lan Wangji tucks his sword away and rises to his feet to approach the old woman hovering on the path, concerned by the shocked expression on her face. “Hello, Deng-nainai. What are you referring to?”
Deng-nainai shuffles in place, gaze darting every which way in an agitated manner. She gestures him in closer, and when he leans in she lowers her voice. “Oh, heavens! The ceremony, Lan-daozhang, the ceremony! Jiang-cunzhang’s announcement!”
His disquiet deepens. He shakes his head.
Deng-nainai lets out a distressed noise.
“Oh, Lan-daozhang, no doubt the entire village is talking about it, what a shock!” Her eyes are wide. “Jiang-cunzhang, that man...he’s snubbed his own son for A-Xian !”
Lan Wangji freezes.
Deng-nainai keeps talking, her voice peaking and dipping as she relays everything to him frantically. “Quite a shock, isn’t it! Everyone was so surprised, you see, we all thought it was going to be his son, the way they’ve been training him for all these years! It was practically a given! But when Jiang-cunzhang got up there and said A-Xian’s name and...Lan-daozhang, when A-Xian walked up there...it’s not that I think he’s unqualified! What a strong and brave boy, he’ll do very well, I’m sure...but oh, A-Cheng, the poor thing. I don’t think he knew. The look on his face, I’ve never seen anything like it before—”
“I apologize, Deng-nainai,” Lan Wangji interrupts, finally finding his voice. “Do you know where Wei Ying is now?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. The whole village was there, and then after everything ended he just sort of disappeared into the crowd—”
Lan Wangji excuses himself as politely as he can, bidding Deng-nainai a good day, and then rushes off to find Wei Ying, heart pounding.
He does not have to look long. Wei Ying is right where he expected him to be.
When he walks up, Wei Ying is standing at the edge of his lonely little lake and staring out across the shrinking ice, hands twisted into his sleeves.
Wei Ying doesn’t turn around, just speaks out across the broken-sky mirror before him . “You heard, huh.”
“Yes. I—” Lan Wangji stops. It doesn’t seem quite right to say congratulations. “Deng-nainai told me,” he says instead.
“Oh. I figured someone would let you know.”
His voice sounds so off. Lan Wangji doesn’t know how to fix it.
Lan Wangji takes one step closer, and then another, until they are almost standing side by side.
“Did you want it?” he asks softly.
At that, Wei Ying finally turns to look at him, and Lan Wangji feels a jolt go through his bones at the painfully rigid smile pasted onto Wei Ying’s face.
“What do you mean? Of course I—well, you know I’ve been dreaming of travel ever since I was a little child. I never thought I could have this, and I’m grateful, Lan Zhan, I really am. But—but for it to happen like this—”
There’s a crunch of footsteps behind them, and Wei Ying’s breath cuts off as he turns to look.
Lan Wangji swivels around.
Someone else has found Wei Ying too.
Jiang Wanyin is standing a few feet away, robes streaked with mud-darkened snow and chest heaving like he’s run for miles. His eyes are bloodshot in his colorless face.
“Wei Wuxian,” he breathes. “Did you know?”
Wei Ying’s mouth clicks closed, and then opens again. Nothing comes out.
“Did you know he was going to choose you over me, again? Like always?”
“You knew, didn’t you.”
Early on in his residence at the Jiang house, Lan Wangji had some difficulty in understanding Wei Ying’s many faces. For someone as full of life and laughter as Wei Ying, he could be awfully unreadable when he wanted to, so Lan Wangji had dedicated himself to the studying of Wei Ying’s microexpressions. Every curl of his lips, every glint of his eyes was stored away in memory and studied, until Lan Wangji felt like he was no longer on unstable ground; he could see, and read, and mostly understand Wei Ying’s faces, and so he no longer felt like he was being swept off his feet every time Wei Ying so much as looked at him.
Now Wei Ying’s eyes flutter, rapid like bird wings. This is how Lan Wangji knows that what Jiang Wanyin says is true.
Judging by the angry wetness gathering in the corners of his eyes, Jiang Wanyin knows it too.
“You were in on it the whole time. All this time, you let me hope, and you were laughing behind my back.”
“Please, I didn’t, listen to me—”
“Well. Well, this is fucking perfect for you. And you’ve been winding me up this whole time, ‘Jiang Cheng, you’re the future of our village, Jiang Cheng, don’t forget about me when you’ve gone,’ my fucking ass. Playing me like a fool—”
“No! I didn’t know when I was saying those—”
“Stop lying to me! You must’ve thought I was so stupid for believing I could have this, didn’t you? You’ve always been my father’s favorite—and you were glad when you heard, weren’t you, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin spits. “You must be excited right now. I bet you’re so excited you can hardly stand it.”
Lan Wangji, hand a bleached-knuckle vice on the pommel of his sword, glances to the side and unwillingly adds a new face into his catalogue of Wei Ying Expressions—the face that says, I’ve just been gutted like a fish, clean through to the spine and twice as bloody.
“Jiang Cheng, I’m not,” whispers Wei Ying. “Please.”
Every word out Jiang Wanyin’s mouth sounds like it’s choking him. “You never really wanted to be a part of this family, right? You’ve been resenting us this whole time. You can go and fuck off with your oh-so-mighty Lan-daozhang and never have to pay back a single drop of sweat that we shed for your sake—”
At this, Wei Ying’s red-rimmed eyes sharpen. “Jiang Cheng! Don’t bring Lan Zhan into this, he had nothing to do with—”
“Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”
Jiang Wanyin explodes, flinging his hands out. His knuckles are red and bruised; his face is screwed up like he’s trying to hold back tears.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, every word out of your mouth is about your fucking precious Lan Zhan! Ever since he’s come here you’ve been—you’ve been acting like you’ve forgotten who you are! You owe us, Wei Wuxian, all the hard work my parents have put into raising you, you can’t walk away from this! You think you can just run off after you’ve—you didn’t even tell me, you fucking—I thought—”
“You think you can have your happy life on the road with Lan Wangji and abandon us?”
“You know what I think, Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Wanyin snarls over Wei Ying’s protests. “I think that maybe my father should’ve let you go with your parents, all those years ago. Then you could’ve died with your real family, instead of being stuck with us. That’s what I think.”
Wei Ying flinches, struck silent.
Lan Wangji feels his teeth nearly crack with the force of his clenching jaw. Turning away from Wei Ying’s indescribable expression, he takes a dangerous step forward.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he says, low. He cannot recognize his own voice past the haze of red that fills his mind. “Watch your mouth. Know who you are talking to.”
“Who am I talking to, Lan Wangji?” Jiang Wanyin laughs, wild and shiny-eyed. “Wei Wuxian? What is he to me?” He spares one look at Wei Ying, and his lips lift slightly, a glint of white showing just so. Like a dog baring its teeth.
Wei Ying shakes.
“Wei Wuxian is nothing to me. You can have him. After all, isn’t that what you wanted all along?”
And without another word, Jiang Wanyin storms off, leaving an icy silence in his wake.
Wei Ying cries silently, Lan Wangji discovers. His eyes grow red and his eyebrows scrunch together and his shoulders shake, but nothing comes out. If someone were to look at him from the back, they would think he was laughing.
Lan Wangji watches those laughing shoulders tremble all the way back to the Jiang residence, as he walks behind Wei Ying in silence.
Later that night, Lan Wangji amends that piece of knowledge as he stands frozen outside Wei Ying’s room, hand raised to knock, and listens to Wei Ying gasp three times, quietly and horribly and wetly; then, a stuttering intake of breath, a muffled uh-uh-uh as Wei Ying sucks in air, like he has his face buried in something.
It’s not that Wei Ying cries without sound; it’s just that he only does it when he thinks no one can hear him.
Lan Wangji scuffs his shoes loudly on the ground outside the entrance to announce his presence.
(He is rarely loud, but he does understand the importance of pride.)
The noises from inside the room cut off.
“Wei Ying,” he calls, “You were not at dinner. I brought leftover food for you.”
There’s a loud, phlegmy clearing of a throat. “A-ah! Thanks for that, Lan Zhan! You can just leave it outside, I’m doing something right now but I’ll go out and get it in a few minutes.”
“If you wish.” Lan Wangji pauses. “Are you—”
“I’m fine. Good night.” Wei Ying’s voice cracks on the last word, and he drops into silence.
Lan Wangji is not an impulsive person. He can count on one hand the number of times he’s had to actively hold himself back from doing something he might regret later—
The gentians are wilted. The doors to the hut have remained closed for many weeks now. He is kneeling on the ground and he is cold and his knees are wet and hurt a little. He can see Father out of the corner of his eye, watching him through the snow, and then Father turns to go like he never even was looking in the first place—
He’s standing outside the Hanshi in the winter, chilled breath hanging in front of him. Xiongzhang and Shufu are inside, and the Cloud Recesses prohibits excessive noise but their voices are louder than he’s ever heard them. “This is preposterous! Xichen, he has been staying away for longer with every successive hunt, how do you suppose we supervise him like this? If he turns out like his—”
It is snowing outside, but his hands are warming on a hot bowl. He tastes honey, the rice cake is making his teeth stick together, and there is a bright smiling face across the table from his own. The heat and sweetness and light make him dizzy, and in that moment he loses his mind and almost leans forward to—
—but for a second, just a second, his palm pushes hard enough against the door of Wei Ying’s room that it gives by an inch, it almost swings open; then he takes one sharp step back and folds his hands behind his waist.
“Alright,” he says, feeling his fingernails dig into his palm. “Good night, Wei Ying.”
He returns to his own room, and long after he has prepared for sleep and blown out the candle on the table, he lies unmoving in his bed and stares into the darkness, just listening to the creaking of the wood in the cold, and the skittering of wind against the stone walls, and the choking gulps coming from next door.
“Good morning, Lan Zhan!” says Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji jerks his head up, caught off guard by the bright tone.
More unusual than this, though, is the fact that Wei Ying is joining him for breakfast in the first place. Usually, hardly anyone is awake when Lan Zhan rises for breakfast. Wei Ying wakes hours after the sun has risen and rolls into the kitchen with rumpled hair and sheet creases on his face to scoop up whatever is left over in the pot.
It’s barely past dawn, and Wei Ying—eyes swollen and face un-creased—doesn’t look like he slept a wink.
“Good morning, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says carefully, and shifts over when Wei Ying slides in next to him instead of across from him.
“Good morning,” Wei Ying says for the second time. He doesn’t even seem aware that he’s repeated himself, so focused is he on not making any eye contact at all. “Haha, the air is really nice right now, isn’t it? I guess I understand why you get up so early now!”
The air is not any better than it is during the rest of the day. Lan Wangji can’t be bothered to judge the crispness of his inhales anyway; he’s too preoccupied by the stiff set of Wei Ying’s shoulders.
For a while, they eat in silence—Lan Wangji darting peeks at Wei Ying from the corners of his eyes, and Wei Ying doing his best to get the spoon past his lips without dropping his near-manic grin.
Then, they hear the sound of footsteps, approaching from the living quarters.
Lan Wangji feels Wei Ying’s leg begin to jump. The table rattles with it, making their congee shiver in time. He tries to look at Wei Ying’s face, but it’s hard when he isn’t sitting across from him. He can only see his side profile, half-hidden behind the fall of his bangs.
With one more twitch, Wei Ying leaps from his seat. “I don’t think I’ll finish this bowl after all, I’m not really hungry. I’ll just—I’ll just put it in the kitchen for later!”
Lan Wangji rises hurriedly to catch up to him.
“I have finished,” he says, scooping up his long-emptied bowl from the table. “I will accompany you to the kitchen.”
Wei Ying rushes for the entrance like he’s been set on fire. They’ve just stepped foot out of the main room when Jiang Wanyin turns the corner and appears out of the kitchen, breakfast in hand.
For a long and excruciating moment, the corridor is entirely silent. Jiang Wanyin stares blankly at Wei Ying; Wei Ying stares back, pupils shivering.
“Go...good morning, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says finally, voice hesitant.
Without even the slightest change in expression, Jiang Wanyin shoves right past them and stalks into the room, taking his food with him. There’s the grating screech of wooden chair legs against the rough floor and the resounding clack of a bowl being set down just a bit too forcefully. Then, after a tense pause, the sounds of chopsticks against earthenware.
Lan Wangji, still staring into the entrance where Jiang Wanyin disappeared from sight, feels his hands curling into fists inside his long and draping sleeves.
He turns to his side. “Wei Ying—”
“Well!” Wei Ying chirps, voice frightfully high. “That could’ve been worse!”
Lan Wangji stares at him, not knowing what to say. Wei Ying’s early breakfast no longer seems so odd.
“I probably have—robes to fold or something in my room, so I’ll just—”
“Wait, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. He cannot stand the idea of Wei Ying sitting in his room by himself any longer, wearing the humiliated expression he has on his face right now. “I have been working on a few new songs on my guqin. I would like for you to join me, if you wish—your feedback would be appreciated.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying breathes. For his sake, Lan Wangji pretends not to notice the heartbreakingly relieved look that is bleeding into his eyes. “That would—yeah, that would be nice. Of course.”
Lan Wangji plays tune after tune for him, in the privacy and safety provided by the four walls of his quarters. First, the cool and calming traditional tunes from his sect, and then the comparatively bright and lively folk songs that he picked up while traveling on the road, then the gentle snippets of a lullaby he remembers from years ago. In between each tune, Wei Ying says a word or two or praise, and adds some of his own thoughts on the piece.
The commentary is much more half-hearted than usual, but Lan Wangji does not take it personally. He is just glad to watch the tension slowly seep out of Wei Ying’s shoulders, until he looks—not as gutted as he did before, at least.
The scant winter daylight fades away quickly, and they ignite the brazier to push back the creeping shadows. Days are still short, even this late in winter.
Lan Wangji is plucking through one of his own newer compositions, something sweet and aching and uncomfortably tender, when Wei Ying shifts in his corner and speaks.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, the hush of his voice almost intimate in the small room, his face veiled with shadow. “When you left the Cloud Recesses, did you feel scared?”
Lan Wangji looks up.
“When you left your home for the first time, and you realized there was no turning back,” Wei Ying continues. “And your exorcisms and hunts—you did everything by yourself, knowing that no one else knew what you were going through. That no one else would reach over and help you out of it. Did you ever feel scared? Were you ever lonely?”
Lan Wangji feels his heart ache at the minute tremble in his voice.
“Wei Ying. It is normal to be apprehensive. It is normal to feel fear.”
“Yeah. I know. But—I—yeah.”
Lan Wangji watches Wei Ying breathe, a shallow in-and-out.
Lan Wangji thinks about his first day on the road and all the things he felt; the wildflare blaze in his chest that roared triumphantly at his freedom; the guilt at his triumph, and the guilt at his guilt; the fear of the unseen and unknown and the strange earth that stretched before him, the rolling countryside that passed beneath his feet like the unspooling of thread. And him, alone, following the threads of chaos to the ends of the earth, searching and not-searching as each day passed slowly into night and then into one blending mesh of things.
Lan Wangji takes his own breath. “You could come with m—”
Wei Ying twitches. Inhales sharply.
“You could come with me,” Lan Wangji finishes lamely. “We could travel together. You would not have to be lonely.”
“Ah,” sighs Wei Ying. It does not sound like an agreement.
Lan Wangji’s heart sinks at that sound.
Wei Ying looks away, expression unreadable. “I want—I can’t—well—”
“You do not need to explain,” Lan Wangji interjects, chest tight. “It is fine.”
He lowers his gaze to his guqin strings. When a long moment passes, and Wei Ying does not seem like he’ll add anything more, he begins playing again. Plucking out his longing against the silver glint of his instrument.
“That sounds so lovely, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whispers eventually.
He says nothing more on the matter, and Lan Wangji considers the conversation over.
I do not want to lose this, Lan Wangji thinks. I do not want to go back into the cold, alone and shaking. I want him warm at my side, I want him to—
In the last days of Lan Wangji’s departure, the ugly tension that has always been sitting just out of sight during the Jiang family dinners rears its sharp-horned head and smashes straight through the house.
These meals could not have been called ‘pleasant’ before, but now Lan Wangji is certain that the hostility has only not reached life-threatening levels because of his presence at the table.
Yu Ziyuan’s nasty comments triple in heat and number, and she spends every other bite of food flinging thinly-veiled barbs at each family member in her vicinity. Jiang Wanyin spends his meals in an uncharacteristic and stone-cold silence, refusing to acknowledge the existence of anyone else other than his parents. Jiang Fengmian slumps at the head of the table looking grey and sunken, unwilling to engage in any conversation at all.
Wei Ying, for his part, practically disappears into himself when mealtimes come around. If it were not for the occasional whisper of fabric as Wei Ying bows his head to stare at his lap, Lan Wangji would have thought he was sitting next to an empty chair.
In other words, it is awful.
Even when not with the rest of his family, Wei Ying’s behavior is frighteningly muted. For those four remaining days, he acts like a caricature of his normal self; every laugh is too loud; every smile glistens with desperation, like Wei Ying is afraid that if it is not big enough to cover his face, something else might show from behind it.
Lan Wangji is helpless. Part of him wants to look Wei Ying straight in the eyes and tell him, You do not need to pretend in front of me. The other part of him wants to take Wei Ying by the hand, drag him into the daylight kicking and screaming, just to stop him from shrinking away into shadow.
Both options feel far too revealing. He settles for providing silent companionship instead, and drinks up the sight of Wei Ying’s face like it’s the last chance he’ll ever get.
On the morning of his departure, he packs silently, picking up the evidence of his stay bit by bit until his room stands perfectly neat and bare. Everything has been tucked away in his qiankun pouch; if anyone else entered this room, they would never know he was here at all.
When he turns to the open entrance of his quarters, Wei Ying is already there, staring around at the empty room, mouth a pale line.
“I’ll walk you out the village,” he says after a pause. “I’ll wait outside while you finish up.”
Lan Wangji nods.
Wei Ying spins on his heel and disappears down the corridor, and Lan Wangji tries to keep his chest from caving in at the sight of his back, retreating.
His goodbyes with Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan are lukewarm. Jiang Fengmian still manages to wish him luck on his journey with a mostly-genuine smile, and Yu Ziyuan bids him farewell with respect; however, neither of them can hide the fact that they are not exactly devastated to see him go.
Jiang Wanyin does not come out to see him off at all, and Lan Wangji couldn't care less.
When he finally steps out of the house that had been his home for the past winter, he sees Wei Ying standing by the doorway, facing out towards the treeline, hands clasped behind his back.
“You’re done already?” he says, turning at the sound of footsteps. He laughs weakly. “That was faster than I expected. I guess—let’s go, then.”
All the way to the edge of the village, Wei Ying keeps up a constant undercurrent of chatter. Lan Zhan, you must be so excited, finally getting to stretch your legs after being stuck in one place for so long. Do you know where you are going next? I hope it’s someplace exciting, I hope you see something new. And when you’re there, remember to eat good food, Lan Zhan, don’t just buy the cheapest and plainest thing on the menu because it’s ‘all you require’ and then swallow it down without tasting. If you see rice cakes like the ones I described, try them! Even though they might not be as good as ours, haha. Live a little, Lan Zhan, it’s not always about what you need—remember what you want, too. Don’t forget that.
And then suddenly, the cluster of houses and rising smoke is far behind them, and all that is ahead is the great and endless stretch of mountain forest.
Both of them slow to a stop.
“Looks like this is it,” Wei Ying says. Lan Wangji watches the bob of his throat as he swallows, hard.
I could stay, Lan Wangji almost begs him. If you will not go with me, I could stay here. Until you are ready.
He does not say it. He can’t. He has duties as a cultivator. He has things he needs to do.
“Yes,” he replies instead.
“Good luck out there,” Wei Ying says. The only thing ruining the unaffected expression he has on is the minute jump of his mouth as he bites at the inside of his cheek. “Not that you’ll need it, I mean, you—I’m sure you were doing well before you ever came here, but, you know what I mean…”
Wei Ying takes a deep breath. “What I want to say is, thank you for putting up with me this whole winter. I know my presence was probably—probably a burden sometimes. I’m sorry.”
You are not a burden, Lan Wangji thinks. Not to me, not to anyone.
Instead of replying to that verbally, he retrieves the jade token that he’s been keeping tucked close to his chest. It’s warm from his body, and Lan Wangji smooths his thumb over it before he steps forward and presses it into Wei Ying’s hand.
“This is my entrance pass to the Cloud Recesses. If you ever happen to be in Gusu, and you require help, or,” Lan Wangji stumbles over his words here, “or if you would merely like to visit, you are welcome. The guards will let you in if you show them this.”
In any other situation, Lan Wangji would appreciate how quickly his words have knocked that unaffected look off Wei Ying’s face.
Wei Ying sputters. “I can’t accept this! I can’t possibly, this is yours, and it looks so expensive—how will you—”
“I am giving it to you,” Lan Wangji interrupts. “I want you to have it. I can always have another made. Take it, please.”
And for a long moment, they stand there in silence; Lan Wangji staring desperately at Wei Ying, Wei Ying turning the jade token in his hands over and over, and the bare inches that separate them.
When Wei Ying finally speaks, his voice is strained.
“Thank you,” he says hoarsely. One hand fiddles with the edge of his frayed sleeve—the other clutches the jade token until his bones show, sharp and white, through the skin of his knuckles. Lan Wangji wants to take him by the hand. He wants to hold Wei Ying still and close.
“Perhaps our paths will cross on the road,” Lan Wanji blurts out, trying not to sound too stricken. “Perhaps we will meet again someday soon.”
Somehow, that was the wrong thing to say.
Wei Ying’s expression shutters closed.
“I suppose so,” he says, dropping his gaze. “Maybe, Lan-daozhang.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says helplessly.
He doesn’t know what he did wrong.
He doesn’t want to go like this. He doesn’t want Wei Ying to look like that, cold and distant. He wants Wei Ying to look up at him one more time. To smile at him, say his name with a laugh, to look into his eyes and tell him what’s wrong and why he’s acting like this and what Lan Wangji can do to make it better.
“Wei Ying, I—”
“Lan-daozhang,” Wei Ying says, face wooden. “It was good to know you. You should go now.”
Lan Wangji’s breathes sharply through the cutting pain that rises up from his chest and into his throat. “Yes,” he whispers. “It was good to know you, Wei Ying.”
Then he turns around and leaves, a snowy-white shadow in the wake of the spring thaw.
Lan Wangji wants, and his wanting grows teeth.
It burrows its way under his skin
and into the cavernous cradle of his ribs
and it eats his mother’s warm and bloody heart right out of his chest, leaving him cold.
For a long, long time, Wei Wuxian simply stands at the edge of the village, staring as the quickly-shrinking brightness of Lan Zhan’s robes moves further into bare-branched forest until he disappears among all the dark wood.
The jade token is smooth in his hand.
Wei Wuxian tucks it into his robes, and imagines he can still feel the heat of it—the warmth drawn from Lan Zhan’s body—over his own heart.
When he gets back to the house, Yu-furen and Jiang-shushu are standing in the doorway, waiting for him.
“There is no need for you to stay in this house for any longer,” Yu-furen says as he approaches. Her eyes are unforgivingly cold. “You can pack your things and leave tonight.”
“Yes, Yu-furen,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, face lowered. “I was going to do that.”
Jiang-shushu, dark-eyed, says nothing as he walks past.
It takes very little time to gather up the shreds of his life from the house. Soon, Wei Wuxian has all his belongings packed away in a rough cloth bag, and is left standing by the head of his bed, tracing a finger over the rough and childish carving he’d left in the wooden frame.
He wonders if the Jiangs will keep it after he leaves, or if they’ll chop it to pieces for firewood. He used to share this bed with Jiang Cheng when they were children, small enough to fit side by side with plenty of room to spare. They would kick at each other in the night, whisper and giggle under the covers.
But they’re not children anymore.
After one last look around, he closes the door behind him and moves quietly through the house until he’s arrived at his brother’s bedroom.
He knocks once.
No one replies.
“Jiang Cheng, I just wanted to let you know that I’m going. I’m leaving soon. Tonight.”
Even through the door, he can hear the slight groan of wood that means Jiang Cheng, wherever he’s sitting, has just shifted his weight. Inexplicably, he feels a hot burning sensation from behind his eyes. Silly Jiang Cheng. He was never good at being sneaky.
“I know you’re in there.”
Still nothing. Wei Wuxian, feeling his chest constrict, blows a long and wavering breath out.
“...Remember when we were younger, and Huang-bobo still had that mangy old dog? The one with the brown ears and crooked tail? You went over to his place and played with it every day. But then there was that one time when it came rushing down the hill while we were outside and tried to jump at me, and you kicked it away. You were so upset. You thought that it was gonna hate you. I felt so bad that you did that for me, but do you remember what you said? ‘It can’t help being a dog, but you can’t help being a scaredy-cat. You’re my only brother no matter what happens, so stop apologizing.’ Remember that?”
The silence stretches.
“I know you might never forgive me, and I know you don’t want to talk to me. That’s fine. I understand that. But I need you to listen to me, okay? I have never resented you, do you understand? Not once. You’re my family. And I—I love you, A-Cheng. You’re my only brother.”
Wei Wuxian drops his head against the doorframe, listening to Jiang Cheng hold his breath.
“Thank you for everything,” Wei Wuxian finally whispers, eyes closed. “I’m sorry.”
And then he goes.
It’s the day that his sister has come home to visit, and Wei Wuxian is in a particularly good mood.
Being able to see her lovely face after so long is a treat on its own, and her cooking is a flavorful and delicious balm for his soul. After the meal, he feels so warm and light and happy that he thinks he could even ride on the clouds that drift high in the night sky.
So, when Jiang-shushu asks to speak with him, he doesn’t think twice.
“Wasn’t dinner amazing?” he babbles as Jiang-shushu herds him into his study and shuts the door behind them. “I was worrying that my mouth might’ve forgotten the taste of jiejie’s food, but one mouthful brought everything rushing right back! The lotus and pork rib soup was so delicious that—and please don’t take offense, this is nothing against your cooking!—but I think that I won’t be able to think about anything else for the next two weeks. Oh, by the way, will this take long? I think you heard me earlier, but I asked Lan Zhan to go check out some ice formations with me tonight, and he’ll be waiting for me—”
Wei Wuxian pauses. Jiang-shushu never sounds like this, low and serious and a little bit...he doesn’t know what that last bit is. But it sounds something like fear.
When he looks over, Jiang-shushu is facing away from him, lighting a candle to brighten up the dark study. His hands are trembling; the flame flickers with it.
Wei Wuxian steps forward, worried. “Jiang-shushu, are you okay?”
Jiang-shushu goes on talking like he didn’t hear Wei Wuxian’s question. “A-Xian, the announcement is coming up soon. There’s less than a month left.”
Oh. Wei Wuxian thinks he knows what this is about.
“Ahhh, Jiang-shushu, I know you must be nervous, but don’t worry! Jiang Cheng is very capable. Yu-furen has been training him for years now, and you’ve watched over his practices a couple times too, haven’t you? He’s gotten so strong! And he’s smart! Maybe he’ll run into some problems when he’s on the road, but they won’t be anything he can’t solve, and I’m sure he’ll make you proud!”
“No,” Jiang-shushu says faintly, eyes still on the candle. “No, that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Wei Wuxian shuffles in place. This strange behavior is starting to make him nervous.
“It’s not? Then what..?”
“A-Xian, do you love this family?” Jiang-shushu interrupts again. He whirls suddenly, crossing the room in three sweeping steps. “Do you care for us?”
Wei Wuxian has to force himself not to flinch back as his adoptive father approaches in a wraithlike swoop. For some reason, he feels cornered.
“I do! Of course I do, I owe everything to you! I’ve said it before, I would do anything for this family. Surely you know that.”
“You owe us,” Jiang-shushu echoes. “You would do anything for us.”
“And if I asked you to, you would protect A-Cheng—you would protect your brother with your life.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replies, properly bewildered. “Jiang-shushu, where is all this coming from—”
He jumps as Jiang-shushu grabs him by the shoulders.
“Then, A-Xian,” he croaks, “You will do this for me. When the day comes, I will announce you as sanren. And you will accept.”
Wei Wuxian freezes.
“What—why would you ask me to do that? You know Jiang Cheng wants—he’s been preparing for this for his whole life. Everyone knows that! You can’t—you can’t ask me to—”
Jiang-shushu’s grip tightens, hard enough to bruise. This time, Wei Wuxian can’t stop himself from shrinking back at the look on his face.
“You must! If the life we have given you means anything at all...please, A-Xian, if all these past years have meant something—please, you must do this for me. Do this for us.”
“I tried,” Jiang-shushu moans. “I tried to accept it, I have been trying to accept it this whole time, but I’ve realized that I cannot let him go like this. My own child—my flesh and blood, my only son—please, you must understand, A-Xian, I would not ask you to do this if I had any other choice.”
“I don’t understand,” Wei Wuxian bleats, truly frightened now. “It’s only traveling—Jiang Cheng won’t be gone forever—what are you talking about?”
“It’s a lie!” Jiang-shushu’s hands shake where they dig into Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. “It’s all a lie!”
The sun has set by the time he leaves the Jiang house for the last time, and the dark trees of the forest stretch out into thin and menacing figures in the evening gloom.
Even with the stray branches that creak loudly in the distance, or the darting shadows that dance just out of his direct line of sight, Wei Wuxian keeps his eyes forward, not even feeling the still-sharp bite of the night air. He drifts, numb; his body is a hollowed cart that carries his frantically-beating heart, thumping and flipping and clenching desperately in his ribs.
His bag is heavy on his shoulder. It’s useless, he knows this. Just dead weight.
But it is important to keep up appearances; it is important that the others don’t find out.
As the inky gloom of the night draws ghastly shadows over his face, Jiang-shushu explains; sixty years ago, it seemed like they had no other choice.
One hundred empty bellies. Arid dirt that would not sustain even the hardiest of crops. A village of people, exhausted and worn-down by the last endless winter, sick and starved and dreading the year ahead. What were they supposed to do? What else could they have done?
The village chief had been fortunate to get his hands on cultivation sect manuals at one point during his youth. Time and circumstance had worn his memory down into a dry and hollow thing, but he had remembered just one ritual—one that could save his people, if he could make himself go through with it.
One sacrifice, made for the survival of the many. It hadn’t seemed like a hard choice at the time.
“He thought it was only supposed to be once, A-Xian, you have to understand that,” Jiang-shushu says, words tumbling out in a desperate rush. “He wouldn’t have done it if he had known, he wouldn’t have. I’m sure of it.”
Wei Wuxian cannot say anything. He cannot open his mouth through the dread that fills his throat.
“But—” Jiang-shushu swallows. It sounds dry. “Everything returned to the way it was after fifteen years. And he understood then. The ritual had to be repeated for the land to remain prosperous. The stronger and braver the spirit, the better the harvest—”
“So,” Wei Wuxian interrupts. “Sanren. The traveling. The collection of knowledge. It was all—”
“We couldn’t let people know. Their, their reactions would have—they wouldn’t understand how hard of a decision it is. How important it is for us to stay here, in this land that we carved for ourselves—”
“They never came back,” Wei Wuxian says blankly. “None of them ever came back.”
“This is our home, A-Xian! This is your home—families have lived here for generations!”
“But. But...my mother.”
His voice is not his own. Wei Wuxian speaks in a blur, body emptied by cold horror.
“My mother. Cangse-sanren. Jiang-shushu, you told me that she was picked for her bravery and strength. After they left, you read me her letters once a month for a whole year, and you told me that she wrote that she was well and my father was well, and that she had seen tall mountains and blue seas and scary evil creatures, and that she had conquered them all.”
“Jiang-shushu,” Wei Wuxian rasps, shaking. “You told me that she died in an attack from a yao.”
Jiang-shushu bows his head.
Wei Wuxian stumbles forward, one step and then another. Never before had he ever dreamed of laying a hand on his caretaker—in his childhood, it had always been Jiang-shushu, resting one warm palm on his head, smiling down kindly at him. His savior. The one who had taken him into his family when he had no one left. The one he owed above all others.
Now, he wraps his unfilial hands in the purple cloth of Jiang-shushu’s robes and shakes him, hard.
“What of my father?” Wei Wuxian demands. “What happened to him? If my mother—if they didn’t, like that—where did he go? Did he leave me here? Alone?”
“He found out,” Jiang-shushu chokes out. “He was my best friend—I could not stop him. I tried to stop him. But he knew, and he refused to let her go. There was nothing I could do.”
“Before that happened,” he adds, “he told me that you were at home, sleeping. That he had tucked you in for bed. And he asked me to take care of you.”
Wei Wuxian stares into his eyes, disbelieving.
Jiang-shushu draws in a long breath. It wheezes loudly in his chest, dry and hoarse. Like the rattle of hollow bones.
“With two people’s worth of—“
Jiang-shushu stops. Swallows.
“The land was so fertile that year. The gods must have been pleased.” His voice is barely above a whisper. He sounds wretched.
Wei Wuxian’s hands drop away from his robes, nerveless.
“It was the best we had in memory—the fields were lush with growth, the rainfall was generous, and the crop that we had that year, watered with their sacrifice—”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says, numb.
“Don’t you remember the taste, A-Xian? Don’t you remember your favorite snack? That whole summer, it was all you ever wanted to eat, you said it was the tastiest food in the whole world—”
“Stop,” Wei Wuxian begs, ears ringing. “Please don’t—”
Jiang-shushu stares at him from across the table, eyes dark with guilt. With horror. Pitch-black, like the deepest caves.
“It was so amazing, A-Xian,” he whispers. “All that beautiful red rice.”
Wei Wuxian’s steps crunch loudly underfoot. There is no longer any snow to muffle the sound.
He arrives at his destination, body nerveless and wooden. A puppet dragged in on strings.
Deep inside, past the shadows, he can see the flickering of fire.
It is four days earlier. Lan Wangji is sitting at his guqin, face porcelain-smooth under the warm glow of the brazier.
“You could come with me,” he says.
And for a moment, Wei Wuxian tricks himself into thinking that his life is his own, and almost agrees.
It would be a wonderful dream, him and Lan Zhan and the long road—all of it blending together, bending and swaying and folding into one great story under the open sky. The two of them in flashes—Wei Wuxian’s bounding feet and Lan Zhan’s unhurried stride. Wei Wuxian’s ever-cold nose and Lan Zhan’s rabbit-warm hands, Wei Wuxian’s painted grin and Lan Zhan’s piercing eyes that look, and see, and do not stop seeing no matter how much it makes him squirm.
Even now those eyes pin Wei Wuxian to his seat and it is all he can do not to crack, not to shake to pieces and turn into the soft unshelled thing that hides inside him, so scared of the daylight. He needs to—needs to look away, run away, hide somewhere small and dark and cramped so that he will not—
He wants to crawl on hands and knees to him and bury his fingers in white and beg him to stay, wants to beg for his life, he wants to have this, he wishes he could have this—
And all the while his heartbeat pounds drum-like against his ribs, drowns out the notes of the guqin and the soft crack-pop of embers and the painful scratch of his fingernails against his skin, tucked carefully and secretly under his own thighs—
There are differences between needing and wanting and having, and Wei Wuxian does not think he is entitled to any of them. Not anymore.
Your life is not your own, he reminds himself. You owe them.
Across the room, Lan Wangji lowers his eyes to his guqin.
Ah, those eyes. Perhaps it’s for the best that all of it remains a dream.
But, oh...it all sounds so lovely.
Wei Wuxian steps forward into the darkness on numb feet, alone. The night swallows him whole.
Lan Wangji walks forward, road empty but for his own shadow.
The village falls behind him, shrinking into a steam-trailing dot among the trees that cover the mountains, and he travels aimlessly and thoughtlessly like a drifting ghost in white; hours pass like this, with him dragging step after step through the spring mud, not even seeing the path that stretches out in front of him.
The sun rises quickly and dances across the sky, flirting with spring clouds and endless blue, sinks down just as quickly and retreats halfway behind the tall peaks of the mountain ranges.
The weather has warmed considerably over the past couple days as the ice retreated and the green of the earth began to re-emerge from its white shell, but it’s early yet. Without the glow of the sun, it is still cold at night.
Lan Wangji knows distantly that he will have to stop before the darkness descends around his ears, so he finds a clear space far from the road, starts a fire, and then settles down on crossed legs.
He needs to—
He takes out paper and ink. He needs to write a letter to Xiongzhang; he has not contacted his family for the entire winter.
I hope you and Shufu are well. I apologize deeply for not contacting you earlier, and for any worry this may have caused. I was caught in a snowstorm in the mountains and I—
His brush pauses on the paper. The black ink smears and spreads.
Lan Wangji’s chest hurts so much. The ache might split him in two.
I abandoned my duties.
I stayed, even though I should not have. I did not want to leave.
I thought that perhaps I could stay just because I wanted it. I thought I could try to live my life like that. I thought that I could have the smell of crisp mountain air and the taste of sweet rice cake and the brightness of sun on snow and the gentle curve of his smile and the ringing of his laughter and the touch of his hand in mine and the sound of my name in his voice. I thought that I could have my mother’s face and her blood and her heart but not her fate. I thought that I could be her son and not end up alone in the cold.
I met someone. A beautiful boy.
I met someone. I loved him. I left him.
The fire crackles in the silence. Lan Wangji stares at the twilit mountains that peek out of the horizon.
He thinks about Wei Ying’s pale face in the weak light from that morning. About Wei Ying’s bright eyes, dull and wet as he turned away.
There are things Lan Wangji needs to do as a cultivator. He knows this. He needs to be diligent, and fair, and moral; to perform acts of chivalry and justice; to defend the common people from the chaos that plagues their nights.
(His duties spread out before him, branching out into a thousand different threads like a silver spider’s web—all he must do is choose one and follow it, let it reel him in on a swaying line. This is what he needs to do.)
And there are things Lan Wangji has wanted.
When he was five, he wanted his mother. When he was fifteen, he wanted freedom. Now, he is twenty, and he is sitting in the shadow of the setting sun, purple spraying out in a veil across the snow-capped mountains, and he wants—he wants—
(There is another thread before him, one that trails back into the mountain range. It’s red. Like a ribbon in dark hair.)
Lan Wangji’s heart beats, once.
He makes a decision.
Aided by the speed of his sword, Lan Wangji makes it back to the village just before night falls completely.
He waits outside the Jiang residence for five long minutes in the dark, knocking firmly and steadily at the door until it creaks open on its hinges. Unfortunately, the face glaring out from beyond the doorway is not the one he was hoping to see.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin says venomously. The strange half-hoping expression slides off his face in an instant, replaced by the loathing twist of his lips; he tries very quickly to close the door, but Lan Wangji simply slides a hand into the closing door and holds it open. He does not care how rude it may seem, not when Jiang Wanyin has not exactly been a beacon of civility himself. “What the fuck—what do you want? Let go!”
Lan Wangji keeps his hand firmly wedged in the gap. “Is Wei Ying here?”
Jiang Wanyin looks like he wants to spit in Lan Wangji’s face. “Am I Wei Wuxian’s keeper? I don’t know why the hell you’re asking me that, Lan Wangji, since you’re so obviously glued together at the hip. I think you would know the answer better than I would.”
Lan Wangji continues staring, steely-eyed. “Tell me where he is.”
Something sharp and sour flashes across Jiang Wanyin’s face. “He left before the sun set. You won’t find him here.”
When Lan Wangji drops his hand, Jiang Wanyin slams the door in his face.
His only lead now a dead end, Lan Wangji spends an anxious moment dawdling in the road by the Jiangs’ house. Wei Ying, scattered to the wind. He could not have gone far, not in only a day, but in which direction would he have traveled? Where could possibly be going, setting out this late in the day? And how is Lan Wangji supposed to track him—
Wei Ying has his jade token.
The jade token, as he told Wei Ying, functioned as an entry and exit pass into the Cloud Recesses. More importantly, in order to allow for this function, the jade tokens are infused with the spiritual energy of the user—who, in this case, is Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji has never had cause to hunt down his possessions, because he is neither prone to misplacing things or inclined to give his sect-related items away to others so easily. However, he finds that tracking an item with his own energy threaded into the very material is not hard.
Oddly, it seems that Wei Ying has not traveled very far at all. Lan Wangji can feel that the source of the spiritual energy is not even half an hour’s walk out from the boundaries of the village, calling out to him like a beacon.
Odder still, it seems that he is being led straight into the forest, instead of down the road that has been cleared for travelers.
Shrugging off his growing sense of unease, Lan Wangji follows the tug in his gut, striding through the clusters of trees. Under the weak moonlight peeking through the clouds, he thinks he can see the imprint of footprints on the exposed forest floor.
Hope surges through his veins.
He walks deeper and deeper into the darkened wood until he is led to a clearing at the foot of a rocky slope.
It’s the cave that he visited on his first day. Hovering at the mouth, he can see the faintest flickers of light deep within.
Wei Ying, his mind screams. It is Wei Ying. You have not lost him yet.
But still, that terrible uneasiness stirs in his gut.
Ignoring it, he enters quietly and walks around the bend of the rock wall, preparing himself for the sight of Wei Ying’s surprised face, the spluttering, the confusion, the—
He rounds the curve.
At first, Lan Wangji doesn’t understand what he’s looking at.
Jiang Fengmian is crouching down, using his bare and ink-darkened hands to paint out a massive circular array on the floor of the cave. There’s a small wooden bucket at his feet, full of ink; there’s a larger one on his other side, empty. Lan Wangji can’t tell what it’s for.
In the very center of the array, Wei Ying—and even though his face is in shadow, Lan Wangji knows it’s Wei Ying, would know him anywhere—hunches over on his knees, head bowed.
At the sight of that familiar head and its red ribbon, Lan Wangji takes an involuntary step forward.
At the same time, Jiang Fengmian closes off the circle with one last swipe of his hands, and Wei Ying begins to writhe.
His limbs thrash and jerk, scraping against the rough stone of the cave; his back arches so far that it looks like his spine is straining to snap in half. When Wei Ying throws his head back and screams, shrill and agonized through his clenched teeth, Lan Wangji sees his face for the first time since he entered the cave, and jerks back in horror.
Blood gushes in rivers from Wei Ying’s eyes, nose, mouth, and ears—it looks like it’s even coming from his pores.
It looks, horribly, like a qi deviation.
However, instead of streaming downwards to follow the force of gravity, the blood rises up above the array, swirling about his head like a gruesome scattering of windblown petals before gathering into one great hovering pool, suspended in the air.
A miniscule part of Lan Wangji’s brain lights up in morbid understanding; ah, so that is what the bucket was for.
The other part goes white with rage.
With one flying stride, he bursts out from the shadowy bend into the firelight, robes fluttering behind him. Before Jiang Fengmian can even move, Lan Wangji has Bichen in one shining line at his neck, sharp blade resting right over the bobbing lump of his throat.
Jiang Fengmian, eyes wide and pained in his skull, jerks back an inch at his sudden appearance in his personal space. “Lan-daozhang, what, why are you—”
Wei Ying screams again, long and high, and Lan Wangji grits his teeth. “Stop this!”
“Lan-daozhang, you don’t understand what is happening here. This is necessary—”
Wordless, Lan Wangji presses Bichen closer.
Jiang Fengmian flinches, but stands strong. “I have no other choice. I will not let my people starve!”
Lan Wangji stares at him wildly, not understanding. “Your people—He is your son !”
Jiang Fengmian shakes, face twisted in grief. “I must! The heavens have eyes and I know I will be judged for what I have done, but I must!”
“A-Xian will be saving us, like his mother before him—”
In a flash, Lan Wangji remembers; this very cave, wet and damp and covered in winter frost, and the female ghost whose pain tore in piercing winds through his hair and robes. Her dark eyes, weeping blood. Her nails, ragged from clawing at unyielding stone.
My husband, my baby. What are you doing to me?
All at once he understands, and horror rises sharply in his throat.
—I must have eaten a forest’s worth of bark, and still my stomach ached every night like it was burning itself away from the inside out. But you know what I heard? Those people, up in their mountains; the whole damn time, they were eating rice. Isn’t that funny?
Jiang-shushu sometimes mentions that the harvests used to be really bad when he was a child. But they must’ve changed agricultural practices or something, ‘cause things are much better now!
You know, none of them choose to return back to the village when they leave. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t either—
“Release him,” he hisses again.
“I cannot! It cannot be stopped—”
With a silver glint, Bichen dives out of Lan Wangji’s palm; Jiang Fengmian, who is lurching away from its blade, is launched backwards with a cry of surprise as Bichen pins him by his robes to the wet cave walls.
The back of his skull connects solidly with the hard rock with a crack; Jiang Fengmian’s entire body judders with the impact, and then he droops, limbs slumping down into unconsciousness. He dangles—the only thing keeping him somewhat upright is Bichen, skewered through the dark purple cloth over his shoulder and into the stone.
Lan Wangji jerks his head towards the array.
Wei Ying is still twitching in the center. The flow of blood has not slowed.
Lan Wangji, desperate, strides forward to do something, anything—smudge the lines of the array, use his spiritual power to force the process to a halt, drag Wei Ying bodily from where he is thrashing on the ground, anything—and as his foot crosses the circle, he is brought down by a crashing wave of pain.
His legs buckle, knees smashing hard onto the uneven stone of the cave floor.
“Ah,” he gasps, even as he chokes on the taste of iron. It floods out of his nose, his eyes. He can’t breathe past the liquid and the pain, can hardly see past the red of it all.
But still—Wei Ying.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying gurgles. Miraculously, he is still conscious. He’s looking at Lan Wangji even as he scrapes his tender skin against stone, thrashing like he’s trying to escape his own body.
Lan Wangji’s bones sear under his skin. He feels like he’ll splinter apart.
He keeps going.
“Lan Zhan, stop!”
Wei Ying’s eyes weep red.
Lan Wangji does not stop. Inch by shuddering inch, he crawls on hands and knees to where Wei Ying is lying in the center of the array under the shimmering, wobbling liquid. A sea of life, fed by the twin rivers of their bodies.
“Leave me,” Wei Ying says, more blood than words.
“No,” Lan Wangji replies.
Then, with one great yank, he pulls Wei Ying’s body into his arms and rolls them both out from the glowing array.
The light dies down.
The sea of blood drops to the ground with a heavy splash. It soaks them both.
Head safely cushioned on Lan Wangji’s chest, Wei Ying lifts his face out of the cloth; Lan Wangji notices distantly and with dark amusement that there’s now a white imprint of Wei Ying’s face on his chest, stark against the soaked crimson of his robes.
“You—you came back,” Wei Ying wheezes. “Why did you come back.”
Lan Wangji stares up at him, dazed.
“When I left,” he gasps out, “you told me not to forget what I want. I was simply following your advice.”
Wei Ying manages to smile. His teeth are stained with blood.
“Ah—Lan Zhan, you really are something, you know that?”
And then Wei Ying’s head rolls forward, and he passes out.
Lan Wangji is sitting silently by Wei Ying’s bedside, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest, when he gasps awake for the first time since Lan Wangji carried him out from that dark and blood-drenched cave.
“Wei Ying,” he says as Wei Ying sputters under his steady hand. He moves it in calming circles, rubbing at Wei Ying’s shuddering back. “Calm down. Breathe.”
When Wei Ying finishes coughing his lungs out, Lan Wangji slides a pillow behind his back so he can sit up.
“You were unconscious for a full day,” he says softly. He wants to reach out to touch Wei Ying’s hand where it is laying pale and limp in his lap, to feel his pulse against his own skin—but he hesitates.
Wei Ying, as always, makes that decision for him.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers as he stretches his hands out, “You came back for me.”
His fingers are cold. Lan Wangji busies himself with warming them.
They spend a long moment like this, wordless; Lan Wangji, leaning over Wei Ying where he is slumped back in bed, cupping those fragile hands between his palms, rubbing one gentle thumb over the back of Wei Ying’s knuckles; Wei Ying, pale and with cracked lips but alive , staring back up at him.
Then, Wei Ying’s eyes dart past Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and he freezes.
Lan Wangji had forgotten they were not alone.
“Oh…” Wei Ying breathes. “Jiang Cheng.”
Lan Wangji does not turn around, but he can hear Jiang Wanyin shuffle on his feet from where he is standing in the corner. There is silence for a long, tense moment.
“You idiot,” Jiang Wanyin finally chokes out, voice breaking. “You fucking idiot.”
“Jiang Cheng, I—”
“Don’t bother lying! Your Lan-daozhang told me everything. He dragged you up to the door, and you were covered in blood, and my father, I, he—why the fuck would you let him do that? You—you think I wanted that?”
“Oh, Jiang Cheng.”
“You didn’t even tell me! I could’ve—done something, I could’ve helped—I never asked you to do that for me!”
Jiang Wanyin’s voice is starting to sound distinctly wet.
Wei Ying squeezes Lan Wangji’s hand, looking up at him apologetically “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. Could I...have a moment with my brother?”
“Of course,” Lan Wangji says, and squeezes back. Then he rises, brushes past Jiang Wanyin, and closes the door quietly behind himself.
Even when he is alone in the corridor, his hands tingle.
When Lan Wangji returns after half an hour, Wei Ying is still propped up against his pillows, now looking ruffled and cried-on.
“Little brothers,” he says, smiling cheerfully despite his own red eyes. “So emotional.”
“Is that so,” Lan Wangji says mildly, crossing the room to sink down at his side. “I would not know.”
“Says you,” Wei Ying laughs quietly. “You’re a little brother, and look what you’ve done—sweeping back in for a dramatic return and surprising all of us. Can’t do that without being emotional.”
Lan Wangji hums at that. Feeling brave, he initiates the hand-holding this time. “Wei Ying, I—”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying cuts in. “Why did you really come back?”
Lan Wangji blinks.
He asks his own question instead.
“Why did you not tell me?”
Wei Ying averts his eyes. “I—Lan Zhan, I couldn’t. If I could’ve left with you I would have, god, Lan Zhan, I wanted it so badly. But I owed them. I owe them my life, and I needed to pay them back—”
And Lan Wangji is so, so tired of hearing about needing, and owing, and duty.
So he leans in. Leans close.
“Wei Ying,” he interrupts. “Listen. Here is the answer to your question.”
Wei Ying’s lips part.
“I came back because I wanted to.”
Wei Ying shifts. Lan Wangji holds him in place.
“I wanted to tell you that you are not just a body to be owed.”
“I wanted to hold your hands, just as I am now.”
“I wanted to make you feel happy. I wanted to be by your side.”
“Lan Zhan— ”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, heart in his throat, “You are always telling me to do what I want to do, instead of what I need to do. Let me ask you, then: what do you want?”
Wei Ying stares up at him, eyes wide.
“Lan Zhan,” he replies. “Lan Zhan.”
And then he presses forward into Lan Wangji’s space and kisses him.
Tomorrow, Lan Wangji will write a long and detailed letter to the Cloud Recesses. Numerous members of his sect will arrive on sword; Jiang Fengmian will be taken into their custody, and the entire village will be swept into a frenzy as the rumors spread.
Jiang Yanli will sweep in from the next village over and spend a week fussing over her bedridden little brother. Jiang Wanyin will stand to the side and pretend he is not doing the same thing.
Yu Ziyuan will visit Wei Ying exactly once. She will stand in his doorway, face shadowed and unreadable; then, she will disappear down the corridor without saying a single word.
When the furor has died down, and Wei Ying has regained his strength, Lan Wangji will ask Wei Ying again, Would you like to come with me? Wei Ying will say yes, yes, yes, and kiss him in between each word.
And eventually, Lan Wangji will leave the village for the second time and venture out once more into the vast world, chasing the threads of chaos and injustice—this time, with another hand in his own.
But for now, Lan Wangji simply savors this moment;
His hands cupping Wei Ying’s face, gentle against the silky slide of his skin and hair—
Wei Ying’s mouth pressed against his own, warm and soft and smiling—
And the rhythm of their two hearts as one, boundless and beating, beating, beating.